"PAPA DOC" Duvalier is dead and his son "Baby Doc" in exile, but elements of the gangster force, the Ton-tons Macoutes, by which they long misruled Haiti have lingered on. Here lies the significance of the coup launched last Sunday by Baby Doc's former interior minister, Roger Lafontant. Barred by his Duvalier past from running for president, he nonetheless had returned to the island to find a way back into power. The provisional president, Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, did not feel confident enough to arrest him for alleged crimes of political violence, but the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was elected on Dec. 16, had promised to do so when he takes office on Feb. 7. To preempt the priest, Dr. Lafontant rallied a small band and seized the palace Sunday night. What happened then amounts to the best news for democracy in Haiti in decades.

Dr. Lafontant, an obstetrician, claimed the December elections had been fraudulent. Such a claim might have won some credence in years past. But the December elections had been closely monitored and then certified by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and other organizations in the hemisphere, and so this pretense quickly collapsed, revealing the coup as nothing more than the crude power grab it obviously was.

The Haitian army command, meanwhile, swung decisively to the side of the provisional president and the president-elect: to the side of democracy. In a matter of hours the coup makers had been rolled up. Some ugly and uncontrolled street violence followed against Ton-tons Macoutes and suspected Duvalierists in the Catholic Church. Nonetheless, in a country long known for military intervention and contempt for democracy, the army came through when it counted. It was a kind of second election in the most trying circumstances. In this one only the army "voted," and it came through with flying colors.

If this failed coup was in fact the Duvaliers' last hurrah, then that leaves Haiti still laboring under immense burdens. The Ton-tons Macoutes may have been reduced, but the structures and habits of democratic government remain to be built, and Haiti remains the poorest country in the hemisphere. The United States gave timely encouragement to the democratic forces during the coup period and must be prepared to play a substantial part in the country's revival as Father Aristide takes legal power.