What tourists see when they walk off the Caribbean cruise liners here is hardly a scene from a travel poster. There are naked children running about a squalid shanty-town just off the pier, crippled beggars pleading for pennies, women scrubbing clothes in gutters awash with open sewage.

It is, concedes John Marafi, "too much of an absolute downer."

Marafi, 43, is a New York public relations man whose job is to lure tourists back to this patch of Caribbean, where the "paradise" image has been badly damaged by headlines about thousands of boat people fleeing poverty and political repression. One major cruise ship line dropped Haiti from its ports of call.

"The tourists weren't prepared for the poverty, the density of people," Marafi said over champagne and caviar at a government reception in a luxury hotel high above the squalor. "Not that they felt bad about it. But it's not Aruba, or St. Croix, where tourists are met by steel bands."

Under pressure from the United States to stop illegal immigration of its people, Haiti has agreed to attack the social and economic problems that have sent more than 20,000 packing in small boats to Miami. One of the best ways, it has decided, is to polish its image.

In a year of financial disaster for Haiti, the ministry of information and public relations is getting a big budget increase, along with the office of the president and the interior ministry, which handles the military. The education ministry did get to hire a few more teachers in a country with the highest illiteracy rate in the hemisphere.

The budgetary choices illustrate the quandary in which the government of Haiti finds itself. Officials say publicly that the thousands who find a way out are their most industrious people, people they want to keep and can ill afford to lose. But privately they concede the exodus also includes their most frustrated, providing a welcome relief from population and social pressures.

And the bottom line is that boat people provide a critical source of foreign exchange--$100 million a year in money orders from refugees.

"The government would be crazy not to want them to go to Miami," said an influential Port au Prince businessman.

"We depend on this money," said another, an exporter of baseballs stitched here. "To get it, our people are outrageously exploited in the States, but they send it to their families and it helps the economy. If they stop this money, the people will suffer. The government should know that."

But Haiti's agreement to cut off the flow of boat people has economics at its base as well.

Guy Mayer, deputy minister of information, said in an interview that the government figured to receive more money in future foreign aid by cooperating to keep boat people at home than it stood to lose in money orders from grapefruit pickers in Florida.

Haiti is a nation surviving on handouts. Foreign aid cures disease, feeds and educates children, irrigates fields, builds roads, digs wells and ditches, pays salaries.

In 1981, Haiti received almost half its $300 million national budget in foreign aid, gifts and loans. Foreign aid supplied almost two-thirds of its development funds.

The United States, its biggest benefactor, says it will double development aid to $15 million in 1982, but tied the offer to a crackdown against boat people.

To get the money, Haiti must also stop government officials from profiteering from refugee trafficking, cooperate in new development assistance programs in forgotten areas such as the rural northwest region of Jean Rabel and refrain from human rights violations.

"The Haitian government cannot be allowed to solve its internal problems by encouraging illegal immigration to southern Florida rather than instituting reforms in Haiti," said the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

To help resurrect the tourist trade, a desperately needed industry in a nation with no natural resources other than its tropical climate and beaches, Marafi's image machine got a modest $1 million to court travel agents.

And government officials are pitching Haiti's attributes to foreign investors: its government is "stable"--it is a dictatorship, with Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier as president for life. Its streets are relatively crime-free; its work force is cheap ($2.60 a day) and abundant. There is no such thing as labor unrest, officials emphasize.

Many officials are aware that something must be done to get at the root of the problems that fuel the exodus of boat people, especially now that a government crackdown and U.S. Coast Guard patrols are helping keep its most frustrated locked on an impoverished island with no future. But where to begin?

"We need jobs from activities that are labor-intensive," said Interior Minister Edouard Berrouet in an interview. "There are 1.5 million people unemployed, most of them in agriculture, and Jean-Claude Duvalier can't give jobs to them all. They struggle to live, then they go to Miami to find good jobs and send money back to their families.

"How did you populate America? With immigrants. It's the tendency of human beings to migrate to better lives."

"In the last five years, I've lost a bartender, two maids, a seamstress, a laundress," said one Port au Prince hotel owner. "I had a cook. She left. A mason. He left. A plumber. He left. An electrician. He left. Not everyone goes just because they're starving. People learn the least little thing and they want to go to America where they think they can get ahead."

At least half the people in the capital of Port au Prince are unemployed and eager for work, and every day the population swells with more poor farmers who have abandoned tiny plots of bananas, mangos and coffee because the land does not produce enough to support their families.

Every year, food production declines 2.5 percent, while population increases almost as much. The country needs at least 30,000 new jobs a year just to maintain its dreary employment posture, say officials.

