If you stumbled into this remote corner of Haiti and saw where he came from, you would understand why Louis Michel left.

You would understand why thousands of Haitians like Michel have risked their lives to cross the Caribbean in tiny boats to take the lowliest jobs in America.

I found Michel sweating in the hot fields of Immokalee, Fla., six months after he had borrowed $500 from his father-in-law and $1,400 from a loan shark and made the trip. The thin, 39-year-old man, once a $75-a-month schoolteacher, now picks grapefruit for the breakfast tables of America so that his wife and three children back home can survive.

He earns $25 a day, when he can find work, and lives in a tumbledown trailer with seven other exiles from Jean Rabel. All of them fled Haiti as much out of desperation as out of yearning for the immigrant's American dream.

This country may regard them as migrants, teetering on the lowest rung of America's economic ladder. But back home in their village, 700 miles southwest of Miami through the tricky Windward Passage -- the route some 20,000 Haitians took to Miami last year -- they are heroes. The women and children of Jean Rabel depend on thousands of men like Louis Michel to stay alive.

Haitian officials estimate that the 600,000 natives who have fled this impoverished dictatorship send upward of $100 million a year back home. That's twice the amount of cash the government earns from the dwindling coffee crop, its major export, and equal to 5 percent of the nation's gross national product.

"People are our most important export," said one Haitian official.

"Our job is to send money," the soft-spoken Michel says. He speaks in French, tossing grapefruit into a sack. "Go there and you will see why with your own eyes."

I flew to Port-au-Prince, the dirty, crowded capital, and drove north. After eight jolting hours by jeep, over mountains and rivers, down rocky roads meant only for goats, I found Michel's family where he had left them: inside a $6-a-month shack with a leaky tin roof and a dirt floor that turns to mud when it rains. His wife, Minisia, was hunched over a grim porridge of corn mush and peas, fighting off the flies, waiting for her husband's check in the mail. The children were sick.

For one month, she'd fed them a steady diet of the gruel. "I have no money for milk," she said. Her neighbor, Madame Pinase, had gone without any food at all for three days after more than a month of near-starvation. The bellies of her six children had started to puff out and their hair had become tinged a carrot color from malnutrition before she got her check from Miami.

"Everyone here would die of hunger if it weren't for the money from Miami," said Rene Moise, 22, a math teacher and secretary of the town council.

"If people here had a chance, everyone would leave," another resident said.

I've seen poverty in Latin America and the rural South, but I was ill-prepared for Haiti, where naked children with hunger in their eyes approach strangers, hands outstretched, and plead, "J'ai faim" ("I'm hungry").

Outside town, I drove past two farmers who were burying children under the age of 2. They described, through an interpreter, symptoms of malnutrition.

One child in five dies before the age of 4; 150 out of 1,000 children suffer from malnutrition, a figure that soars in the squalid ghettos of Port-au-Prince. A Haitian nutrition survey found only one out of four children properly nourished. An average Haitian can expect to live to the age of 47.

Six million Haitians live in an area smaller than the state of Maryland. Most scratch out a subsistence on one acre or less, to support an average family of six. They scalp the land of trees to burn and sell as charcoal; then erosion destroys the soil and cuts into the amount of arable land. Food production declines 2.5 percent a year. The country has no natural resources.

In the capital, the unemployment rate is above 50 percent. Those lucky enough to have jobs in some of the 200 foreign assembly plants earn 40 cents an hour. The average annual income is $260, but most Haitians make much less. Many don't make a cent.

Haiti's statistics rival those of the destitute nations of Africa, home of its slave founders who overthrew their French colonial rulers and chartered the first independent black nation in 1804. Illiteracy is the norm; one out of 1,000 students who begin first grade finishes high school. But in the rural outback of Jean Rabel, statistics are irrelevant to women like Minisia Michel.

She prays that her husband will strike it rich. Until then, she must live in a dank hovel that smells of sweat and charcoal. There are no screens on the windows to keep out mosquitoes in an area where malaria is rampant. She draws water from the river, a mile away, and uses the woods as a toilet.

