A TYPICAL image of Haiti in these days of political turmoil is that of poor black villagers fleeing persecution, or setting off on leaky boats toward Miami. Less visible is the predominantly white and mulatto elite, the people with walkie talkies and guns in their jeeps who gingerly venture through the capital to buy their black-market cache of fuel. Although the international embargo and a U.S. threat of freezing visas and Haitian assets abroad has yet to seriously affect the island's traditional ruling minority, they have focused renewed attention on its role in Haiti's deepening crisis.

To outside observers, Haiti's wealthy class appears united with the military officers who overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in a 1991 coup. But that surface unity masks a deeper discomfort with the brutality of the coup leaders and the ex-Ton-Tons Macoutes death squads with whom they are allied. Recently, I spoke to a number of longtime acquaintances in the elite who havefled to Miami or who remain in Haiti. Without exception, they feel trapped and frightened for their physical safely and their houses and property. They are as worried about violence and looting by lawless soldiers as they are of the anger of the poor. "Aristide is worth nothing," says one owner of an import-export business. "But this army is completely corrupt. What are we going to do?"

Post-coup, the rich have lost money and continue to do so, unable to properly conduct business in a climate marked by eight-hour electricity blackouts and severe gas shortages, where employees are going hungry and cannot find a ride to work. While the major industrial players have temporarily transferred their Haitian holdings elsewhere, local companies have been forced to close shop.

For the most part, the elite remain scathing in their opposition to Aristide. They tend to personalize his vision of an egalitarian Haiti. "Why does he hate us -- because we're rich?" is a familiar litany. Those who privately support Aristide or the concept of negotiation underlying the Governor's Island accord are now too intimidated to speak out. Others are apolitical, deriding all the hommes politiques.

Yet even the elite express shock at the recent assassination of respected lawyer Guy Malary by junta supporters in front of foreign diplomats and reporters. "Poor Guy -- he wasn't even involved," a businesswoman remarks, adding, "It makes us wonder if we'll be next."

Although Malary was Aristide's minister of justice, he was also "a friend of the family," as one assembly factory owner puts it -- "one of us." Malary's murder follows the earlier slaying of another member of the upper classes -- Antoine Izmery, a wealthy businessman and ardent Aristide supporter -- by paramilitary forces. Both men were on a death list, as is Jean-Claude Bajeux, a mulatto human rights leader now in hiding. Although they are viewed as traitors to their class, they are also admired for their bravery. The same holds for mulatto Prime Minister Robert Malval, who, in the face of daily death threats, has decried the lack of true statesmen in Haiti and challenged his peers to back him.

Today, the "us versus them" siege mentality of the Haitian elite is comparable to the Afrikaners in South Africa, a defensive and racist post-colonial state of mind that sees not only its livelihood, but its very identity, threatened. Like the Boers, Haiti's elite are big fish in a little pond, and their sense of self derives from being on top. Aristide's claim to power is an affront. "That little man has the audacity to tell us what to do," goes another familiar refrain. "How dare he?"

When the elite look into a future with Aristide in power, they see themselves disappearing. They have trouble envisioning an integrated Haiti. Theirs is a deprivation mentality; if the pie grows for the poor, it will shrink for the rich. Worse, they project onto Aristide the collective sense of guilt they feel, knowing they have -- silently or willingly -- contributed to the bloodbath in Haiti. Aristide makes them rabid because he has tapped into an unconscious emotion, an ancient feeling of belonging yet being rejected, being Haitian by birth yet alienated by privilege, education and skin color from the masses.

In the post-colonial psychology of the elite, such questions surface but are pushed aside. It is easier -- certainly safer -- to remain silent than to support childhood friends who have spoken out, been arrested or seek haven, than to risk one's identity and sense of place.

But is it? By siding with the thugs, the elite have actually contributed to their worst nightmare. The chasm dividing rich and poor is assuming racial overtones. It is fueling, not diminishing, the wrath of the poor. Because of the embargo, a thriving black market has sprung up, controlled by the military, that undercuts legitimate businesses. The coup leaders have also made quick fortunes in drug trafficking, inviting criminal elements to Haiti. Finally, the notorious Ton-Tons Macoutes -- the brutal goon squad of "Papa Doc" Duvalier -- are back in power, a predominantly black group as unafraid of the elite as they are of anyone else.

It is in the face of such a bleak future that Prime Minister Malval has issued his challenge to the elite: Step forward. Become statesmen. Take a moral stand. For the elite, this would mean overcoming the psychological vestiges of racism, couched in class terms. It would mean confronting relatives and friends and demanding that they support -- if not publicly, at least privately -- leaders like Malval and Bajeux whose lives are at risk. And perhaps more than anything else, it would mean looking into the mirror and seeing a reflection not of guns and walkie- talkies, embargoes and lynching, but of one's own courage, humanity and willingness to change.

While such steps are not easy, they are within reach, as South Africa and the steady dismantling of apartheid there has proved. If they are not taken, the Haitian elite will continue to bear tacit responsibility for the murder of their countrymen and the spiraling decline of their homeland.

Anne-christine d'Adesky is a journalist of French and Haitian descent and author of a forthcoming novel about Haiti, "Under The Bone" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).