PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Stray bullets whizzing through slums, kidnappings, suffocating poverty and a dying economy — Haitians have no shortage of things they would like to change about their troubled country.
They will have their say on Tuesday in long-delayed elections aimed at restoring elusive democracy, two years after a bloody revolt ousted elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Two other former presidents, a wealthy businessman and an ex-rebel are among three dozen presidential candidates running in the polls, being held under the protection of thousands of U.N. peacekeepers and police and deemed crucial to pulling the country out of its cycle of misery.
"The future of Haiti is at stake," the top U.S. diplomat in Haiti, Tim Carney, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It's long past time that Haiti move into the modern world."
The front-runner is Rene Preval, an agronomist who led Haiti from 1996-2001 and is the only elected Haitian president to finish his term in office. If no one wins a majority, the top two vote-getters meet in a March 19 runoff. Voters also will choose among hundreds of candidates for 129 legislative seats.
The son of a former government official, Preval has vowed to crack down on hardened criminals blamed for spreading terror in the capital, Port-au-Prince. The shy, soft-spoken candidate is coy on whether he would welcome back his one-time ally Aristide, who is in exile in South Africa.
Leslie Manigat, who was president for five months in 1988 after winning elections rigged by the military, is seen as the candidate favored by much of the private sector. Also vying for the presidency is Guy Phillippe, a boyish-looking, 37-year-old ex-paramilitary who helped lead the uprising against Aristide.
Much of the capital was plunged into chaos after Aristide, a former slum priest and Haiti's first democratically elected president, fled amid an uprising in February 2004.
Kidnappers roam the streets snatching victims for ransom, while gunfire crackles daily in slums where well-armed street gangs clash with the blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers, part of a 9,000-strong international force.
Business leaders have called on peacekeepers to eliminate gangs in the capital. Preval says he wants to jail the worst of the criminals but start a dialogue with the rank-and-file gangsters, many of whom support Aristide.
"There's no military solution" to the problem, Preval told The Associated Press. "We must negotiate."
If they are deemed free and fair, and accepted by the candidates and ordinary Haitians, the elections could encourage rich nations to increase aid needed to spur investment and rebuild the shattered infrastructure.
Fears of violence looms among Haitians who remember a 1987 bloodbath in which soldiers opened fire on voters waiting to cast ballots in the Caribbean nation's first free elections. Some Haitians say the chance to choose a new government is not worth the risk.
"I didn't register for elections because I was scared. People could come around and start shooting while people are waiting in line to vote," said Immacule Joseph, 19, who lives in a neighborhood of tin-and-cinderblock shacks in the hills of the capital.
Interim government officials and community leaders have urged citizens to turn out in large numbers.
"If you don't vote, you can't change your country," Pastor Yves Innocent Louis told his flock Sunday as they swayed and sang to hymns in his church in the capital.
Haiti, once the richest colony in the Americas, has been impoverished since the world's only successful slave rebellion forced out French colonizers and a series of corrupt military and civilian dictators began ruling the country in 1804.
Today, most Haitians are unemployed or get by on odd jobs. The majority live in the deforested countryside with no electricity, clean drinking water or health care.