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WHILE RIGHTLY concerned with helping the Soviet Union and other European countries proceed toward democracy, the United States must be equally eager to apply that principle to the small nation of Haiti now that it has successfully held its first free elections.

The Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the landslide winner, may not have been the United States' first choice. But he was the overwhelming choice of Haitians in an election that U.S. and United Nations observers praised as fair and open.

Father Aristide, the radical priest who may have to quit the Catholic Church to take office, now faces two formidable challenges: remaining in control in a nation in which military coups are more common than elections, and revamping an economy and a society that has left the general population among the world's poorest.

Nearly two-thirds of Haitians are without jobs, 80 percent cannot read and 85 percent are undernourished. It is little wonder the country was ripe for Father Aristide's "liberation theology" that encouraged them to organize and take their fates into their own hands. They responded with a turnout estimated at up to 70 percent of registered voters.

But winning may be the least of the leftist priest's challenges. He already has escaped three assassination attempts. But with members of the Tonton Macoutes -- disaffected remnants of the heinous Duvalier regimes -- still about, his survival is anything but assured.

Father Aristide also must find a way to harness the 7,000-member army. While it was a comparative model of restraint during this month's elections -- even drawing praise from some Haitians before a post-election attack left one person dead -- it was implicated in the brutal massacre of 34 voters and confiscation of ballots that scuttled the 1987 election. Having the peasants on Father Aristide's side may not mean much if those in uniform turn against the reformer.

The presence of international observers may well have had an impact on the army's behavior during the election. But international attention must remain just as focused on this tiny black nation once the official observer teams have departed.

But even without violence, Father Aristide faces immense problems. His calls for a reorganization of the economy to aid the poor will not be embraced by landowners, the business class or other members of the country's elite. In short, he will need help.

The United States cut off $70 million in economic aid to Haiti after the failed 1987 elections. If Sunday's successful democratic balloting is followed by a period of stability in which the fruits of this election are allowed to take hold, the United States should begin looking for ways to resume that aid and provide incentives for reform.

Democracy deserves the same chance -- and helping hand -- in nearby Haiti as it does anywhere else in the world.

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