RESTORING DEMOCRACY to a nation that has never known it will no doubt be a difficult task. Bringing economic stability and public health to a country where human blood -- 500 tons a month -- is a significant export and missionary organizations outnumber western-trained physicians will be far more complicated. Regenerating the forests and rivers, the eroded slopes and poisoned seas, is perhaps the most complex assignment of all. In 1915, when the U.S. Marines last invaded Haiti, 80 percent of the mountainous nation was covered by the richest forest of the Greater Antilles. Today forest cover is less than 5 percent. Almost half the land in Haiti is under cultivation. Only 11 percent is considered arable. Farmers sow seeds on fields of stones.

These are the challenges that must be addressed whether U.S.-led forces arrive as ousters of Haiti's military leaders or as peacekeepers after their voluntary departure. All will be infinitely more difficult if we do not understand the character, structure and contradictions of Haitian society and history. Any policy that concentrates on merely replacing the de facto leadership with the duly elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide is unlikely to succeed.

First a cautionary note. Invasions of Haiti have always been relatively painless. Occupations have not. The British tried to take Haiti soon after the 1791 slave uprising and sacrificed more men than Wellington would lose in the Peninsular campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1801 Napoleon himself dispatched the largest expeditionary force ever to have sailed from France. Its mission was to pass by Haiti, quell the noxious slave revolt, proceed up the Mississippi, hem in the expanding United States and reestablish French hegemony on a continent which only 30 years before had become British North America. Needless to say the French never saw Louisiana. Within a year their commander was dead and 32,000 troops had become casualties on the shores of Haiti.

When the United States occupied Haiti between 1915 and 1934, Haitian leader Charlemagne Peralte invoked the spirits of the Vodoun pantheon and inspired the Caco rebellion which, according to Haitian historian Roger Gaillard, ultimately resulted in 15,000 dead. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy, saw to it that Maj. Smedley Butler received the Congressional Medal of Honor for a skirmish in which no prisoners were taken, 200 Haitian rebels were killed and one Marine was struck by a rock and lost two teeth. His men, Butler later recalled, had "hunted the Cacos like pigs." As far as negotiating with the rebels, the Marine commander Col. L.W.T. Waller was on record as refusing to go "bowing and scraping to these coons." Elsewhere he expressed more such feelings about his Haitian counterparts.

These sentiments did not go unnoticed by a group of Haitian intellectuals that included a young Francois Duvalier. A physician and published ethnologist, Duvalier and his peers responded to the humiliation of American occupation by espousing a new nationalism that openly acknowledged the African roots of the Haitian people. At a time when Vodoun cult objects were being destroyed, and peasants forced to swear loyalty to the Catholic church, Duvalier accepted Vodoun as a legitimate religion of the people. In the 1957 election that brought him to power, he actively courted the support of Vodoun priests, and in certain parts of the country Vodoun temples served as his campaign headquarters. A year before his election, ritual drums were being burned. A year later a Vodoun priest was serving in the national cabinet, and Vodoun ceremonies were being held in the basement of the Presidential Palace.

Duvalier exploited a historic schism in Haitian society. In the wake of the revolution a blanket of isolation had fallen upon the country. Internationally Haiti was a pariah, for a century the only independent and free black nation on earth. Internally another form of isolation occurred. As the colonial infrastructure broke down, it heightened an emerging cultural break between the two halves of the Haitian reality -- the rural peasants and the urban elite. The former were ex-slaves; the latter, in part, the descendants of a special class of free mulattos who during the colonial era had enjoyed both great wealth and all the rights of French citizenship, including the ignoble right to own slaves. After independence, the obvious differences between these two groups crystallized into a profound separation that went far deeper than class lines.

The urban elite -- perhaps 5 percent of the population -- looked to Europe for inspiration. They spoke French, were Roman Catholic, and lived by rules invented in Paris. In the hinterland the ex-slaves created an utterly different society based on their own ancestral traditions. Typically the rural peasants thought of themselves as ti guinin -- Children of Guinee, of Africa, their ancient homeland, a place that slowly had drifted from history into the realm of myth. And, in time, what had been the collective memory of an entire disenfranchised people became the ethos of new generations and the foundation of a distinct and persistent culture, at the root of which is the Vodoun faith.

Vodoun, of course, is not a black magic cult. It is a complex mystical world view, the distillation of profound African ideas concerning the relationships among man, nature and the supernatural forces of the universe. Like all religions, it fuses the unknown to the known, creates order out of chaos, renders the mysterious intelligible. Vodoun not only embodies a set of religious concepts, it prescribes a way of life, a philosophy and code of ethics that regulate social behavior. Just as one can speak of a Christian or an Islamic society, so one can refer to a Vodoun society, and within that world one finds completeness -- a distinct language, a complex system of traditional medicine, art and music inspired by African antecedents, education based on the oral transmission of songs and folklore, a system of justice derived from indigenous principles of conduct and morality.

