Port-au-Prince, Haiti — An often told joke here is eerily close to the truth. A merchant chasing a thief through a teeming downtown market screams, ``Stop that thief!'' The crowd doesn't respond. So, the joke goes, the merchant yells, ``Stop that Macoute!'' The crowd instantly pounces on the thief.
In the crowded confusion of daily life in this city, the flash-fire emotionalism over the Tonton Macoutes is fueling much of the political unrest threatening Haiti's interim military government.
Tonton Macoute is the Haitian Creole word for bogyman and a nickname for the feared National Security Volunteers (VSN), the secret police under Duvalier.
Although the Duvalier regime was ousted 18 months ago, unrest continues. Many opposition leaders and demonstrators, calling for the resignation of the National Council of Government (CNG), believe there is a renewed presence of ``Macoute'' Duvalierists in government or influencing it.
Though the nation's fear of Macoutes most often shows up as vengeful fingerpointing with no basis in fact, the preoccupation with Duvalierists in government is not unfounded.
There is evidence that so-called Macoutes - who represent a deep-rooted system of everything from corruption to authoritarian politics - are at work influencing the government, according to present and former CNG officials, and sources close to the Army and Western diplomats.
They say red flags of ``Macoute'' activity include ``undemocratic'' CNG policies, military shootings of unarmed citizens, and quiet but concerted political activities of former Duvalierists despite their being forbidden by the new Constitution from holding office.
The ``Macoute'' fear is discussed here so much that even non-Creole speakers recognize the word murmured at street corners, shouted at demonstrations, and injected into the rhetoric of even the most respected politicians.
The consequences of being indiscriminately labeled a Macoute since Jean-Claude Duvalier fled in February 1986 range from getting a stone thrown through your car windshield to being lynched as your home is looted and burned.
Ironically, Haitian observers note, it is the same arbitrary style of ``justice'' the Macoutes themselves inflicted during the 30 years of Duvalier leadership.
Haitians euphorically celebrated the fall of Jean-Claude and his thuggish Macoute enforcers a year and a half ago. And they initially offered a broad base of support for Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy as the caretaker President appointed to lead the country to civilian elections.
General Namphy was considered a bon vivant with a reputation, like many in the Army high command, that was unspotted by brutality.
But today even the general is called a Macoute by protesters.
Jean Claude's father, Francois Duvalier, created the National Security Volunteers (VSN) in 1959 in a bloody campaign to establish a ruling black middle class, says Simon Fass, a University of Minnesota public affairs professor who has written a book on Haiti.
The voodoo priests of the countryside became a handy network of dueling VSN chieftains who were permitted absolute rule in their territory, Mr. Fass says. Duvalier similarly created turf conflicts within the Army to keep it weak - his henchmen circumvented the power of the Army high command and acted directly on Duvalier's orders.
To get a job, a bucket of water at the public tap, a child enrolled in school, or even an ailing relative into the right hospital, Haitians had to be a VSN member or be able to bribe a VSN member, Fass says.
Observers say that kind of Macoute corruption still exists among civil service employees whose only government model was the Duvalier model.
Today, it is unclear who was an actual VSN member and who supported Macoute tactics from outside the organization. All 300,000 VSN members were considered Macoutes, but not all those considered Macoutes were VSN cardholders.
The strongest allegations of Macoute behavior at high government levels stem from certain CNG policies which, critics say, are suspiciously ``undemocratic.''
Those policies are promoted, these critics say, by the high-level participation of at least two former Duvalierists. Namphy still is advised by Army Col. Prosper Avril and businessman Alix Cin'eas, a former Duvalier Cabinet minister, according to current and former government officials. The two were forced to resign in March 1986 because of public distrust.
It is public knowledge that one of the most infamous of Army officials under the Duvalier regime - Col. Jean-Claude Paul - continues to command troops, which were used to control the crowds in recent demonstrations in downtown Port-au-Prince.
Alleged CNG attempts to derail the presidential elections, scheduled for November, are the mark of Duvalierists, say opposition leaders, former government officials, and a European diplomat here. If the Duvalierists can maintain control of the government, they can avoid prosecutions for past corruption and atrocities, these observers say.
A current Cabinet source argues that a clean sweep of the Duvalierists is not possible, because everyone in a position of power in Haiti ``was compromised in one way or another'' during the Duvalier regime. Haitians, he says, should make concessions and work peacefully with Duvalierist remnants rather than play into their hands by causing destabilizing unrest.
That may well represent the feelings within the CNG. But the popular desire to make a clean sweep of things is clear in the Constitution, which forbids any Duvalier-era officials from holding government office for the next 10 years.
Army shootings of civilian demonstrators, say CNG critics, are the most overt evidence of Macoute behavior. The government says armed force is necessary because its soldiers have been provoked by armed communist provocateurs.
``I'm not sure the communist threat is as great as they see it. You just don't shoot people,'' says US Army Col. Dean Gould, the chief military liaison here. Even though the US has given training and equipment for nonlethal crowd control to 60 Haitian military officers and 90 soldiers, he says, ``there hasn't been a real concerted effort to use it properly.''
Colonel Gould says he believes orders have been given not to shoot. But, the colonel adds, ``the totally authoritarian tactics'' of the VSN have been a heavy influence on the military, because ``it's the only way anybody operated around here.''
And a longtime Army official says he is convinced that the troops doing the shooting are acting on orders from Colonel Paul.
``It is proper Macoute mentality to shoot,'' the official says. ``It is not what the soldiers usually do unless they've been ordered to do so.''