MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
For years, Haiti has been synonymous with political turmoil, kidnapping and violence. It is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. But with last year's election of Rene Preval as president, and a new robust mandate by the United Nations Stabilization Mission, things had been turning around, at least when it comes to security.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro was recently in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, and she sent this report.
(Soundbite of kids swimming)
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Two naked children jump into the sea from the docks, as nearby, a man mends his fishing net. It's noon and the sun stabs down, erasing shadows. It's a strikingly quiet scene in a neighborhood that was once the most violent in Haiti. Thirty-three-year-old fisherman Jacques Sonny Simea says that there's no more fighting in Cite Soleil.
Mr. JACQUES SONNY SIMEA (Fisherman): (Through translator) Back then, when were going out, we could get shot. It wasn't good for us. Now, things are better, and we thank God there's no more shooting.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Twenty-year-old orphan Oshinen Jean Francois(ph) agrees.
Mr. OSHINEN JEAN FRANCOIS: (Through translator) I see the change. Before, we were trapped and couldn't move. Now, the peace has come. What I used to see, I don't see it happening anymore. We couldn't have sat where we sit today. We could've gotten shot. Now, we're free to walk everywhere we want. Before, we couldn't approve of what MINUSTAH was doing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: MINUSTAH are the United Nations' peacekeeping troops that have been in Haiti since the ouster of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. Until the election of the new president, Rene Preval, the U.N. troops here under the interim government were accused of being ineffectual at best, negligent at worst; crime and violence raged unchecked; and their tenure here came under international criticism. Now, though, U.N. officials are beaming out the good news that things are better in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.
Mr. EDMOND MULET (U.N. Special Representative to Haiti): Haiti is living a very special moment in its history. I think that this is an exceptional moment. I think we have the right ingredients. I think this is a good time for Haiti. I'm optimistic. I think that Haiti has an enormous potential.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Edmond Mulet is the secretary-general's special representative to Haiti.
Mr. MULET: People ask me that question all the time, why didn't you do this before? Why didn't you confront the gangs? And why didn't you face the problems of insecurity? I think it's because we have a good relationship and a partnership with the government. With the interim government, it was very difficult, I mean, to perform this kind of actions. They didn't have the legitimate voice - the government didn't have that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The interim government, in fact, put political opponents -mostly belonging to Aristide's party - in jail without charge. Despite that, their temporary leadership was bolstered by the U.S., France and Canada. Now, the U.N. has managed to control security because of President Rene Preval, who Mulet speaks of as a private man who's trying to be a unifying figure in a country that has had decades of political turmoil.
Coming in on a wave of support, one of Preval's first aims was to control the violence. He opened up negotiations with the gangs in Cite Soleil, but they wanted money and passports so that they could leave to other countries. He lost patience and asked the MINUSTAH forces, now under Brazilian military commander Santos Cruz, to take them on. And Cruz says, they did.
Major General SANTOS CRUZ (Commander, MINUSTAH): The situation changes because we controlled all the neighborhoods. Many gang leaders were arrested, almost all them - the important gang leaders now are in the hands of the Haitian justice and many criminals were detained.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Figures provided by the U.N. showed the dramatic downward trend nationwide in the violence. In January of 2006, there were 240 attacks on MINUSTAH troops. Over the past four months, there has only been 12. Kidnappings are down, too. December 2005 saw 162 kidnapping cases. In June, there were only six.
Preval is also trying to tackle drug dealers. Last month, in raids and cooperation with the American DEA, he targeted a number of suspected drug traffickers, among those, Guy Philippe, the former presidential candidate and rebel leader who helped overthrow Aristide.
Still, it hasn't come without a cost. MINUSTAH troops have been accused of killing innocent civilians during their operations.
Mr. MARIO JOSEPH (Human Rights Lawyer): I'm Joseph. I'm a lawyer. I'm a human rights lawyer.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Joseph, who is tied to the former party of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, says he has the death certificates of 22 people whom he says were killed by MINUSTAH forces in December, when they made their first big assault into the seaside slum.
Mr. JOSEPH: (Through translator) I think it was for political reasons that they went into Cite Soleil. Of course, Cite Soleil had certain problems, but the way the MINUSTAH went in there, their aggressiveness shows that it had political motivations.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The issue of Aristide still looms large in Haiti. Cite Soleil has historically been a bastion of support for him, and Joseph contends that the raids were punitive. But some of the gang leaders were allegedly armed and financed by Aristide, and the gangs were heavily involved in much of Cite Soleil's criminal activity.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Child: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: On a recent afternoon back in Cite Soleil, a Brazilian peacekeeper joked with a local boy while out on foot patrol. While the scars of the fighting are everywhere now, people here say they trust these troops more. Haitian police still don't patrol here regularly. Part of the reason is that these U.N. troops are Brazilians. Haiti is soccer-mad and Brazil is their favorite team.
17-year-old Ingado Pierre says that the people of Cite Soleil have also begun to take more responsibility, too.
Mr. INGADO PIERRE (17-year-old Haitian): (Through translator) We collaborate with MINUSTAH to give away the criminals that are doing bad things, every time we know of a place where there are crimes and guns, because we want peace and to live well.
(Soundbite of ongoing construction)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Furious building is going at city hall - another sign of improving times here. But while everyone concurs security is better, this is still a place of abject poverty. There is no fighting, but there also still no work.
Cite Soleil Deputy Mayor Gustav Benoit(ph).
Mr. GUSTAV BENOIT (Deputy Mayor, Cite Soleil): (Through translator) Yes, there is peace, but what happens is there are no jobs in Cite Soleil. People here are hungry. Another thing is, when you have the gangs that were ruling the neighborhoods, if they stole a container of food, they would use that to share with the population to get some support. The government has not yet come here to fill that void.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he warns that Haiti could return to its turbulent past unless it does.
(Soundbite of two men singing)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back at the docks, two men sing about the sea as they pack away their fishing net. Despite the better security situation in Haiti, the people here are still waiting for something more.
Mr. SIMEA: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jacques Sonny Simea says you can now walk to the market without fear, but he has no money with which to buy food. He says, we're still in misery and hunger over here. He says, we now have good security. What happened before doesn't happen anymore, but we're still hungry.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.