PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — What if the United States gave a country democracy, and nobody came?
In Haiti - which US troops rescued from a brutal dictatorship 2-1/2 years ago in a self-proclaimed success for President Clinton - voting in Sunday's election may have been a dismal 5 percent.
US officials have also been embarrassed by reports that the National Police force - the product of a $65-million investment by American taxpayers - is suspected of a wave of attacks on civilians that has resulted in more than 50 deaths and scores of beatings. Although successful in disbanding the repressive Haitian Army, the US is blamed for not confiscating all military weapons - some of which appear to have been used in politically motivated killings and shootouts between drug gangs.
"The Americans did not disarm everyone, and you can't make me believe they were incapable of doing so if they wanted to," says an octogenarian architect and sculptor who refused to give his name for fear of reprisal. "They could have assisted us in mastering this curse of everyone having weapons. Instead, they turned their backs on us."
More than 20,000 US troops took part in the Sept. 19, 1994, invasion, part of a multinational force ordered to reinstate former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Within six months of the invasion, most of the US troops were gone - their departure prompted by Mr. Clinton's desire not to repeat the fiasco of Somalia. For much the same reason, the 500 marines who remain in Haiti rarely conduct security patrols or help quell disturbances.
At the same time, United Nations troops from Canada, Pakistan, and other countries also tend to stick closely to their base. Some act as advisers to the National Police, occasionally riding with them on patrols. The UN peacekeeping mandate expired July 31, although some Canadian troops may remain because of the current violence.
The police seem content to work alone. The 5,200-strong force assumed law-enforcement duties in mid-1995 after only four months of being trained largely by Haitian-American police officers. In their new uniforms, they are a ubiquitous presence on the streets.
"We are here as your friends," a police official repeatedly assured passersby over a loudspeaker during Carnival celebrations in Port-au-Prince.
But the tactics of the rookies have proved eerily reminiscent of the military they replaced.
In January, human rights activists asserted that "members of this US-trained force have committed serious abuses, including torture and summary executions." A report by New York-based Human Rights Watch/Americas and other organizations says that since July 1995, police had slain at least 46 people and had beaten or harassed dozens of apparently innocent civilians. Most such incidents go unpunished.
Tales like these hark back to the Duvalier dictatorship of 1957-86 and, more recently, to the military junta, when the slightest sign of dissent brought swift retribution from armed thugs.
"People don't come out and kill you as they once did," says Cynthia Banas, a volunteer with the Beyond Borders relief organization in Port-au-Prince. "It still happens, but it's not as blatant."
There are those who would disagree. Since the report was issued, at least 60 more people have died violently in Port-au-Prince and its environs. While police were blamed for some of the killings, about one-third were the result of turf wars between rival drug gangs.
Despite the violence, US officials claim progress. "The US intervened in Haiti to restore constitutional government, and we did," says US Embassy spokeswoman Mary Ellen Gilroy. "The situation today in Haiti is very different than it was three years ago.... You had a state power ruling by terrorism, assassinating and torturing people. That is not happening today. Yes, there is crime, but it's not state-sponsored crime."
Ms. Gilroy notes that almost 100 officers have been dismissed from the National Police, and that about 30 face charges for crimes such as murder, robbery, and drug dealing. "There was no leadership role model for anyone to follow here, so it was very easy to fall back into old patterns."
President Ren Prval, who succeeded Mr. Aristide in 1996, is having trouble convincing a skeptical public that economic reforms are a necessary evil. If Haiti sells off inefficient state-owned businesses and streamlines its sluggish bureaucracy, international organizations will continue to provide aid that could reach $1.5 billion through 1999. But since January, scores of people have demonstrated against reforms that could cost 7,000 government workers their jobs.
In an interview, Mr. Prval says no one should expect miracles. "Things are difficult," he acknowledges, "but you should not set the standards too high. You set them as you go along."
The president says Haiti's troubled past, which began with a peasant uprising against Napoleon Bonaparte in 1791, is a heavy burden. "It's not only a small part of history that was bad, it's 200 years that was bad," he says. "We have a country that is sinister."