GONAIVES, HAITI -- "The people are forming brigades to watch out . . . and they are not afraid to protect themselves," said Bilibi Joseph of his dusty town's response to recent sporadic terror tactics aimed at disrupting presidential elections scheduled for Nov. 28.
Joseph, 32, an unemployed father of five, folded his muscular arms, displaying a scar from a shotgun blast by soldiers trying to break up a demonstration last year against then president Jean-Claude Duvalier.
The demonstrations that toppled the 28-year Duvalier father-son dictatorship began in Gonaives, which again seems to be the bellwether of the popular mood in this impoverished land. A fortnight of anti-elections violence seems to have spurred interest in voting, and local volunteers are turning up here and elsewhere to figure out how to bring off the elections for a president and legislature in the absence of preparations by the National Elections Council.
The Rev. William Smarth, an influential Roman Catholic priest who works with Port-au-Prince's poorest, said the voters "now have an enemy in front of them, in the Ton-Tons Macoutes, that's galvanizing them in a way that no candidate had."
In current Haitian usage, "Ton-Ton Macoute" -- which once meant an agent of the Duvaliers' state terror -- is coming to denote anyone fighting to preserve the Duvaliers' system of power, privilege and repression.
The turning point here in Gonaives, said Luciano Pharaon, head of the area elections office, came when that office's only jeep was blown up the night before registration was to end. "By the end of the day, 30 percent more people had registered to vote," he said.
Here in Gonaives and other provincial towns, peasants are forming unarmed brigades to watch over elections and campaign offices in the night, ready to give the alarm. The National Elections Council since has issued an appeal for volunteers, and in Port-au-Prince, hundreds of volunteers from all social backgrounds now are showing up daily at the provincial elections office, asking what they can do.
A 68-year-old former United Nations administrator, for example, started by doing a little typing and ended up organizing other volunteers to review the voting registers for Port-au-Prince and prepare them for transport to the voting places.
The Education Ministry of the military-dominated government late last week agreed to lend schools throughout the country for voting places. The same volunteer, who did not want his name used, has devised a system to expedite routing the records to the polls.
It has yet to be decided which precincts will vote at which schools. The anti-elections violence had led many merchants to withdraw promises to lend their businesses as voting sites.
"We don't know if time is running out, but we'll make it do," said the volunteer, who said her first husband and two sons were killed by Duvalier's agents in 1963. "People are more optimistic now because they see us keep on working. We expect violence any time, but we get more and more volunteers every day, from all walks of life."
That grassroots activity could be crucial, given the problems with the National Elections Council. U.S. officials say the council received its full $10 million budget. Even so, the council has yet to work out a plan for such basics as distributing the ballots. And paid workers at the provincial elections office in Port-au-Prince got their first token stipend today, a month after they began work.
The military may be moving to give the elections process more protection than it did earlier. Three men believed to be implicated in the arson destruction of the election council's headquarters in Port-au-Prince reportedly were detained and questioned for several days on orders of an Army commander.
"We know that the word got around about those arrests, that the people who were mostly responsible got the message that they were being watched and that their organization had been infiltrated," a western diplomat said.
Still, there's little visible protection of elections facilities.
There also are reports that the military may lend its two working helicopters to transport ballots to remote sites.
In an Army Day speech in the capital yesterday, Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy, the provisional president and armed forces chief, made no direct mention of the election, but called on the Army to apply the new constitution strictly. But Namphy also strongly defended the Army's actions since it took power and seemed to stake out a continuing independent role for the Army after the election.
At another ceremony later, Namphy spoke of the armed forces as the "vigilant guard at your side" who will defend against "interventionists, false intellectuals and traitors who daily and shamelessly give life to a campaign of denigration against the armed forces of Haiti."
The continuing scattered attacks on elections officials and party campaign offices seem more designed to intimidate than to kill or damage.
In St. Marc, an hour south of Gonaives, a gang of 14 or 15 masked men in one night late last week made a half-hearted attempt to set fire to the house of the local elections coordinator and caused minor damage to three presidental campaign offices.
Gonaives' determined Bilibi Joseph glanced at wall graffiti favoring one of the 23 presidential candidates. "A lot of these candidates don't have much to say about the things that people want and need," said a man whose family survives mainly on $600 a year sent by his brother in Miami. "But if we let the Macoutes mess up the elections, we're going to have another dictatorship."