FOR the first time in two years, residents of this city are not afraid to linger in the streets after dark. In one of the major achievements of its brief tenure, Haiti's civilian government has dissolved the military-backed gangs that used to terrorize the capital. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's administration is also credited, based on a recent police report, with making strides against drug-trafficking, crime, and smuggling.
But it is becoming clear that Mr. Aristide, inaugurated Feb. 7 after winning an overwhelming election victory last December, cannot rest on his laurels of popular support for too long. Pressures are mounting to find at least short-term solutions for Haiti's economic and social problems.
The dissatisfaction is being voiced mainly by the small, but financially powerful, urban elite. Businessmen and other critics complain that Aristide and his appointed Prime Minister Rene Preval have yet to propose a comprehensive economic program. Some critics charge that the ministers, along with the 27 senators and 83 deputies, are not only inexperienced, but perhaps incompetent.
``It's far too early to make a call on the competency of this government,'' says Antoine Adrien, a priest and a member of the Committee to Honor and Respect the Constitution. ``What needs to be acknowledged is the incredible support the government has, and because of this, the success they've had in campaigning against corruption. This delicate feat would have been impossible to accomplish without a master plan.''
The government has also worked to smooth out the wrinkles in the judicial system, but the road is rough. One man, accused of participating in the 1988 attack on Aristide's church, where more than a dozen people were hacked to death, has received a life sentence.
But according to a leader in the human rights movement, there are dozens more that were involved in the massacre, and no efforts are being made to track them down. In addition, several prisoners who await trial lack defense.
``Due to the wrath of popular revenge, many lawyers refuse to defend such criminals,'' he says. ``There are limitations on what can be done due to financial constraints, but there are other improvements that can be done immediately, such as the treatment of prisoners. Last month, a prisoner was beaten to death. There's no excuse for that.''
Many businessmen are skeptical that improving security will stop the downward economic spiral.
``Justice can't resolve things,'' says Gerald Bially, president of the Chamber of Commerce. ``We need to see an overall plan. Economically, the Haitian people can't wait: Every day it is worse for them. Aristide has the advantage of popularity, but that doesn't feed the hungry.''
The government, aware of the need for improving living conditions in what is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, has put its priority on cleaning things up before moving forward.
``Our plan is to put in a system of security and to reform the public administrations,'' explains Claudette Werleigh, minister of social affairs under the previous government and current member of Aristide's private cabinet. ``Before, money came in designated for the state and went out into people's personal bank accounts. Before it comes in now, we want to be sure we know where it is going. We're trying to guarantee a climate of security for the business sector to make their investments.''
In spite of good intentions, the government has made some clumsy mistakes. When asking the private sector for financial help, they promised 5 percent return for five years, with a one-year grace period. Banks are currently giving 14 percent interest. The government received only $8 million.
Last month, when the president called for a freeze on the market price of sugar, cement, and oil, demonstrators in the northern city of Cap Haitien went on a rampage, assuming they were paying higher prices because of hoarding. But when they burned down suspected warehouses, they found nothing. One person died and eight others were wounded.
This protest sparked off a series of other demonstrations around the country, where crowds chanted against the bourgeoisie, the United Sates, and the Senate, which has frequently challenged the president and prime minister on their decisions.
``We haven't gotten very far in the last three months,'' says Guy Bauduy, vice president of the Senate. ``The goodwill of the people is being wasted because the government lacks the self-knowledge of their own capacity. It's our job to be a mirror, to open the door for them and show them where to go.''
The Senate recently approved legislation to nearly double the daily wage, which is about the equivalent of $2.15. The private sector and economists have protested, concerned about the effect on Haiti's current recession.
``Movement from the countryside to the city for the last 15 years has been about 30,000 per year,'' says Charles Clermont, a banker and member of a government-appointed commission to review the economic situation. The commission's report, completed in February, has been largely ignored. ``A wage increase such as they propose would increase unemployment, which is already at 50 percent, and cause further inflation.
``The government needs to take part in today's reality of free trade, participate with the private sector, and with modern capitalism. All of these are compatible with political choices; it's just that the government doesn't understand that yet.''
Some analysts say the private sector is afraid of reform because they were the ones who profited generously from the old system. But many businessmen, who have maintained a wait-and-see attitude, are disillusioned enough to consider moving elsewhere.
The government has no intention of alienating the business sector, whose dollars they desperately need, says Gary Victor, Haiti's director of information. The big question is whether the two groups can find a workable compromise.
``We have made giant steps toward democracy,'' affirms Mr. Clermont. ``It is weak, but it is working. People who never talked together are finding their discussions both interesting and promising.
``Aristide has people charmed, but he needs to translate that into concrete policies. We're in a delicate moment. We have to hope, since there is dialogue, and the government is acting with good intentions, that things will work out.''