The holes in her hut's thin walls are papered with pages from foreign magazines. There is a full-page solicitation from the Christian Children's Fund--"It Hurts to Go Hungry." Next to it is a food ad from Gourmet magazine.

Louis Michel had begun to build a new home on a nearby patch of land, but got only as far as a few timbers and a tin roof before he left to find work in Florida. His oldest son, Meternick, 6, stays home from school. Minisia doesn't have $60 for tuition, uniform and books.

"But I have hope," she says in Creole. "I believe Louis will do his best. He's sweet, gentle, kind and loyal. And he doesn't have other women."

She has cause for expectation. All around her, former thatched huts on the hillside gleam with new tin roofs that don't leak. Many sharecroppers have bought an acre or two. There are women like Susan Belizaire, 38, a former maid who lived with friends and fretted over two hungry children until her husband took the boat two years ago. Belizaire now owns her own hut and several chickens.

Her husband sends $600 every three months, Belizaire says, enough to feed, clothe and educate the children. There is money left over to buy seeds to plant and to keep her basket stocked with string, needles, buttons, soap, hairpins and cloves for resale at the market. She's a peasant-turned-entrepreneur.

"Life is getting better," Belizaire said. "If it weren't for the money, we'd have to work the land hard and rely on God alone for help." She is "happy" that her husband left Haiti, she added.

Her neighbors are jealous. "My son's been there one year and hasn't sent me anything," groused Agenia Senora, 42. "I need many things, a new house, a piece of land. He's sent his girlfriend money four times. And I'm the mother! You tell him to send money."

Haitians with relatives who cannot find jobs in America flock to Madame Eva, 40, the town mambo, or voodoo priestess, who does a booming business in good luck spells and takes her cut when the checks arrive.

Money orders from refugees like Louis Michel not only relieve the government of the burden of keeping its own people alive, but also provide a huge source of cash. Yet Haiti has agreed to try to stop its people from leaving, joining the United States in patrolling the coast to try to keep Haitians in Haiti.

Guy Mayer, deputy minister of information, said the government had decided to cooperate with the United States to foster good relations because it believed that money from future foreign aid would make up for any cash lost from refugee remittances. The dictatorship of Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, president for life, depends even more heavily on foreign aid than on money orders from abroad. Duvalier gets half his $300 million annual budget in handouts from friendly nations, much of it from the United States.

Government officials privately fear that without new industry and opportunity, strictures against the refugees could increase social pressures among its most frustrated at a time when Duvalier is said to be paranoid about plots against him.

Yet the government has done little for outback regions like Jean Rabel, foreign aid officials said. In Jean Rabel, a government irrigation project ground to a halt a year ago. A hospital in town has little more than adhesive bandages. There is no electricity, no telephone. The law is made by local Ton-Ton Macoutes, the thugs Duvalier's father and predecessor, Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier, used to keep his countrymen in line. The younger Duvalier renamed them the Volunteers for National Security.

I was repeatedly asked for papers to prove I was "authorized" to be there, and my Haitian interpreter was warned to "be careful." It was the Macoutes' way of asking for money, locals explained.

One foreign aid official familiar with the region said Macoutes appropriated crops, land and wives of refugees who had left.

"Jean Rabel is so isolated and politically unimportant, the government can just forget about it, and they do," said one American whose organization gives the region food and development aid.

Jean Rabel was once a lush valley full of banana plantations that provided plenty of work. Until World War II, Standard Fruit paid farmers 40 cents a stem for bananas. But the government canceled the contract with Standard Fruit after the war and awarded the concession to cronies with no capital to hire refrigerated ships. The bananas rotted and importers began buying from Central America.

With no market for bananas, farmers began cutting trees to sell as charcoal. Then came the droughts, one after another. When it rained, they ate. They found work in the Dominican Republic and in Cuba, cutting sugar cane. When those doors closed, they fled, first to the Bahamas in the 1960s, and now to the United States.

