'I never buy a cat in a bag," says Haitian priest Jean-Yves Urfie, reciting a Haitian version of buyer beware. The cat, in this case, is the new National Police force, which is scheduled to assume sole responsibility for providing the nation's security by the time the United Nations mandate ends in Haiti Feb. 29.
"We'll have to watch and wait in order to say if the cat is good or no good," says Fr. Urfie, who is the editor of Libete, a pro-democracy weekly newspaper in Haiti.
Urfie is suspicious about the two months the police recruits spend training at a United States military facility in Missouri. This collaboration reminds him of past links between the US government and Haiti's military regimes. The last one, led by Lt.-Gen. Raoul Cedras, is blamed for killing 3,000 people between 1991 and 1994.
"Before leaving Haiti after the 19-year occupation in 1934, the US created the Haitian Army that [years later] produced Cedras," Urfie says. "So we are a little worried. Are they trying to recreate what they did in 1934?"
US officials say the training on American soil is necessary because Haiti lacks adequate facilities for preparing professional security forces.
Other doubts about the new civilian police force are less conspiratorial. "These are very young kids coming out after just four months [of training]," says Lakhdar Brahimi, the head of the UN mission in Haiti. "They need good guidance. And that is difficult to get. This is a country where there aren't very many skilled people. So this is probably the biggest problem."
Amid concerns that the new civilian police force won't be ready to stand on its own by the time the last UN forces leave, the Haitian government has transferred some 300 ex-soldiers from an interim police force, set up under US and UN direction, into the new civilian force, bolstering it with more-experienced personnel.
The transfer has raised eyebrows among American officials. Since the beginning of the US-led military operation that restored President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in October 1994, US officials have opposed the entry of former Haitian troops into the new National Police. They are concerned that, unlike the new recruits, the former soldiers have not thoroughly screened out individuals who might have committed human rights abuses during the Cedras regime.
President Aristide doesn't agree and has called this group of veterans the cream of the crop. UN officials don't view them as a threat either. "These are people who have demonstrated that they are good, that they have acted well," Mr. Brahimi says. "They have been monitored by the UN civilian police, and they've had rather good marks."
In the next several days, 750 new graduates will be join the 2,900 on the streets.
Of greater worry to Brahimi is the scarcity of equipment. Not only are the police short on vehicles, telephones, and two-way radios, but some stations lack lights and chairs. Only three countries - Japan, South Korea, and Luxembourg - have contributed to a special UN fund set up to finance such items, he laments. The money, about $3 million, was used to buy cars, fire trucks, and ambulances, and to start fixing up police stations.
PROVIDING security for the presidential elections Dec. 17 was to have been one of the toughest tests for the new officers, who for now are backed up by 6,000 UN troops and 450 UN police.
But this election, unlike previous ones marred by violence, was relatively peaceful. International observers praised the new Haitian police for providing security at some 10,000 polling stations. "Now you can sleep at night without somebody popping into your house," says schoolteacher Joe Henriquez, who voted at a Port-au-Prince school where gunmen loyal to the ousted Duvalier regime killed 16 people on election day Nov. 29, 1987.
The most daunting challenge facing the new police will be to disarm supporters of the former military regime, who are known as "attaches." In campaign appearances before the election, the apparent winner, Rene Preval, advised attaches to "tighten your waist" - that is, prepare for a fight. Since the election he has said that he will make security a top priority.