HAITI'S ELECTION, peaceful and fair, is a triumphant beginning of a new era in its history. Until now Haitians have known little but alternating despotism and chaos, while the country sank more deeply into poverty. It's not hard to understand the spirit of celebration that has followed the voting.

But it's also a time of tension in Haiti. The winning candidate for president, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, is a fiery speaker who stands far to the left and whose following is chiefly among the very poor. He has said more than enough to frighten Haiti's small middle class, some of whom were supporters of the Duvalier dictatorship. Over the years there have been several attempts to assassinate Father Aristide. As in all countries emerging from despotism, it will not be easy to carry out a post-election reconciliation of old adversaries.

The voters also have elected a national legislature and dozens of local officials. The results of these elections are coming in slowly. Barely one percent of even the presidential vote has yet been officially counted. It seems fairly safe to say that Father Aristide has won heavily, since that one percent -- as well as all the unofficial surveys -- suggest that he outran the nearest contender by perhaps five to one. But so far it's impossible to guess what kind of a legislature, or who at the local level, the new president will have to work with. He is something of a loner, and whether any clear party strength will emerge from the returns is still unknown -- much less whether it will support or oppose him. Yet among his followers Father Aristide has raised great hopes for a better life, while the government he inherits has fewer resources than any other in the Western Hemisphere to fulfill them.

That's where the United States comes in. To protest past assaults on democracy in Haiti, the United States has cut its aid back to the thinnest of trickles. Now that genuine elections have been held, this country has an obligation to provide a substantial increase. Haitian need is sufficiently great that a modest -- by American standards -- amount of money can do a great deal to deflect the dangerous antagonism between the very poor and less-poor that otherwise lies ahead.

The United States is sending aid to Eastern Europe to support new democracies there. For the same reason it now has a responsibility to help a country, only a few hundred miles from this one, where infant mortality is 10 times the American rate, where most of the population is illiterate and lives at the edge of starvation, but where the people now at last have a democratically elected government.