Haitian gets democratically elected leader
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, May 14 : Haitian President-elect Rene Preval takes office today, giving the poorest nation in the Americas its first democratically elected leader in more than two years.
The 63-year-old agronomist, seen as a bona fide democrat and elder statesman in a country in dire need of one, was declared the winner of Haiti's chaotic February 7 presidential race after he alleged massive vote fraud.
He has kept busy since by working to form a coalition in the newly elected parliament and appealing to world governments to step up long-term development aid to his Caribbean nation, destabilised by decades of dictatorship, coups and turmoil.
Preval is a one-time ally of ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and, like him, is seen as a champion of the poor.
But analysts say he has reached out to all sides in a bid to bridge the deep divide between Haiti's tiny elite and its poor majority.
''My goal is to unite all Haitians. We cannot succeed if we continue to fight each other,'' Preval told reporters last week.
Since Aristide was forced from power by an armed revolt in February 2004, Haiti has been ruled by an interim administration backed by a Brazilian-led UN peacekeeping force.
The United States, a major behind-the-scenes player in Haiti, has welcomed Preval's election. But US officials have warned him not to bring Aristide back from exile. And political analysts say his recent foreign trips to Cuba and Venezuela played badly in Washington.
The Venezuela trip was successful for Preval, however, since President Hugo Chavez agreed to add Haiti to a list of Caribbean countries he supplies with cut-rate Venezuelan fuel.
Preval's biggest challenges include opening aid flows to his country and making a near-term difference in the lives of the impoverished masses, Haiti experts and nonprofit organisations said.
It was the poor who propelled him to office. But the poor -- and armed gangs still loyal to Aristide in places like Haiti's violent Cite Soleil slum -- could quickly turn on him if they lose hope that he will help lift them out of misery, experts said.
'RACE AGAINST THE CLOCK'
'The Haitian people have suffered long and hard and so it's imperative that Preval produce fast,'' said Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
''With Preval, it's going to be a race against the clock,'' Birns added. ''The affection of the people for him is a function of the rapidity with which he makes a difference in their present wretched standard of living.'' Preval first served as president from 1996-2001 and he is the only leader in Haiti's 202-year history to win a democratic election, serve a full term and peacefully hand power to a successor.
His re-election and the restoration of democracy have clear implications for stability, said Florida International University Professor Ken Boodhoo, who runs the Whole Man Ministries charitable missions in Haiti.
Preval's first term, however, was marred by a political crisis that hurt his credibility and paralysed the government.
''The problem with Haiti is that we always live on hope,'' said Boodhoo. ''We just always hope that things are going to get better, but there is a chance now that it could get better.''