PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- The instant he uttered the phrase -- "Madame President of the Republic, the armed forces of Haiti are at your command" -- Lt. Gen. Herard Abraham became a sensation here. To Haitians, who had watched with rising frustration for four years as military rulers ignored their aspirations for civilian government, Abraham's simple pledge sounded too good to be true.
Eleven weeks later, as provisional president Ertha Pascal-Trouillot's wobbly government tries to keep order until elections can be organized this fall, Abraham has become the linchpin holding together Haiti's fragile new order.
A former foreign minister and information minister, the 49-year-old Abraham projects the brisk charm and diplomatic savoir-faire that his recent predecessors in the armed forces conspicuously lacked. In a recent interview, he spoke with precision and confidence of the army's commitment to play a supporting, not a leading, role in Haiti's transition to democracy.
"The establishment of a democratic government won't just help the civilian society, but the military as an institution," he said. The generals who have recently held Haiti's presidency "were neglecting the management of the army," he said.
Virtually alone among senior Haitian officers, Abraham rarely carries a sidearm. His only visible displays of the ostentation for which military men are known here are a Cartier watch and a bulky gold ring.
The question being hotly debated in Haiti these days is whether Abraham, a 31-year veteran of the army and a product of Haiti's military academy, will truly turn out to be different from his predecessors as military chief. Henri Namphy and Prosper Avril, the army chiefs who ruled by fiat as unelected presidents in the last four years, also promised to deliver honest elections and a transition to democracy. For a time, some Haitians and many diplomats believed them.
In the end, though, neither was willing to loosen his grip on power. Namphy fell victim to a coup d'etat and fled the country in 1988. Avril followed him into exile in March, fleeing the popular uprising that resulted in Pascal-Trouillot's installation.
Whether Abraham acts differently -- and whether he has sufficient control over Haiti's 7,000-member army to compel it to follow -- will be critical in determining whether this country has a chance to overcome a history that has helped make it the hemisphere's most destitute nation.
"The military can make or break the elections," said one diplomat. "And Abraham is the key."
In an army renowned for greed, graft and occasional acts of brutality, Abraham is regarded by diplomats as one of the few high-ranking military men who combines integrity, intelligence and a commitment to democracy. Last month, he moved swiftly to dissuade his troops from revolt, and he has arranged classes for soldiers on the basics of democracy.
"Abraham's probably the best bet this country's had for a military commander in a long time," said a diplomat who deals extensively with the Haitian military. "He realizes he's going to be the hero if he pulls this off and delivers clean elections."
But to many Haitians, memories are still fresh of Nov. 29, 1987, the election day when soldiers stood idly by as gunmen stormed a Port-au-Prince polling place and shot to death 37 people. The balloting was halted, and the army has held ultimate power in Haiti ever since.
Some political leaders warn that voters will not go to the polls and that the next elections will fail because those widely seen as responsible for the violence in 1987 have never been brought to justice. Abraham's promises to protect the elections are regarded by many with skepticism.
Although his declaration of loyalty to the provisional civilian government in March touched a chord here, many Haitians are unconvinced that Abraham will turn out any better than his predecessors. Many Haitians see little difference among those in government, the military and allies of the 29-year Duvalier family dictatorship -- all of whom they say are mainly interested in preserving the status quo, which has brought enormous profits to a privileged few.
Abraham's detractors consider him a more polished version of the Haitian military model, but not as a leader willing to make waves to correct the country's deep-rooted social ills. Critics point out that under Abraham the army -- the only institution regarded as powerful enough to confront the old-line Duvalierists -- has taken no action against those believed responsible for the election-day massacre of 1987.
Abraham has launched no major effort to clean up the army's profiteering, they argue, and there are indications that soldiers are involved in recent nighttime killings, kidnappings and terrorizing of civilians.
"The government, the army -- they're all in the same corner with the killers," said Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a popular Roman Catholic priest who favors sweeping social change as a prerequisite to elections.
Abraham, who takes pains to avoid accusing anyone in the 1987 massacre, notes that it is not the army's role to prosecute those accused of violent crimes. "You can't take arbitrary actions -- that's the difference between the old and the new state of affairs in the army," he said. "If we are to become a democratic country, we must respect democratic procedures.
"I don't know who was responsible for the violence last time," he said. "But we are going to take all measures to prevent a repetition."
He acknowledged that profiteering in the army has been widespread and remains a problem. "That's the orientation we must change," he said. He acknowledged some involvement by troops in the nocturnal violence, saying that "four or five" soldiers have been disciplined for such activity.
To some analysts who follow the Haitian armed forces, the issue is not Abraham's intent as much as his ability to control the troops under his command.
The Duvaliers created and nurtured a separate Presidential Guard, technically a part of the military but in fact separate and loyal only to the rulers. Now the guard, renamed the Infantry Units of the Headquarters, is regarded as beholden more to itself than to the army chain of command.