Former Haiti president Preval, champion of poor, dies

Former Haitian President Rene Preval, pictured in January 2010, had a reputation of being an honest and efficient administrator, serving as president from 1996-2001 and again in 2006-2011

Haiti's former president Rene Preval, an agronomist and champion of the poor who served two terms as the country's leader, died Friday, officials said. He was 74.

"I have sadly learned of the death of former president Rene Preval," President Jovenel Moise wrote in a post on Twitter. "I bow before the remains of this dignified son of Haiti."

Michel Martelly, another former president, also took to social media to express his sorrow.

"President Preval, Little Rene, my brother, my friend and adviser, your passing leaves us in shock," tweeted Martelly, who served as president from 2011 to 2016.

Martelly used the Creole "Ti Rene" in the tweet, Haitians' term of endearment for the diminutive Preval.

According to local media reports, citing Preval's sister, the former president died after a cardiac arrest.

With a reputation as an honest and efficient administrator, Preval served as president of Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, with a long history of political violence, in 1996-2001 and 2006-2011.

Since the end of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986, Preval was the only Haitian leader to have completed two terms as president, the constitutional limit, without suffering a coup or having to flee in exile.

- Concerned about wealth gap -

Born on January 17, 1943 in Port-au-Prince, Preval studied agronomy in Belgium. He lived for five years in New York in the 1970s.

After he returned to Haiti in 1975, he was employed by the National Institute for Mineral Resources.

He later became active in humanitarian work, including at an orphanage in Port-au-Prince run by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was then a Roman Catholic priest.

Preval, a moderate leftist, first served as prime minister to president Aristide from February 1991 until the government was toppled in September that year.

Following the coup, he sought refuge at the French and Mexican embassies in Port-au-Prince, and eventually joined Aristide in Washington, where he stayed until 1994.

Preval led as president of Haiti from 1996 to 2001. At the time, he was only the second democratically elected president in the Caribbean country's history.

In February 2001, Preval returned the presidential sash of office to Aristide.

Both Preval and Aristide had enjoyed huge support among the millions of impoverished Haitians, many of whom live in the violent slums of the capital Port-au-Prince.

Haiti plunged into lawlessness in February 2004 when Aristide stepped down during his second term and fled the country as insurgents closed in on the capital.

During his 2006-2011 term, Preval's popularity suffered after a massive earthquake struck in 2010, killing more than 220,000 people. Critics said he had shown a lack of leadership after the disaster.

The diminutive Preval often appeared shy and seemed more at ease with average citizens than with the elite.

"The rich are cloistered in their walled villas and the poor are crammed into slums and own nothing. The gap is too big," he said in a 2006 interview with AFP.

Divorced and remarried, Preval has two daughters and one son.