PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI, DEC. 7 -- The first day of a nationwide 48-hour general strike to protest the military government's takeover of the electoral process drew only a partial response and, in the capital, wore off as the day wore on.
The strike results made it more probable that the National Government Council, headed by Gen. Henri Namphy, would succeed in organizing January national elections under its control -- but not necessarily more likely that such elections would gain broad popular acceptance.
Even as the strike began, confusion was widespread about its goals and length, in part because the most widely heard radio stations had been off the air as a result of terrorist attacks.
Haitians in Port-au-Prince's half-empty streets, markets and factories continued to speak with fear and frustration of the collapse Nov. 29 of presidential and legislative elections.
The day's outcome also seemed likely to force opposition political groups to use less ambitious tactics in pressing the government council to return control of the elections to an independent board.
Truckloads of regular Army troops patrolled the streets with automatic rifles, and blue-uniformed policemen wearing olive-green Army helmets walked the pavement in possible trouble spots. No violent incidents were reported.
The high-profile military presence contrasted with that of the bloody election weekend -- when gunmen loyal to the ousted Duvalier dictatorship cruised freely through the streets, shooting voters and journalists, with the few troops in sight ignoring or aiding the assaults.
Almost all stores along the downtown colonial arcades were closed most of the day. On the main boulevards, which are normally clogged, traffic was light since only about 30 percent of the tap-taps, the colorfully painted trucks that serve as public transportation, were running. Some shops on the edge of town opened in the afternoon.
At one tap-taps garage, a carload of uniformed police stopped at around 7:30 a.m. and appeared to press a group of drivers to go to work.
Most Port-au-Prince factories opened but with at most 60 percent of their employes, according to private-sector estimates. In an industrial park on the edge of the capital, most businesses were like the Wilson sporting goods factory: open but with assembly lines at a third of their normal pace. Schools in the capital were closed.
The strike took hold in the north-central towns of Gonaives and St. Marc and in the southern town of Les Cayes but failed in northern Cap-Haitien, according to reports from radio stations and political parties.
The protest was called by the four presidential front-runners, a range of blue-collar unions and a teachers' association to demand that the government council revoke its Nov. 29 decree abolishing the elections laws and dissolving the nine-man board that organized the balloting. The business sector did not take a position for or against the work action.
Of eight groups called upon last week by the government council to nominate representatives to a new board, by today five had refused and three had not responded, according to Radio Metropole.
Notably absent were the black trails of smoke from burning tires and the rock barricades that slum youths set up to block the streets during a wave of antigovernment strikes in June and July.
"We didn't want to send our people out to be butchered," said Tony Verdier, a spokesman for centrist presidential candidate Marc Bazin. In the days before the elections, several youths who took to the street to make barricades were shot by Army troops and Duvalierist gunmen.
There were also no reports of club-wielding vigilantes trying to force merchants to close, as there were during the summer. "This is our first really free strike. It is an apprenticeship for democracy," Verdier said.
But other strike organizers were more circumspect. Michel Soukar, a spokesman for a large group of community organizations that backs liberal presidential candidate Gerard Gourgue, admitted the strike was "poorly timed." He judged it "closer to failure than success. . . . To ask people to strike now is to ask them to go bankrupt."
Economic activity in Haiti has been crippled for 10 days by turmoil. "If I strike I face huge hunger," said Pierre, 34, a shoe seller who as usual set up his stand, with two dozen pairs of sneakers, in the market by the downtown salt marshes.
As the holiday season approaches, many Haitians need extra money. Christians celebrate Christmas with presents and church festivities, and voodoo practitioners perform special rites for their dieties to usher in the new year.
A street-corner beer vendor, asked what he thought of the strike, whispered, "It's not safe to think. Only God is safe in his heaven."
"I don't know what it's all about," said a 26-year-old textile worker named Odilma. But he turned out to be an unwitting supporter of the strike's goals. He demanded a chance to vote in a free election.
When asked if Namphy's council could organize the vote he wanted, Odilma and two dozen workers behind him erupted in cries of "Never!"
A small group of leftist unions said they would withdraw from the strike Tuesday, accusing its organizers of collaborating with the United States.