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Gary Younge
Haitians lay hopes at Ronaldo's feet

There is no exaggerating the appeal of Brazilian football here. Alongside Jesus and Mary, one of the few mortals to appear on tap-taps, the brightly painted local buses, is Ronaldo.

The best that is hoped of the United Nations, whose soldiers recently arrived to replace the Americans, Canadians, French and Chileans, is that they manage to keep the pro-and anti-Aristide factions apart. But when the Brazilians play a friendly football match against Haiti in August, divisions will dissolve for at least 90 minutes.

Brazilian troops, who make up a large part of the UN peacekeeping force, arrived last month bearing gifts of 1,000 footballs for Haitian children. The Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, plans to attend the game. But to get a ticket for the big match, each fan must turn in at least one gun.

It is an imaginative effort at disarmament in a political culture riddled with violence and an economy racked by poverty.

In the final months of Mr Aristide's rule, former death-squad leaders mounted an armed opposition to his presidency, while gangs from the slums terrorised political opponents. When Mr Aristide left, the gangs faded into the background and took their weapons with them.

A flash of Ronaldo's footwork will certainly lift morale. But it will take a lot more than that to get the pistols out of Haitian politics.

"At a symbolic and moral level [the Brazilian game] could have a certain impact," says Maurepas Jeudy, a spokesman for Intermon, the Spanish branch of Oxfam. "But these gangs are made up of young people who have nothing apart from guns. They won't disarm because, if they do, they will be left with nothing."

Nothing is what most Haitians had before Mr Aristide's departure and, in some ways, things have got worse.

In late May floods left 2,600 people dead or missing in Haiti and many more displaced. They also exposed the country's environmental crisis.

"It was not an act of God," says Helen Spraos, Christian Aid's field officer in Haiti. "It was the result of years of deforestation and could happen again in another part of the country at any time."

Meanwhile, the cost of basic provisions has shot up.

"Rice has gone from four dollars to 10," says Marie-Annie Viyesse, 33, who has three children and is expecting a fourth.

She survives with a shrug and a prayer. "There is no food and no work."

The main improvement since Mr Aris tide's departure is the break in the spiral of vicious political violence that, in February, sent Ms Viyesse running for the hills in fear for her life.

There are now 2,000 UN troops on the ground and a caretaker government. Fresh elections are due in November 2006. That is just a few months after Mr Aristide would have had to go to the polls had he been allowed to remain.

Beyond the die-hard loyalists in his Lavallas party, there is no popular clamour for his return. But there is no popular affection for or identification with the interim government which replaced him either. It has no money or authority and little legitimacy at home or abroad. Until the weekend the Caribbean community was discussing whether to even recognise it.

Aid organisations simply work around it, and few in civil society believe it holds anything but the most basic potential.

"We have stopped the slide into chaos but the situation is very precarious," says Jean-Claude Bajeux, the head of the ecumenical human rights centre who campaigned for Mr Aristide to be ousted.

"We have to be conscious that there are a lot of people who are angry and a lot of people who have weapons, and the government cannot even pay its civil servants. There is not a single problem this government could solve now without international aid."

One diplomatic source says: "The problem with Haiti is that there are no institutions. This government exists only on paper."

The vacuum is most blatant at local level. At the Red Cross centre in the town of St Marc, where the only ambulance is broken, the vice-chairman, Tevenau Joseph, says there has been "a return to stability" and the police are in control.

This is news to Pascal Robert, the chief inspector of the local police, who has one car, no walkie-talkies and a pistol for each officer to protect a population of between 400,000 and 500,000 people.

The French recently made a show of force in the town, 40 miles north of the capital, which UN troops have not yet visited.

"It's a very delicate situation because there are a lot of people with weapons and anything could happen at any moment," Mr Robert says. "If something did happen, we would be unprepared."

At the town hall there are no phones, few tables, fewer chairs and a handful of filing cabinets. The deputy mayor, Charlieuse Thompson, has not been paid since April - but then he was not elected, either.

"We have the confidence of the people, who trust us to guide the town towards democracy," says Mr Thompson, who was part of an anti-Aristide gang called the Ramicos.

When the Guardian was last in St Marc, on February 11, a pro-Aristide gang called the Bale Wouze had taken over and was murdering Ramicos supporters. A few weeks later, when Mr Aristide left the country, some prominent Bale Wouze members were burned alive and hacked to pieces. Others fled or were arrested. But most are still in town and keeping their heads down.

In St Marc, as in the country as a whole, the relative stability is due neither to consent nor consensus, but a mixture of battle-weariness, flood fatigue and the presence of foreign troops who are better armed and trained than the gangs.

There is little sense that the country's civil society is ready or willing to heal its wounds, and poverty, polarisation and poor leadership remain.

Much hope was hanging on a conference of international donors in Washington this month. But with no representative domestic government and negligible consultation with local organisations, some here fear the conference will address the interests of the international community rather than the needs of Haiti's poor.

Politically, Haiti may be on the road to becoming a failed state, but economically it has been a model of open borders and liberalism, with the lowest customs tariffs and least-protected industries in the Caribbean. In the 1980s it produced 80% of its rice. Now it imports nearly 80% of it from the US, where rice production is subsidised.

"There will be plenty of papers prepared by foreign consultants like the IMF and the World Bank," Mr Jeudy says. "But they don't take account of our national priorities as we see them.

"Our most crucial problems are all linked to the need to eat. In rural areas, that has led to environmental instability, in the urban areas it has led to political instability."

There is still graffiti in the poorest areas and in the centre of town calling for five more years for Aristide. But the large bicentennial posters linking Mr Aristide to the slave rebel, Toussaint L'Ouverture, declaring, "Two men, two centuries, one vision", have been removed. The first, by the airport, has been replaced by an advert for local cola. The second, in Canape Vert, by a poster of naked buttocks advertising local beer.

"The difference between this huge foreign intervention and the last one 10 years ago is the lack of hope this time around," says one diplomat who was in the country for Mr Aristide's return.

"The place is infected with cynicism at every level. There is no sense of purpose. The idea that all this country needs is elections is a joke."

At the purely ceremonial handover of authority from the US-led forces to the UN in June, the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, read a statement to an international force in many ways as sceptical as the Haitian people.

"The stakes are high," he said. "This time let us get it right."

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