Until the turn of this century most references to Vodoun merely acknowledged its role as a catalyst in the uprising that led to the Haitian revolution. The entire notion of Vodoun as something evil and macabre emerged to a great extent after 1915 when the Marines occupied Haiti and everybody above the rank of sergeant landed a book contract. These books, with titles such as "Cannibal Cousins," "Black Baghdad," "A Puritan in Voodooland," "Voodoo Fire in Haiti," "The Magic Island," "The White King of La Gonave," were mostly about pins and needles in "voodoo dolls," children bred for the cauldron, and zombies crawling out of the grave to attack people. To the American people, the lesson was clear: Any country where such abominations occurred could only find its redemption through military occupation.

Francois Duvalier saw in Vodoun a far different potential, a power base that reached into every hamlet of the nation. He despised the mulatto elite, deeply resented the United States, distrusted the army. Following the first of a series of anti-Duvalier invasions and coup attempts in July 1959, he established a civilian militia, the Volunteers for the National Security, an auxiliary force ostensibly formed to assist the army in times of national emergency but in practice destined to be the personal militia of the dictator.

To establish the Ton Ton Macoutes, Duvalier turned to the traditional culture, and especially the membership of the secret societies, the paramilitary groups associated with the Vodoun temples. According to Haitian sociologist Michel Laguerre it became "almost impossible for one to be an influential voodoo priest without being a Ton Ton Macoute or for a voodoo church to be successful without being headed by a priest-TonTon Macoute."

The degree to which Duvalier succeeded in penetrating and exploiting the traditional Vodoun society is best exemplified in his manipulation of the appointments of the heads of the sections rurales, the most basic level of the national government. Significantly, these sections rurales, within which dwell 80 percent of the Haitian population, do not correspond with communities or villages. They are simply lines drawn on a map, administrative units delineated for the sake of governance. In other words, the institutions of the central government do not recognize in any juridical sense the actual communities in which the vast majority of rural Haitians live and die.

To reach these people the national authorities depend on one man, the chef de section, an appointee from within the section rurale who is expected to establish networks of contacts that will place his eyes and ears in every lakou, or family compound, under his jurisdiction. Although the chef de section receives his authority from the central government, the basis of his power is not his official status so much as the consensus of section residents. The chef de section can be helpless without popular support, and historically efforts to place outsiders in the position -- most notably when U.S. occupation forces attempted to replace Vodounists with literate Protestants -- have always failed.

Under the Duvalier regime the section chiefs were almost invariably prominent Vodoun priests or leaders of secret societies, hand-picked by the self-proclaimed "president for life." In creating the Tonton Macoute and securing the personal loyalty of the traditional Vodoun leaders, Duvalier weakened the army and consolidated his rule. Over the next decades, however, lines of authority between these various institutions became increasingly indistinct, especially in rural areas.

Local military commanders, officially responsible for selecting the section chiefs, often found themselves on the payroll of their appointees. The informal assistants of some section chiefs came to number in the hundreds, small militias in their own right. Men who wore the blue denim of the Tonton by night, shifted to military khaki by day. At the lower echelons of the army it became difficult to tell who was, and who was not enlisted. Indeed estimates of the size of the Haitian army even today vary from 7,000 to 14,000 depending on whether various unauthorized individuals and hangers on are counted.

In returning to Haiti, Aristide will be struggling against the weight of 200 years of Haitian history to create a democratic state. One of his first steps will be an attempt to dismantle and reform the system of section chiefs, an initiative already begun in the months following his inauguration on Feb. 7, 1991. In doing so Aristide will be confronting representatives of the Vodoun society, a spiritual world and culture with which he has gone out of his way to express understanding. There is no evidence he is uncomfortable with the traditional faith.

Haiti embodies contradictions and as they say, the country is 90 percent Catholic and 100 percent Vodoun. The problem is that over the last 30 years the Vodoun society has become completely entwined with the political power of the state. One legacy is the vast cadre of former Tonton, officers of the secret societies, low ranked members of the military who have been nurtured on corruption and sustained by graft. These are the forces arrayed against Aristide. This is the other Haiti that awaits the American troops. As Michel Laguerre has cautioned, "most of the weapons -- revolvers and rifles -- they acquired as Tonton Macoutes have not been taken away from them. They are more equipped than ever to protect their own interests and those of their respective communities."

Wade Davis is an anthropologist and author of two books about Haiti, including "The Serpent and the Rainbow."