For most of us, Haiti is synonymous with coups and corruption. Yet many observers feel that today conditions in that country and in other nations throughout the Caribbean present the best opportunity for progress in years. The only thing standing in the way, they say, is a Bush administration that has its priorities focused on Eastern Europe instead of troubles closer to home.

Once a region that irritated Washington for its socialist leanings and political turmoil, the entire Caribbean, except for Cuba, is starting to stabilize and tout the benefits of capitalism. It could all culminate soon in a free election in Haiti.

But the Caribbean's new-found zest for an American-style free market comes at a time when U.S. aid is shifting to other parts of the globe. The islands' ideology may now be in sync with the White House, but that doesn't mean they will be rewarded with increased financial assistance from Washington. The U.S. Economic Support Funds program for the region has fallen from $226 million in 1985 to a mere $21 million in 1990. Congressional critics say this is a mistake.

Nowhere is the need for support more crucial than in Haiti. Over the years, the United States has been a party to military dictatorships in Haiti that have left the country the most destitute in the hemisphere.

But with the ouster of Gen. Prosper Avril last March and the installation of provisional president Ertha Pascal Truillot, Haitians have become hopeful. Truillot does not intend to stay in power, and one of her first acts as president was to promise elections for next fall. Truillot was also able to negotiate a $13 million economic aid package with Washington.

Our associates Scott Sleek and Dean Boyd were able to talk with one front-runner, Marc Louis Bazin, leader of the Movement for the Establishment of Democracy in Haiti. Bazin, a veteran World Bank official who is widely regarded as the leading candidate, vows to crack down on corruption and follow free-market principles in rebuilding Haiti's wrecked economy.

But one of Haiti's greatest challenges, he told us, ''comes from places like Eastern Europe.'' He fears Eastern Europe will eclipse Haiti and the rest of the Caribbean in attracting attention from Washington. Bazin argues that Haiti has much to offer, including cheap and highly productive labor. He contends that a healthy Haiti is essential for Washington to resolve the regional problems of immigration and drug trafficking. Although Bazin admits his country is not the most stable in the world, he tells us, ''If ever there is a chance for change, it is now.''

But congressional sources argue that Bazin's worries are already being realized. Washington has allotted only $3 million of the $13 million in aid to the upcoming elections, although Agency for International Development officials plan to give more as the election draws near. U.S. AID officials have also claimed that they can't find $10 million in development assistance for Haiti.

Haitians we talked to say that those opposed to change are already flexing their muscles and that the Truillot government is incapable of doing anything about it. In one of the latest incidents, unidentified gunmen on June 21 sprayed members of the Council of State with machine-gun fire at the Hotel Santos in Port-au-Prince. One council member was killed and another wounded in the shooting.

Haitians appear reluctant to vote in any election. They want justice first for the 37 civilians gunned down by paramilitary thugs during the November 1987 elections. Although some point to the moderation of the Army chief, Lt. Gen. Herard Abraham, as insurance against a repetition of the 1987 affair, congressional sources say Abraham does not have the control to halt crimes by the military or rein in the armed civilian groups that roam the country. ''Under these conditions, how can one expect any Haitian to go out and vote?'' one Haitian asked us.

Unless Washington provides the government of Haiti with the resources and oversight to help the electorate vote in peace, many predict that the election once more will be subverted by violence and the fear of it. According to one congressional source, ''Washington can deal with the problem; the question is whether it wants to.''