PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- As the Haitian dictatorship finally imploded yesterday, the United States found itself effectively running Haiti.
Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras was packed and ready for exile. The country's puppet president and military-appointed ministers vacated their offices to make way for the new democratic government.
But for the moment, U.S. Ambassador William L. Swing and military commander Lt. Gen. Hugh Shelton are in control of the country, pending the return Saturday of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The impending exile of General Cedras, the former army commander in chief, and Brig. Gen. Philippe Biamby, his chief of staff, was slated for early today or tomorrow. They are expected to leave the country together, aboard a U.S.-supplied plane.
The Clinton administration and Father Aristide have petitioned the government of Panama to give the generals political asylum. When asylum is approved, they will leave.
"The government of Panama has received a request . . . from the United States that we give asylum to General Raoul Cedras and other military officers from Haiti," said Panamanian Foreign Ministry spokesman Eric Rodriguez. "The government at this moment is carrying out an evaluation of the request."
The Haitian Parliament has given Father Aristide the power to grant amnesty for crimes related to the 1991 coup that swept him from office.
But the generals want protection in exile from future Haitian prosecution for other crimes, or from the United States for suspected involvement in the narcotics trade.
According to a U.S. official familiar with the investigations, U.S. probes into alleged drug-related activities by Generals Cedras and Biamby, and the third plotter of the coup, Lt. Col. Michel Francois, the police chief, are still active.
"The investigation, as far as the Justice Department is concerned, has not been stopped, has not been killed," said the official yesterday, predicting that more evidence against the dictators would come to light once they are out of the country.
General Cedras is being investigated for allegedly protecting Colombian drug shipments through Haiti to the United States, the official said.
General Biamby and Colonel Francois are suspected of being more directly involved in shipping narcotics, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Drug Enforcement Agency officers here and in Miami also are investigating drug allegations against Maj. Gen. Jean-Claude Duperval, who this week replaced General Cedras as interim commander in chief, the official said.
"There's never been an issue of Haiti being used as a transshipment country. That's been a known," said the official. "The unknown has been how much, and who is doing what and how are they doing it.
The official estimated that hundreds of kilos of narcotics were shipped through Haiti monthly before the international embargo cut air and sea traffic. For turning a blind eye, the military could collect as much as $3,000 a kilo, he said.
"These guys are quite well off, quite well off," said the official.
Asked why the Clinton administration had accepted General Duperval's appointment as interim commander in chief while he was a narcotics suspect, a U.S. diplomat said that the allegations had not been proved, that he was Father Aristide's choice and that he would hold the job only until a permanent replacement was named within weeks, if not days, by the returning president.
"Duperval is not a major player," said the diplomat. "We have informed him of what our plans are, and he is trying to find ways to be co-operative. He does whatever we ask him to do."
So, for the moment, does everyone else.
Demonstrating their power, the top U.S. diplomatic and military officials, Mr. Swing and General Shelton, visited the Presidential Palace in downtown Port-au-Prince yesterday to tell Emile Jonaissant, the military-installed president, to be out of the building by 5 p.m. or face eviction by U.S. troops. The same deadline was given to the junta-appointed ministers.
U.S. troops took control of the palace and ministries without resistance as Haitian military personnel filed out in civilian clothes. The buildings will be quickly cleaned for the arrival of Father Aristide and his Cabinet.
As the setting sun cast a pink glow on the gleaming white Presidential Palace, hundreds of Haitians wandered up to the green gates to greet the Americans.
"Thanks to Bill Clinton," said Lamercie Joachim, 42. "And thanks to democracy."
But not everyone was happy. One man, who said that he had been robbed, pleaded with a U.S. military policeman, who told him to contact the Haitian police.
"I did that already," the man shouted. "They told me to come here. Where should I go?"
Nobody had an answer. Until Father Aristide resumes power, authority is likely to remain confused.
Father Aristide will be accompanied on his triumphant return by Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, a show of U.S.-Haitian partnership on the opening of a new era.
Tens of thousands are expected to welcome Father Aristide in the biggest celebration since his election almost four years ago. Security officials hope that the event will remain joyful and not turn into an orgy of revenge against supporters of the dictatorship.
In the meantime, the major decisions on the day-to-day running of the country are being made by Mr. Swing and General Shelton.
"There is a governmental, governing vacuum, which is being filled by the United States military and, to some degree, the United States Embassy," said a senior diplomat.
"There are no Haitians running the place at this point. But the stewardship is in good hands."
Throughout three weeks of the intervention, Mr. Swing and General Shelton have extended their power, organizing public security, reassembling the legislative branch, closing down the machinery of dictatorship and choreographing the departure of the military junta.
Today, the first ministers of the legitimate government are expected to take over their ministries, under U.S. protection. Three of the 13 Aristide appointees -- the ministers of foreign affairs, commerce and information -- are still outside the country.
"By tomorrow, everybody will be in their ministries," said attorney Ira Kurzban, a top aide to Father Aristide. "The transition is going very well."