HAITI EXISTS on the edge of the American consciousness. It's too small to be taken seriously as a menace, but it's too close to be ignored. Its people turn up on Florida's shores by the thousands, refugees from a collapsed economy. As a haven for smugglers, the country has a certain usefulness to the drug traffickers. Its extreme poverty remains a reproach to the American conscience. Americans keep telling Haiti that free elections and democracy will be the answer to its despair. But Haiti is now far into a vicious spiral in which destitution increases the chaos and anarchy that make orderly elections an increasingly remote possibility.

After the last military capo fled in March, the various parties and political grouplets appointed Ertha Pascal Trouillot, a judge, as interim president to run the government until the elections scheduled for November. But that temporary government is now coming unglued, partly because of personal conflicts, partly because hunger is growing sharper. Two weeks ago the Council of State voted no confidence in President Trouillot. Last week most of the parties that had appointed her began to demand her resignation. Then a third of her cabinet resigned.

She has refused to resign and stoutly declares that the elections will be held on schedule. But that seems utterly uncertain. The electoral board has observed that there's no point in trying to hold elections in an atmosphere of violence and intimidation. A civil rights organization reports that 29 people were killed last month in attacks that it presumes to have been political in purpose.

The United States gives a little aid to Haiti -- enough to enable it to keep threatening a cutoff if Haiti doesn't shape up, but not enough to make any real difference. It is not beyond American capacities to provide enough to help Haiti's people to eat a little better and to diminish the atmosphere of desperation that grips the place. Meanwhile, the United States continues to struggle with the dilemma of its aid for the Haitian army. The army is fragmented and corrupt, but it's also the only potential force for law and order.

When people are starving, when they fear the gunmen openly prowling the streets and when they have no hope for their children, they do not usually wait patiently for a November election, and they do not usually vote serenely and wisely. In most places and at most times throughout history, people in those circumstances have turned to a despot who will at least restore rudimentary order and put some bread on the table. As the anarchy increases, that prospect become increasingly likely in Haiti.