Préval Visits Venezuela and Canada: One Warm Reception, One Cool


With his May 14 inauguration drawing near, Haitian president-elect René Préval concluded just over a month of international travels with visits to Venezuela and Canada this past week. The contrasting receptions he received in Caracas and Ottawa – respectively friendly and frosty – suggest that Préval may face difficulties in trying to draw support for Haiti’s battered economy from politically opposed quarters in a rapidly polarizing hemisphere.

In one corner of the political ring sit the United States and Canada, whose governments supported the Feb. 29, 2004 coup d’état against former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Both governments also lavished millions of dollars in aid and training – usually via terribly misnomered “non-governmental organizations” – on the parties of Préval’s political rivals in the months leading up to the national elections held in February and April.

In the other corner sit Cuba and Venezuela, whose socialist governments are mounting a growing political challenge to North American hegemony in the hemisphere, inspiring anti-neoliberal uprisings throughout the hemisphere where elections are bringing new progressive leaders to power in countries like Bolivia and Peru. First, Préval visited the U.S. at the end of March for talks with officials of the U.S. government and international financial institutions (IFIs) in Washington, and United Nations officials in New York (see Haïti Progrès, Vol. 24, No. 3, 3/29/2006). During that visit, Préval and his advisors declared that his government would be willing to follow the strict and unpopular guidelines laid down by Washington and its IFIs for the neo-liberal adjustments demanded to obtain always coveted but always elusive North American aid and investment.

Then Préval visited Cuba for a week in mid-April, after which many concrete projects and exchanges in the domains of health and technical assistance were announced (see Haïti Progrès, Vol. 24, No. 6, 4/19/2006).

Less than a week after his return to Haiti, Préval made a two-day trip on April 24 and 25 to Venezuela, where he met with President Hugo Chavez and agreed to Venezuela’s Caribbean regional oil pact, Petrocaribe. The Venezuelans showered him with honors and promises of aid in health, education and energy.

“I received a fantastic reception in Venezuela,” Préval declared on his return to Haiti.

In contrast, a week later, Préval traveled to Canada on April 30 for a visit that the Canadian Press agency called “almost invisible, with few of the normal trappings associated with a foreign dignitary.”

“There were no news releases or briefings on his meetings with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay or Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean,” the CP reported. “There was no joint news conference. The prime minister's office made no announcement of the visit beforehand.”

A far more lavish reception was given to lame-duck de facto Prime Minister Gérard Latortue when he visited Canada on Mar. 10 for no apparent reason (see Haïti Progrès, Vol. 24 No. 1, 3/15/2006).

Michel Sanon, a Montreal-based Haitian activist and poet, said that members of the Haitian community in Canada “are left to wonder why Canadian leaders of the 21st century show so much interest in unelected and illegitimate leaders imposed on the Haitian people by foreign powers, while they do their best to keep democratically elected leaders in the shadows, or even to contribute to their removal from office by force.” (The Venezuelan government never recognized the de facto government.)

Members of Préval’s entourage were even prohibited from accompanying the president-elect to Canada because their names appeared on a Canadian government “blacklist” of people it accuses of crimes against humanity, Reuters’ correspondent Guy Delva reported May 1. Among those cited on the list were former prime minister Jacques Edouard Alexis, who served during Préval’s first term as President from 1996 to 2001 and who now heads the president-elect’s transition team. Also on the list are Préval’s former Health Minister Rudolph Mallebranche and

former Préval advisor Philippe Rouzier, now a senior official of the United Nations Development Program in Haiti.

Several other former ministers and other officials of the Préval and Aristide administrations were on the list, Delva reported.

“This is outrageous,” Alexis told Reuters. “It is an insult to all honest Haitians and we

demand a public apology from the Canadian government.” Although Ottawa subsequently granted Alexis a visa, he refused to accompany Préval, feeling the matter was still unclear. Préval was outraged by the list and visa denials, Reuters reported, citing members of his entourage.

The only concrete aid to be announced from the visit was a $48 million grant “to promote good governance and democracy in Haiti,” which is usually code for a project that will do just the opposite.

In contrast, Haiti came away with a lot more from Venezuela.. The Petrocaribe deal requires Caribbean countries to pay 60% of the cost for fuel up front but allows them to finance the remainder through loans – with 1% interest – over 25 years.

“For 2004-2005, for example, Haiti’s petroleum usage came to $254.5 million,” Préval explained in the press conference on his return. “Now 60% of $254.5 million comes to about $150 million, which we would have to pay. But the remaining 40%, which amounts to about $100 million, can be used to create a development fund.”

Préval will sign the Petrocaribe accord on May 15, the day after his inauguration, which Venezuelan Vice President José Vicente Rangel will attend. Venezuela will also help the Haitian state build a petroleum storage facility. Presently Haiti only has privately owned tank farms.

One journalist asked Préval when he returned from Caracas if there would be “consequences” for Haiti building links with Venezuela, which Washington increasingly sees as a regional threat. “The problems between the United States and Venezuela are problems that those two countries have to resolve themselves,” Préval responded. “It does not affect Haiti in any way.”

But there may indeed be “consequences” if Préval is too friendly with Cuba and Venezuela, Washington’s principal nemeses in the Americas. One must wonder whether Préval’s subdued reception in Ottawa, now in the hands of the Conservative Party, was a message from the U.S./Canada axis. Canada’s role as Washington’s proxy and enforcer in Haiti is not new. In 2003, Canada hosted a high-level meeting of hemisphere diplomats called the “Ottawa Initiative on Haiti,” where Aristide’s overthrow was mapped out. Predictably, no Haitian government officials were invited (see Haïti Progrès, Vol. 20, No. 51, 3/5/03).

Likewise, today, Canada’s rude treatment of Préval this week may be a warning, transmitted primarily from Washington, that he had better choose his friends carefully.