By Gary Marx Tribune foreign correspondent

Standing in the doorway of the police station, Jean-Ronald Baptiste, the ranking officer, laid out the stark reality of life in this gritty port city three months after Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in a bloody uprising.

 Outgunned by a local militia and others that hold sway here, Baptiste and his officers are too frightened to leave the station without being accompanied by armed French peacekeepers sent to Haiti in the aftermath of Aristide’s ouster.

“The police really exist only in name,” said the barrel-chested Baptiste. “For the time being, there is no control in Haiti.”

In St. Marc and throughout this impoverished nation, there are few signs of progress as Haiti’s weak interim government struggles to push this country forward in the wake of the battles that ended Aristide’s presidency, left an estimated 300 dead and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage.

With former Haitian soldiers and rebels controlling some towns and international peacekeepers handling security in others, the stability of this long-besieged nation remains precarious as the UN prepares Tuesday to begin taking over peacekeeping operations from a U.S.-led multinational force.

On Tuesday, a largely symbolic ceremony marking the hand-over will take place in Port-au-Prince, the capital. The 1,900 U.S. troops are not expected to fully withdraw from Haiti until July, when 6,700 troops from Brazil, Rwanda, Nepal and several other nations are in place.

In addition to the presence of foreign troops, the international community likely will have to pump tens of millions of dollars into Haiti to keep the interim government afloat until elections can be held in 2005.

Diplomats and experts say the overall prospects for Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, are bleak.

“The concern of donors is that this government doesn’t fall because of unrest,” one Western diplomat in Haiti said.

Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue’s government is packed with competent technocrats, but many of them, including Latortue, lived for years outside Haiti and have little political support among this nation’s 8 million residents.

Still, Latortue’s supporters advise patience while citing several important accomplishments.

A national council has been appointed to oversee elections to choose the next government. More than a dozen former officials and others have been arrested for human-rights violations, including Aristide’s interior minister, who is accused of ordering a February massacre in St. Marc that killed up to 35 people.

One Haitian government official familiar with economic policy said steps are being taken to reduce profligate government spending, huge budget deficits and widespread corruption that he described as endemic during the end of Aristide’s presidency.

The official, citing one example, said Aristide officials purchased 100 city buses in 2003 for twice the going price–and likely pocketed the difference, estimated at $3.5 million. The official said $17 million dollars in government funds was spent in the last three months of 2003 without any accounting.

“One thing the government is doing now is changing this,” the official said. “They are making an honest effort.”

Leslie Voltaire, a former Aristide government minister, gave a poor grade to the interim government.

“The new interim government is very slow,” said Voltaire, adding that one thing Latortue has done is “bow and do some tap dancing” to earn the support of the international community.

Future still in U.S. hands

With few resources, Haiti’s future remains largely in the hands of the United States, France and other nations, along with the World Bank (newsweb sites) and other lending institutions.

Last week the U.S. pledged $100 million to Haiti, and the Haitian government is hoping to receive $500 million or more when an international donors conference is held in July.

But some experts question how much money an impoverished and devastated country like Haiti can effectively handle. There are other obstacles, including Haiti’s deep political divisions and security problems.

“It’s not clear where things are going,” said Alex Dupuy, an expert on Haiti at Wesleyan University.

Dupuy said one major problem is that the interim government does not include members of Aristide’s Lavalas Party, which he said does not bode well for Haitian democracy because Lavalas remains “the most well-organized and popular party in the country.”

Rival gangs still armed

Another problem is the interim government’s failure to disarm thousands of rival gang members, who along with former soldiers who helped topple Aristide, dominate large areas of the country.

Pierre Esperance, director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, a leading human-rights group, said he recently saw troops from the disbanded Haitian military standing guard outside the Interior Ministry in Port-au-Prince.

“It is an intolerable situation,” Esperance said. “It is paramount for the state to re-establish control.”

Adama Guindo, head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, said Monday that the peacekeepers will assist the Haitian government in disarming and demobilizing the illegal armed groups in Haiti.

But it’s uncertain whom the peacekeepers will work with given that the Haitian police force–the country’s only major security organization–has fewer than 2,000 officers.

Battle for St. Marc

Perhaps nowhere are the problems facing Haiti more apparent than in St. Marc, 50 miles north of the capital, where in February rival political militias fought pitched battles that left homes and businesses in ruins and forced hundreds to flee.

The battles began in early February after an anti-Aristide gang known as Ramicos attacked St. Marc as part of the larger rebellion against Aristide. The group burned the police station, forcing Baptiste and his officers to flee.

A powerful pro-Aristide gang called Bale Wouze, or “clean sweep,” then retook the city, torching and looting the homes and businesses of anyone suspected of belonging to Ramicos. Some residents were gunned down as they tried to escape.

“They took me to the beach to shoot me,” recalled Ernst Etime, 45, a local shopkeeper. Etime said he was severely beaten, but his life was spared after paying $2,000 to the Bale Wouze.

Esperance said about three dozen other residents were massacred by the pro-Aristide gang, which controlled the city until Aristide’s ouster in late February.

Since then, the Ramicos have held sway, executing and dismembering one notorious Bale Wouze leader and chasing others away. The homes of several Bale Wouze leaders have been reduced to rubble. Baptiste said there is no longer open political warfare in the city, but his officers don’t have the power to make arrests in several Ramicos-controlled neighborhoods.

In fact, the Ramicos are so powerful that it is difficult to find anyone in St. Marc who openly supports Lavalas.

Asked if he once backed Aristide’s party, Damalus Clairvoy, 81, reached under his shirt and made a gesture as if he were changing it.

It was an indication that perhaps he changed his political affiliation.

“If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be here talking to you right now,” he said.