The State Department argues that most Haitians are "economic" refugees, fleeing poverty, not politics, and should be sent back. But Haitian activists insist there is no difference.

"When a Haitian says, 'I can't make a living; I can't feed my children,' that's a political statement," says Claude Charles, director of New Horizons Mental Health Center in Miami. "If he said it in Haiti, he would be arrested because it's critical of a government that controls everything and can't do anything about their condition."

So Jean Rabel residents take to the boats, joining upward of 1,000 from their town who pick fruit and vegetables in Immokalee. Dr. Jaques Lucas, 40, a Swiss-trained surgeon who came home to Haiti to practice as a country doctor, estimates that 15,000 out of 75,000 in this remote northwest region have left. Many sold everything--land, animals and future crops--or borrowed from relatives to get out. Some borrow from loan sharks at up to 100 percent interest. Louis Michel is paying back $2,400 on a $1,400 loan.

"It costs $1,500 to book passage to Miami," says Lucas. "Fathers, uncles, cousins, godfathers, all give something. It's like a lottery ticket. If he gets there alive and finds a job, he sends them all money, and everybody wins."

Money is wired back through private companies or the Central Bank, or mailed as money orders. Dozens here say postal money orders mailed from the United States have been stolen from their letters reaching Haiti. Louis Michel showed me a postal money order receipt for $435. His wife showed me the letter referring to it. The money order was missing.

To protect his people, Father Jean Marie Vincent, a Catholic priest and a Haitian, has become a bag man. In September, he flew to Miami and 40 exiles from Jean Rabel pressed $7,000 on him to take home to their families. On an earlier trip, he took back $22,000. He marks it down in his book and hands it out back home.

"Everyone in town has someone in Miami," he says. "People believe there is money and work for everyone, that Miami is the promised land, full of milk and honey. I try to tell them, 'There is unemployment in Miami. They immigration officials will put you in jail.' But even now, they still hope to go there. Miami is a dream."

I traveled east from Jean Rabel, toward Port de Paix, a city notorious for refugee smugglers. I drove a jeep along the same route Louis Michel took to join his cousin, Amones Joseph, in the migrant fields of Florida.

The jeep slogged through miles of mud, past treeless hillsides, then came to a halt. There was no way around a stretch of muck except through a farmer's scraggly corn patch. I asked for permission to cross it. He howled in Creole that I would ruin his crop. I gave him $1. He beamed and invited me to tear up the field.

"When you live in the conditions we live in, you don't see death anymore," said Mimose Joseph. She was explaining why her husband, Ednar, who survived the October shipwreck off Miami in which 33 Haitians drowned, had traveled in such a flimsy craft.

Along the way I found one farmer who didn't want to go to Miami, Desius Joseph, 45. He trekked along the road chanting a song of mourning, a tiny wooden casket on his shoulder. He was going to bury his son, Prospect, age 2. He said a doctor had diagnosed malnutrition and had written out a prescription.

"But I didn't have money for medicine, so I took him home and watched him die," he said. "I grow mangos and millet but what I grow isn't enough to feed my children. They cry, 'Pappy, I'm hungry.' I tell them, 'I don't have any work. God will provide.' Then I ask God for food and go to sleep. I can't do anything."

He has fathered 20 children by two wives. Three children died.

"I love my children," he said. "If I had left for Miami, all would have died. Who would feed them?" CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, Louis Michel, one of thousands who have fled Haiti for south Florida, now picks grapefruit for $25 a day so that he can send money to feed his wife and three children, who remained in remote village of Jean Rabel; Picture 3, Desius Joseph carries casket bearing body of his son, Prospect, who died at 2 of malnutrition, as have two other of his children; Picture 4, Savius Moram stands in a field near Jean Rabel where only stumps remain; villagers cut the trees to turn into charcoal and sell. Photos by Art Harris -- The Washington Post; Map, no caption, By Richard Furno -- The Washington Post