PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) – They pick up trash, patrol streets and search for weapons – all the time counting the days before their tour ends. Six weeks into a mission to stabilize Haiti for a second time in a decade, U.S. troops are hampered by a 90-day mandate that leaves little time to accomplish any meaningful change, and by hostility that is a far cry from the joyous welcome the Americans got in 1994.
“I don’t think three months is going to change much,” said U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. John Schultz, 34, of Hammond, Ind.
Still, he finds Haiti a respite from Iraq: “I’ve been there twice, and each time I hope will be the last.”
Haiti’s crisis comes at a bad time for the Bush administration, which is trying to fill a power vacuum left by ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide while coping with mounting casualties in Iraq.
Secretary of State Colin Powell visited last week and pledged U.S. support, but said the administration will not spend more than the $55 million earmarked for Haiti – about $20 million less than last year and a fraction of the $235 million that flowed months after the 1994 intervention.
Less money means less chance of getting guns off the street, though everyone agrees that is the only way to secure the Caribbean country.
Since the first U.S. Marines arrived Feb. 29, fewer than 150 weapons have been collected and rival street gangs and rebel groups remain armed. There’s no buyback program to entice citizens into turning in their guns.
The streets are patrolled by 3,600 soldiers and marines – more than half of them Americans, the rest Chileans, Canadians and French. The primary goal is to bring order before a U.N. force takes over in June.
At least 300 people were killed in the rebellion that erupted Feb. 5 and ended with the Feb. 29 overthrow of Aristide, who is now in neighboring Jamaica.
The Americans arrived as Aristide supporters bewildered by his departure set up flaming roadblocks, robbed, killed and looted.
While a semblance of order has returned to the cities, many provincial towns controlled by rival gangs or rebels sporadically erupt.
Early on, U.S. troops shot and killed six Haitians they said either fired on them or tried to run roadblocks.
Haitians accuse the Americans of being trigger-happy and note French troops have not once fired or been fired at. Also, Haiti is a former French colony and its Creole language is close to French.
U.S. officers respond that the Americans patrol the most dangerous areas – the slums that are strongholds of armed Aristide supporters.
To win trust, U.S. troops have scaled down patrols and help with small projects like repairing an orphanage and running pipes from a well.
“Here you can really see the efforts you make,” said Gunnery Sgt. James Ganbrell, 29, from Grand Junction, Colo. “It’s not like Iraq. Most people know you’re here to help and you can really walk away with a good feeling because of that.”
“We’re happy they’re here,” agreed Ronel Monpremier, 30. “The country is still insecure but they’re helping us feel a little safer.”
Like many in this impoverished nation of 8 million, he survives doing odd jobs, sweeping a tailor’s shop and delivering bags of ice with a wheelbarrow.
Curious children ran out to grasp at the hands of helmeted, flak-jacketed Marines who brought pencils and notebooks to a school in Cite Soleil, a seaside slum filled with Aristide followers.
“Give me one dollar!” they exclaimed in English. They got gum.
Hostility and anger are fed by Aristide’s claims that Washington ousted him.
It’s very different from the 1994 intervention when President Clinton, overriding opposition from the U.S. military, Congress and public, sent 20,000 troops to reinstate Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president. Those troops arrived after the Haitian military that ousted Aristide agreed to stand aside.
“The difference is we asked for American help in 1994,” said Rodny Jean-Baptiste, a 32-year-old gas station attendant. “Today, the U.S. troops aren’t bringing anybody back, and they’re not really helping.”
U.S. troops must deal with rival armed gangs as well as the rebels, whose swift advance put Aristide to flight. They include soldiers of the disbanded army that for decades supported brutal dictatorships.
Also, the interim government installed with U.S. support is seen as an elite in a shady alliance with the ex-soldiers, including convicted human rights violators.
U.S.-led coalition members helped police detain two top rebel figures last week – actions which may help dispel that perception.
“It’s hard to take seriously our efforts in Haiti given they (Marines) are working alongside … known killers,” said U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat who supports Aristide.