Rene Preval had hoped the defining moment of his five-year reign over the crippled nation of Haiti would be this: building new roads, creating a stronger government and stabilizing the political landscape.
But in the aftermath of last month's earthquake, his moment is now, as he seeks to lead Haiti out of its most daunting disaster before his presidential terms ends Feb. 7, 2011.
Since his 2006 election, his second as the country's president, Haiti has gone from one disaster to another — armed gangs, food riots that collapsed the government and back-to-back hurricanes.
"Four years, four major disasters. It has been an extremely challenging mandate," he told The Miami Herald last week during a rare, up-close look at the president at work.
Until the earthquake, Preval, 67, governed deliberately, sequentially, from behind the scenes, focusing on one issue at a time to the exclusion of everything else. Now the micro-manager has been forced to multi-task.
Along with leaving an estimated 200,000 Haitians dead, and a capital buried underneath 60 million cubic meters of rubble, the catastrophe is triggering questions about the future of Haiti, the role of the international community and Preval's ability to influence the country's reconstruction.
Adding to the doubts is Preval's own reluctance to become the public symbol in the midst of Haiti's biggest disaster.
"The earthquake has changed everything," said Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia. "There is a pre-Jan. 12 and post-Jan. 12 scene. No one knows what is going to happen, except that he should try to manage it in a constructive way. They need to do it quickly before events start to take a force of their own."
Last week, Preval announced that the critical Feb. 28 legislative elections are indefinitely postponed. That means Haiti may be unable to pass new laws. It also ends Preval's quest to see constitutional reform before he leaves office.
"His term is going to be over soon," Fatton said. "The question is how does he exit? The only way . . . is as the guy who left a consensus on the mechanism of reconstruction at the moment."
Preval says he wants elections to enhance "political stability," his rallying cry. For now, though, he's shunning talk of politics for a singular focus on jobs, roads and employment.
"I am not interested in a political career. I am interested in managing a country," he said.
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