Former Haitian President René Préval, who served in two separate stints as the Caribbean country’s leader, died Friday from an apparent heart attack. He was 74.
Préval died at his home in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Laboule, friends and family members said.
The exact cause of death wasn’t immediately known, but people close to the former president said they suspected cardiac arrest. Although Préval was in his mid-70s, his death took most people who knew him by surprise.
“He was in excellent humor,” wife Elisabeth Delatour Préval said. “He asked, ‘When are you coming home?’ I refused to believe it. I cannot believe it.”
“He was fine,” Jerry Tardieu, a member of the Lower House of Deputies who spent time with Préval Friday morning, said. “He looked no different than any other day. I am in shock.”
Born Jan. 17, 1943, in Cap-Haïtien, Préval attended college in Belgium and Italy before moving to the United States, where he spent five years in New York City.
Préval became Haiti’s second prime minister and defense minister for just eight months in 1991, a tenure that was abbreviated by a military coup that forced Préval to seek refuge in Washington, D.C. Five years later, he was elected as Haiti’s 38th president — winning 88 percent of the vote — and served until his term expired in 2001.
In 2006, Préval again won the presidency for another five years, but by a far slimmer margin. In fact, he needed a runoff round of voting but ultimately secured victory with 51 percent support. In 2011, after his term expired, he was succeeded by Michel Martelly.
Préval’s legacy may be most defined by his leadership in the wake of Haiti’s devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake in January 2010, which killed hundreds of thousands of residents. He is also the only president in the country’s entire history to complete two full terms without being jailed, exiled or killed.
The longtime leader was well-respected in his home country and among foreign governments — including the U.S. administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — and continued to be consulted on matters even after he left office, as Haiti encountered additional crises.
Préval’s administration also made noteworthy advancements in Haiti’s diplomatic relations with two Latin American nations, Cuba and Venezuela. In recent years, he devoted much of his time to stimulating the domestic economy through increased national production, and even spoke with Tardieu on that issue during their meeting Friday.
“His legacy is a leadership style that put people together into finding solutions. It was never about him,” acquaintance and businessman Bernard Fils-Aime said, adding that Préval was often misunderstood by his political contemporaries.
“Misunderstood, because people feared his kind of power,” he said.
By Doug G. Ware