PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — For more than 60 years, Haiti's gleaming white concrete Presidential Palace, with its massive, bomb shelter-like central dome, has looked less like a seat of government than a huge military bunker ringed by armed soldiers and heavy weapons.
Tyrants ruled and occasionally cowered there, protected by a Presidential Guard battalion that became such a rogue force that it actually lorded it over the army high command and put the country's last two military presidents in power.
The guards safeguarded the hated Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier and his son and successor, Jean-Claude (Baby Doc), through their 29-year reign of terror. The most successful of its officers, Prosper Avril, is widely thought to have acted as the tyrants' bag-man in spiriting hundreds of millions of dollars in public money to secret bank accounts abroad.
The guard rescued the Duvaliers' bumbling U.S.-backed successor, Gen. Henri Namphy, then later deposed him to name the smooth-talking Avril to power.
Under Avril's tutelage last April, the Presidential Guard demolished the only other tactical units in the Haitian armed forces, the Dessalines and Leopard Battalions, which had mutinied against it and Avril.
After that, the guard reigned supreme, with its corporals and sergeants telling generals what to do. Until Avril was deposed by pro-democracy civilians last weekend, the fortress-like Presidential Palace had become, in effect, army headquarters.
Today, for the first time since it was built in 1922, the palace is demilitarized. The anti-aircraft guns that sat on its broad front lawn have been removed, as have the armored cars and machine-gun emplacements that squatted menacingly behind the foliage. Instead of the slouching, undisciplined guardsmen lounging around the palace, the only troops in sight now are a half-dozen uniformed gate-keepers.
A newly installed provisional civilian government, led by a scholarly woman Supreme Court justice, Ertha Pascal Truillot, has taken its first tentative steps to turn the palace into the real "White House" of a fledgling democracy.
The dreaded Presidential Guard is no more. The long-feared army is said to have undergone an overnight transformation into the pussycat of the Caribbean. The rag-tag force of 8,300 men--whose ranks have included terrorists, drug dealers, common criminals and military dictators--is out of politics and is being restructured as a national police force, according to the optimistic accounts of diplomats, Haitian political leaders and foreign military specialists.
But many Haitians and foreigners here remain deeply skeptical of such a dramatic turnaround in an armed force that has for almost two centuries ruthlessly overrun all attempts to democratize the Western Hemisphere's hungriest, poorest, most disease-ridden country.
"This is not a real army," said a diplomat from a Commonwealth country. "It's a bunch of undisciplined and corrupted men who have gotten rid of other governments in the past. There's nothing to stop them from getting rid of this one, too."
But Haitian political leaders and foreign diplomats who helped to guide the massive public protests that ejected Avril and the guard from the palace insist that Haiti at last is truly free of its oppressive military.
"They've crossed a Rubicon," said one military specialist.
Explaining the reasons for the army leaders' unexpected willingness to bow to civilian rule, two of the military experts, along with several Western diplomats and Haitian politicians, sketched the picture of an army in turmoil during Avril's last days.
The army that once was united under the command of Gen. Namphy and his predecessors began disintegrating when Avril took power in September, 1988, one of the experts said. Many officers and troops in the provinces and in the Dessalines and Leopards Battalions envied the guard's perquisites, which included the profits of widespread bribery and corruption, he said. Avril had bought the guards' loyalty by granting lucrative criminal concessions and other opportunities for corruption to a core group of 50 to 60, most of them from the units' dominant 48th Company, whose officers bullied or bribed the rest of the guards into going along.
The rest of the army, meanwhile, was quietly reorganized by its acting commander in chief, Maj. Gen. Herard Abraham, after the dissolution of the Dessalines and Leopards Battalions last April. By November, Avril realized that he had created a monster and was in effect a prisoner of his own palace guard, one of the experts said. He turned to Abraham for assurance that the rest of the army would stand fast as he attempted to bring the guard under control.