- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 13, 2006

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Rene Preval will become president of Haiti for the second time today, bolstered by high hopes and faced with gargantuan challenges.

The 63-year-old agronomist will assume the helm of a nation that has enjoyed unexpected calm in recent months but has fallen into ever-deeper poverty and institutional disarray since the ouster of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February 2004.

According to the International Monetary Fund, Haiti suffered Latin America’s highest inflation rate last year at 16.8 percent, while a recent U.N.-sponsored census revealed that more than half of Haitian children are not attending elementary school due to the prohibitively high cost of the nation’s mostly private education system.

“Preval is in a desperate race against time,” said Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “In Haiti, the real battle is economic survival and recuperation. Haiti’s not just running on an empty tank. It’s no longer running.”

Mr. Preval’s first presidency from 1996 until 2001 was marked by a bitter political fight over the designation of a prime minister — a battle that paralyzed the government for nearly two years.

Mr. Preval’s new political movement called Lespwa, or the Hope, won more seats in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies than any other political party, but it does not have a majority.

As a result, Mr. Preval and Lespwa will have to negotiate with opposition parties to name a prime minister, who will in turn choose a Cabinet.

But this time around, opposition legislators appear to be eager to cooperate with Mr. Preval, who won the Feb. 7 presidential election by a whopping margin over nearly three dozen other candidates and thanks to a massive and enthusiastic turnout.

“We’re talking with President Preval, and I think we’re going to reach a consensus that will allow us to form a good government,” said Edmonde Beauzile, senator for the opposition Fusion party.

“There are too many problems. We have a country to save. Nobody should be blocking anything to stop this country from moving forward.”

A self-enforced truce in recent months by slum-based armed groups who had been demanding Mr. Aristide’s unconditional return but later shelved their guns to support Mr. Preval’s candidacy has contributed to a precipitous decline in kidnappings in Port-au-Prince and in violence in the city’s desperately poor slum of Cite Soleil.

Mr. Preval has said he will ask a 9,000-member United Nations peacekeeping mission to stay on, although he has requested fewer soldiers and more development specialists.

In a nation that has practically no national industry and that survives largely on remittances of Haitians living abroad, development will depend in large part on foreign aid.

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