LONDON. — IT'S NOW nearly four years since Baby Doc, Jean-Claude Duvalier, drove himself at high speed to the airport to board a U.S. Air Force plane to exile in France, ending 30 years of sordid dictatorial rule by himself and his father, Francois.
Today Haiti prepares for a presidential election December 16 that could be the occasion for the final catharsis of the Duvalierist era -- or could lead to its resurrection.
The two most talked-about candidates represent on the one hand all that was violent, underhand, corrupt and cruel in the Duvalier era, and on the other the hope Haiti has never satisfactorily fulfilled in its 175 years of independence -- to be law-abiding, democratic and working to lift the worst poverty in the Western hemisphere.
The choice should be easy. But in Haiti nothing is done without the complicity either of the army or of the Tontons Macoute, the private force of proletarian thugs created by Papa Doc and still run, covertly and clannishly, by Duvalierist loyalists.
Four years ago a popular uprising, backed by the powerful Catholic Church, finally broke through the barricades of fear and intimidation. There was a moment of light and optimism, a sense of life and opportunity arriving. Baby Doc was out and elections were called.
It all ended suddenly and brutally on November 29, 1987, when the Duvalierists unleashed the dreaded Tontons Macoute on a polling station in a church, massacring 34 men and women waiting to vote. Gen. Henri Namphy, supposedly running the country until the elections, had ordered the army not to interfere. The election was effectively aborted.
Since then in rapid succession there has been a second election, more carefully controlled by the army, followed by a coup led by the power-hungry General Namphy who in turn was deposed by a revolt from below of the ''petits soldats'' who in their moment of glory were quickly pushed aside by the commanding presence of Gen. Prosper Avril, the former organizer of Baby Doc's labyrinthine personal finances. Earlier this year popular unrest led to his downfall and brought to power an uneasy interim government which with American government money and heavy embassy tutoring has organized the current election campaign.
Fourteen hats are in the electoral ring but the only two that now appear to matter have given the contest the makings of an Old Testament battle between good and evil.
Roger Lafontant was Baby Doc's Minister of the Interior, generally regarded as the ''hard man'' in a regime not known for its scruples. Mr. Lafontant used the Tontons Macoute to enforce the government's will and showed himself a master of election-rigging when he managed to bring in a 99.8 percent ''yes'' vote in a referendum. Edged out of power by the intrigues of Baby Doc's beautiful wife, Michele, he went into exile in Canada.
Against him is Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a charismatic, astonishingly brave, Catholic priest. The author Amy Wilentz describes this tiny man accurately as ''hollow-cheeked, goggle-eyed, wide-mouthed.'' For the last six years he has been the government's most vociferous opponent, organizing, or at least inspiring, many of the demonstrations and protests that undermined the successive regimes at crucial moments. Until now he has never formally entered the political arena, preferring to remain as a preacher and pastor to the slum poor in the Church of St. Jean Bosco in Port-au-Prince.
Twice his sermons have been cut short by the shots of government soldiers or Tontons Macoute. Attempts on his life have been numerous. He has somehow survived, quite fearless and totally confident of what he is trying to achieve. On occasion he is carried away by the socialistic notions of ''liberation theology,'' driving the U.S. embassy into spasms of despair, but he is an incorruptible, immovable force that has kept the voice of hope alive in Haiti when few others had the courage to speak so forcefully.
For the moment Mr. Lafontant has been declared an inadmissible candidate. But the army and police have made it clear by their refusal to arrest him that he will not so easily be stopped.
The next few weeks will be dirty and dangerous. The election campaign could quite easily be aborted by another army coup or by the murder of Father Aristide. Yet spots of light emerge to encourage one to hope. We shouldn't forget that it was the ''petits soldats'' -- the rank-and-file uneducated foot soldiers -- who overthrew General Namphy because they were sickened to the point of rebellion when the Tontons Macoute sprayed gunfire into a church congregation, killing 20 and then rushing in with machetes to bayonet a pregnant woman. And the celebrant of that mass? None other than Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide.