When the people of Haiti go again to the polls this Sunday, it will be a major test for the nations of the Americas and for the Organization of American States. The Charter of the OAS, a binding international treaty, spells out in clear and unequivocal language the intent of the association to build a hemisphere in which the people of each nation of the Americas can live in freedom and democracy.

The issue is central to survival of the OAS and to U.S. policy in the hemisphere. Without a serious policy in pursuit of the goals of freedom and democracy, inter-American cooperation is merely a utilitarian concept governed by the whims of economic interest. The OAS must act in Haiti. For the nations to sit by, wring their hands and pass resolutions will hardly do.

The United States has taken some courageous action in defense of democracy in recent years. It did it in the Philippines, Korea and, initially, in Haiti. The world applauded. But the United States cannot do this job alone, nor should it. It is time for the American nations to face the implications of their rhetoric.

The heart of the matter is that the Latin American nations have failed to deal realistically with the avowed philosophical underpinnings of their own system: the goal of nonintervention. The Latin American nations have, in practice, a profound ambivalence about the concept of intervention. The record indicates that the issue in their perception is not whether to intervene, but who is to intervene. The concept appears to be directed solely at the United States. Everyone else, including Mexico, the most vociferous advocate of the principle, has intervened in everyone else's affairs since the days when Simon Bolivar marched up and down the continent.

The overthrow of Somoza in Nicaragua in 1979 was a classic example. Everyone intervened. The Mexicans and the Venezuelans sent arms; the Panamanians transported them; the Costa Ricans delivered them. The Cubans and the Sandinistas maintained one of the most extensive systems of intervention in the history of the hemisphere in the early 1980s. No one had clean hands. Yet the countries pretend to look on with horror at the OAS's doing the same thing on a collective and constructive basis. The OAS Resolution of Nov. 29 calling upon the Haitian government to "restore the democratic process" but affirming the duty of the American nations "not to intervene, directly or indirectly" in the internal affairs of Haiti was a carte blanche for murderers and thugs.

For the inter-American system, such a double standard is a luxury it can no longer afford. The result is that hemispheric policy has become stymied in the most vital area: a coherent hemispheric policy designed to favor democracy and to isolate dictators who have clearly usurped power. Intervention by nonintervention thus becomes as much an issue in inter-American affairs as is intervention of the conventional sort.

Haiti is a good place to begin to rectify the damage. In this case, the nations have no excuse. There is no ideological dispute with which to contend. To seek refuge in legalistic interpretations while an entire nation cries out in anguish makes a sham of the spirit and intent of the inter-American commitment. Clearly, the line as to where to intervene may be a difficult one to draw. However, it can certainly be moved a little more to this side of mayhem and anarchy.

A period of relief is needed in Haiti to enable self-governing institutions to have a chance. The inter-American community, on a collective basis, is the only one that can provide it. Appropriate policy calls for a declaration that any government taking office in the election being planned under the current conditions will not be recognized by any of the American states and that new elections must be called under inter-American supervision and inter-American guarantees for its integrity.

The OAS can manage the election procedure and send civilian supervisors to monitor its execution. The OAS must seriously consider maintaining a civilian observer presence, as it did on the El Salvador-Honduras border for years, to restrain the rambunctious Haitian military, which is literally at war with its own people.

It must take all steps that are necessary to demonstrate the intent and the authority of the American nations to protect the civilian authority and ensure the legitimate rights of all citizens. Then it must undertake a positive program of joint action for economic and technical assistance to ensure the institutional growth of the country.

Current policy on nonintervention obscures and paralyzes effective action rather than promoting the real benefit of the hemisphere. Not to act in the case of Haiti would be an error of historic proportions. In such a case, coming after inaction in Central America and the debt issue, it would become increasingly difficult for the OAS to justify its existence. But if they do act, the nations of the Americas can be assured that they will do so to the applause of the world.

The writer is a former assistant secretary of the Organization of American States. He currently practices law in Washington.