Except for a few guards and maintenance workers lingering behind locked gates, Haiti's Legislative Palace these days is an empty shell. The historically corrupt and inefficient justice system remains plagued by serious problems that "undermine individual rights, due process and the rule of law," according to a recent U.N. report. And 60 percent of the population in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country is still illiterate and gets by on less than $1 a day.

This is hardly the future that the United States and the United Nations envisioned for Haiti five years ago, when 20,000 troops, most of them American, dismantled a military dictatorship that came to power in a coup d'etat and, in Operation Restore Democracy, reinstated the nation's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The intervention, which began with U.S. soldiers flying into Port-au-Prince on Sept. 19, 1994, set the stage for an ambitious international endeavor designed to build democratic institutions in a country dominated by dictators since it gained independence from France nearly two centuries ago. It also aimed to develop economic vitality in a destitute and mostly rural nation, improve the lives of 7 million inhabitants and, ultimately, stem the flow of Haitians risking their lives in rickety boats to emigrate to the United States.

After five years and $2 billion in U.S. aid, there have been modest gains, ranging from the creation of a civilian police force, to the training of new judges, to the doubling of school enrollment to 1.6 million students. But overall, Haitian and foreign officials acknowledge, the effort accomplished much less than what the Clinton administration laid out as its goals. As a result, a large part of its legacy among Haitians is disillusionment--with democracy, political leaders and the United Nations and foreign governments that pledged their help.

"We walked with them because we had so much hope that salvation would finally come for our problems," said Eddy Pierre-Luis, a jobless Port-au-Prince resident who worked as an unofficial guide for the troops. "But now, things are dark and getting darker. Democracy has not improved our lives. It is just a word to me."

U.S. Ambassador Timothy M. Carney was only slightly more optimistic. "Haiti is a long way from getting democracy," he said. "It lacks nearly all of the elements that make up a democracy. Haiti can best be described as in transition towards democracy. Overall, our expectations were too high. Did we let ourselves be led by our hopes instead of analysis?"

The military intervention has gradually been reduced to a small U.N. police-training mission, which is scheduled to end in November, and a human rights mission that is slated to close at the end of the year. The United Nations has plans to extend its role here, focusing on economic and political development. But the 480 U.S. military personnel who have been refurbishing schools and conducting medical training are to leave by the end of January, ending the full-time American military presence. U.S. reserves will come here occasionally to perform humanitarian work, but for many Haitians the departure of the last of the U.S. intervention force symbolizes a reduction in the U.S. commitment to make things work.

The obstacles to building a new Haiti have been manifold. The mission has struggled with political leaders who have been criticized as being more concerned with monopolizing power than sharing it, with judges who have long relied on bribes to sweeten their low salaries and with a sharp rise in crime, some of it politically motivated. Furthermore, Haiti's government has failed to disburse its foreign aid money effectively and in a timely manner, experts said.

International officials also have blamed themselves for not having a deeper understanding of Haiti's problems and greater oversight of the way funding and projects have been handled. But they also said their work has been made more difficult by a degree of complacency among some Haitians, which has come from years of reliance on foreign help.

"Nobody understood the complexities of development in Haiti," a high-ranking official at one donor bank said. "The donors overestimated the capacity of the government to channel funds to where they were supposed to be channeled. It has been a real bottleneck."

For instance, an estimated $250 million in international assistance previously allocated to Haiti languished for two years awaiting parliamentary approval before the legislature disbanded last January. The funds will remain in limbo until new legislative elections are held.

The terms of almost all 110 members of parliament expired eight months ago as elections were indefinitely delayed by a protracted power struggle between President Rene Preval and the legislature. Drawing criticism that he is seeking to consolidate authority, Preval has ruled by decree. He bypassed parliament in naming a new prime minister--a post he had to fill to unfreeze aid programs that had been stalled for two years.

Haiti's provisional electoral council has proposed Dec. 19 for the first round of new balloting, but it is unlikely that voting will take place then, partly because of logistical reasons. These include the enormous task of registering nearly 4 million eligible voters, issuing voter identification cards for the first time and the extensive security planning needed for the thinly stretched police. Tens of millions of dollars in additional loans depend on successful completion of the elections.

Haiti's countryside, where two-thirds of the population live, has received a disproportionately small amount of international assistance--as little as 20 percent. Most money has gone to programs in this dusty, overcrowded capital--where gantlets of self-employed street vendors who make up Haiti's predominantly informal economy hawk their wares--as well as to other urban areas and servicing loans.

"A lot of hope has not been fulfilled, and I am not necessarily saying that it is the fault of the international community," said Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis. "It is in part Haiti's own fault. . . . The main problem is that those of us who are for democracy cannot get together."

Observers here say a stable democracy will remain out of reach until Haitian leaders get used to power sharing. "The parties do not know the art of compromise and concessions," said Eric Pierre, a Haitian official at the Washington-based Inter-American Development Bank. "It is not in our rules. There is a culture of suspicion in Haiti, and you see a lot of low blows in politics."

As the international intervention mission winds down, it leaves behind a weak and financially constrained state unable to meet the basic needs of its people. Only a quarter of the population has access to safe drinking water, and most Haitians have no electricity or phone service. About half the children under the age of 5 suffer from malnutrition, and per capita annual health spending is $21, compared with $38 in sub-Saharan Africa.

In a recent report to the U.N. Security Council, Secretary General Kofi Annan expressed concern, saying there has been "slow progress . . . on how to continue to provide essential government services . . . and how to further the cause of democracy through the organization of legislative and municipal elections. The process [has been] a difficult one, mainly because of the weakness of key government institutions."

Reflecting widespread discontent, only 5 percent of registered voters turned out for the last local elections in April 1997. There have, however, been improvements to some aspects of life. The state-sponsored terror during the years of the military government and the earlier dictatorships of Francois Duvalier and his son and successor, Jean-Claude, has ceased and given way to freedom of speech and assembly.

The Haitian National Police, an agency formed in 1995 and trained mostly by the United States, has been a departure from the repressive state security forces of Haiti's past. But a spate of recent incidents allegedly involving the police, most notably the execution-style killings of 11 people in Port-au-Prince, has raised new concerns about the force.

Still the Poorest

Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere despite the five-year U.S. intervention.

Income** Life Infant Illiteracy

expectancy mortality rate

rate*

Haiti $ 250 57 72 60

Nicaragua 380 68 46 34

Honduras 600 67 45 27

Bolivia 800 60 69 17

Dominican Rep. 1,460 71 37 18

Jamaica 1,510 74 13 15

Latin America/

Caribbean average 3,320 69 37 13

*Death in the first year per 1,000 live births

**(gross national product per capita)

SOURCES: World Bank, U.N. Development Report

CAPTION: U.S.-trained troops quell a recent protest at a Port-au-Prince firm, an illustration of the discontent that is still widespread in Haiti despite U.S. efforts to foster a more equitable society in a nation long dominated by dictators.