On an ordinary Washington Sunday morning, while The Post was being tossed on my lawn with Lawrence E. Harrison's offensive essay "Haiti's Desperate Heritage" {Outlook, Nov. 29}, I was awakening in Port-au-Prince to a sustained cacophony of small-arms fire, interspersed with the sound of distant explosions. It was to be the beginning of a very sad day for Haitians everywhere. Sunday, Nov. 29, began in Haiti not with the sound of people exercising their right to vote but with the sounds of war and soon the screams of victims.

No need to be concerned, argues Harrison; these people are unfit for democracy. William F. Buckley Jr. would echo that theme in his column Dec. 3, "Haiti Isn't Ready for Democracy," and the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs would absolve himself of all responsibility.

In the case of Harrison's gratuitous litany of uninformed and insulting pronouncements, two issues merit attention: first his offhand encapsulation and condemnation of "voodoo" (it is more properly referred to as "vodoun" in anthropological material) and then his assertion that recent American involvement in Haiti has been all positive.

The latter, from a former Haiti mission director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, is the case of a man writing his own job performance assessment. To hold vodoun responsible for that country's economic and political turmoil is like indicting Catholicism and Protestantism for poverty and war in Northern Ireland.

If, while he was in Haiti, Harrison's quest for understanding had drawn him beyond a narrow circle of acquaintances, he might have stumbled across the works of Haitian ethnologists who, beginning with Jean Price Mars, have sought to cut through the maze of distortions that have been propagated about vodoun since the 18th century. In their accounts, he would have found reverence for a belief system whose African roots antedate Christianity and which, by all measurements, is as complete and complex as any.

An appreciation of Maya Deren's "Divine Horsemen, the Living Gods of Haiti" would have certainly steered Harrison away from the preposterous and simplistic assertion that vodoun is devoid of ethical content. Forty years ago Deren, a white American artist, writer and keen observer, came to see vodoun as the moral and aesthetic glue that binds Haitian society. In Haiti, the Catholic Church and mainstream Protestant faiths have by now made their peace with that reality.

Harrison's most misleading contention is that Haiti's postindependence isolation was self-imposed. As he points out, the United States waited nearly 60 years before recognizing the new nation that came into being in 1804, so as not to rouse its enslaved blacks. What he does not say or does not know is that in the course of those critical 60 years, American governments discouraged any constructive contact with Haiti by other nations. The Monroe administration, for example, successfully lobbied newly independent South American nations into excluding the black republic from the first assembly of American states hosted by Colombia in 1825.

The American historian Rayford Logan documents that the American refusal to extend diplomatic recognition to Haiti was certainly not a result of a lack of effort on the part of Haitian authorities or of an absence of commercial exchange. In 1862, when recognition was finally being considered, trade with Haiti stood above that with Prussia, Sweden, Turkey, Japan and Russia. All were nations with which the United States maintained full diplomatic relations.

Although Haiti would not be overrun by foreigners before 1915, it was from the moment of its independence the locus of contention between the United States and European powers. The American Navy's determination to have a "coaling station" on Haitian soil embroiled the United States in the country's domestic conflicts through the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

The first of two principal legacies of the American occupation is the Haitian army, an organization that was from the beginning out of step with the country's needs. The second is the aggravated antagonism between mulattoes and blacks, which the Marines, who traveled with their racism, fanned by extending preferential treatment to light-skinned Haitians. This antagonism, in turn, nurtured in fits and starts the political career of an ambitious physician, Francois Duvalier.

The good doctor brought to the presidency a hobbyist's interest in cultural anthropology, an unquenchable thirst for power and an utter disregard for the welfare of the population. What he and his son did to wreck Haiti's economy has little to do with religion or the slavery experience (another gem from Harrison's psyche).

A prosperous and democratic Haiti is possible. Haitians in factories exhibit productivity on a par with that of the people of the Pacific Basin. And they do so whether they worship in a Catholic church, a Protestant church or a vodoun hunfor. Industrial workers, construction laborers, farmers, students and professionals have recently made clear, by their overwhelming ratification of a publicly debated constitution, their belief in the importance of human rights and the virtues of the electoral process.

Those who sought to stop the election stuck no pins in a doll (an invention of Hollywood) and hurled no magic powder to scare away the citizens. What they made use of were very modern bullets from very modern automatic weapons. Then, resorting to a terror technique reminiscent of the death squads of El Salvador, they hacked off the limbs of their dead and dying victims.

The events of that Sunday morning mock the hypocrites who profess to love democracy but find some people unprepared for it. Those not yet ready for democracy in Haiti are not the working men and women who rose early to vote. Those not yet ready for democracy in Haiti are the murderous ransackers of polling stations and those who would rationalize their crime. -- Yves Savain