Port au Prince, Haiti — Crowds cheered the armored vehicles as they careened through town this week with sirens blaring. It was a startling reception for the steel titans that once terrorized every ramshackle corner of this capital. Also surprising was the fact that noncommissioned officers and foot soldiers said to be the plotters of Saturday's coup gave a symbolic first interview to the loudest critic of past military abuses - the Roman Catholic Radio Soleil.
The Sept. 17 coup, billed as a rank-and-file, poor-man's overthrow of Gen. Henri Namphy, has captured the imagination of a nation that lives in dire poverty and oppression.
Haitians are desperate to believe the coup represents a new order taking root in the brutal, chaotic political scene.
But questions linger about who is really in power - the low-ranking coup plotters or the new President, Gen. Prosper Avril. And because it is unclear, say diplomats and observers, there is concern that rifts between military factions could mean more upheaval.
President Avril must demonstrate that he is in control, say Western diplomats and well-placed Haitians.
``This situation could explode, if it escapes Avril,'' says a Haitian who correctly foresaw the last two coups. ``The soldiers realize that they have the force right now.'' Military loyalties and discipline are shaken, but ``this is both a test and an opportunity for Avril,'' he says.
According to Western diplomats, Avril appears to have ordered the dismissal of a number of top military officials and has also supported soldiers who have removed their commanders.
The forced retirements and dismissals clear away Avril's rivals and ``deadwood,'' sources say. As ``popular joy'' with the coup continues, one adds, he has the opportunity to build a positive reputation.
But if he does not appear to stay in control of events, he could face a coup led by an unknown, low-ranking officer, sources warn. The other danger is a counter coup by ousted officers and alienated Duvalierists.
The key player here, say informed diplomats is Col. Jean-Claude Paul. He has the loyal troops to step in if Avril seems to lose control. A well-placed Western diplomat speculates that if Colonel Paul were to act, it would not be out of love for the deposed officers but to put himself in power. So far, there is no hard evidence to suggest he is considering such a move, sources add.
Another unpredictable factor is the old Duvalierist network. The Tonton Macoutes, the dreaded former secret police, and even military bosses have their own lucrative fiefdoms that they will not easily give up.
``It's an unfinished coup,'' says one radical Catholic priest of this long week of dechoukaj. The Haitian-Creole term for uprooting became a catchword after the 1986 fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier. Dechoukaj signifies Haitian street justice, which this week meant soldiers ousting their superiors, vigilante mobs killing those believed responsible for a Sept. 11 massacre in a church, the pillaging of homes of Duvalier supporters, and the firing of the heads of state enterprises.
``Right now we're watching the little soldiers looking for the big Tonton Macoutes and fat cats that were squeezing the people,'' said an unemployed man in a crowd outside Army headquarters.
The crowd broke into a chorus of ``oui, oui, oui'' - yes, yes, yes - when asked if they saw soldiers in a passing vehicle as their saviors.
One solitary older man was shouted down when he ventured that a crafty old Duvalierist such as Avril might have orchestrated the coup himself.
``I believe something has changed,'' asserted Joseph Salomon, clad in a Miami Dolphins sweatshirt in the tropical heat. ``This is incredible, its not cinema it's reality.... The base telling the top what to do.''
Most civilian opposition leaders were not quick to publicly jump on the bandwagon - but those who command substantial Haitian suppport were believed to have been in contact with Avril.
``The soldiers with Prosper Avril have stopped the process of barbarity,'' said Serge Gilles, a spokesman to the National Front for Democratic Unity, a coalition of former presidential candidates. He said communiqu'es from the new government covered all the right issues - human rights, a new Constitution, national dialogue.
Monitor correspondent E.A. Wayne contributed to this report from Washington.