For those reasons, officials are anxious to please visiting businessmen looking for opportunity. A group from Florida, a refugee-beleaguered state that has become a victim of its geography, were toasted at champagne receptions and whisked about in government limousines.

They were impressed by the cheap labor, but stunned by the lack of credit available to local business. Banking law doesn't allow for mortgages. One Haitian builder said things were so desperate he would take three cows for a tiny house of pre-fabricated concrete.

"This place is not clean-scrubbed," says Marafi. "But it's real. And our research shows that those who take time to look beyond the poverty are thrilled with Haiti. It's a gentle place, inexpensive, undiscovered. The more time you spend here, the more you like it."

His solution: spend millions to advertise. "Advertising can overcome bad press," he says.

Before their ships tie up, Marafi suggests, tourists should be fortified with films about the facts of life here. The films would touch on the poverty, the bloody history, the natural beauty. Then the tourists would be whisked away from their ship in air-conditioned buses before they glimpse the sights.

"We've advised the government to extend the cocoon of the ship by taking them away in buses," he says.

Marafi's ad campaign aims to divorce Haiti's tourism from its politics, taking cues from the strategy he used to boost Spain's tourism under the fascist government of Franco.

"I'm trying to turn around a country that is in the depths of disaster and that's a challenge," he says.

His pitch, he says, won't mention the fact that last year the government booted out 26 journalists after they tried to report on local social and economic conditions and government corruption that foreign aid experts say remains pervasive at every level. It is illegal for the press to insult the president, his mother and other Haitian authorities.

One journalist, Sylvio Claude, was sentenced to 15 years hard labor after his magazine published a negative cartoon of Duvalier.

Nor will Marafi's brochures mention the findings of a Miami federal judge last year who concluded that not all boat people were fleeing economic conditions, as the State Department maintains, but had ample reason to fear the Duvalier government.

U.S. District Court Judge James King cited "substantial" evidence that "upon their return to Haiti, persons whom the Haitian government views as political opponents will be mistreated. Persons who have fled Haiti and sought asylum elsewhere are seen as opponents of the Duvalier regime. They are imprisoned and persecuted. Of those allowed to return home, many more are later imprisoned and persecuted."

A 1979 State Department study team interviewed returnees in Haiti, some within earshot of local officials, and found no pattern of abuse. King dismissed their report as "unworthy of belief."

The government overturned his ruling on appeal, but the deportation issue is still in the courts.

To dispel reports of government mistreatment of returning boat people, Interior Minister Berrouet welcomed home a group of bedraggled refugees before network TV cameras. The Haitians had asked to come back after long waits in a Fort Allen, Puerto Rico, detention camp.

"The Duvaliers are not sadistic," says Berrouet. "No intelligent government would afflict its own people. Returnees are not mistreated. We are sad to see them go and happy to see them come back."

Nevertheless, Congress admonished Haiti in the 1982 foreign aid bill to observe "basic human rights," citing a critical 1980 State Department report detailing "arbitrary arrests, expulsions, cruel and inhuman treatment of prisoners and the regular suspension of civil and constitutional rights."

Moreover, it said, "the forced exile of journalists and others working for changes in Haiti has emphasized the perception that the Haitian government is reluctant to institute policies which are necessary to improve the quality of life of the Haitian poor."

Several U.S. officials here emphasized that the climate of repression had greatly improved since the reign of terror under Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier, Jean-Claude's father.

"The question is, 'What is the degree of repression?' " said U.S. Ambassador Ernest H. Preeg. "We're very aware of gross violations of human rights. We monitor it and that is not happening here. It's tragic that babies are dying, but at least, unlike other countries in the Caribbean, they're not torturing and shooting people."

Private voluntary organizations such as CARE, which feeds 300,000 children, have enjoyed limited success with such development projects as giving food to workers who build roads.

But aid officials here recommend that money not be given directly to the government because it has no infrastructure to absorb it. Also, funds have a tendency to disappear, they say.

U.S. officials say that some of the food Haiti receives may be sold by foreign governments under certain conditions. But one U.S. official conceded that sacks of flour and grain from $27 million worth of U.S. aid shipments sometimes wind up for sale in markets all over Haiti.

The sacks are stamped in 13 languages: "Gift of the People of the United States. Not to be Sold or Exchanged."

One charitable agency director reported that a high Haitian official pressured him to funnel a portion of his organization's U.S. aid supplies through him. The charity official refused.

"Donor nations have spent an inordinate amount of time watching every penny, thrashing out every detail," said one foreign aid expert. "But if we pull out, there's no other structure to take over. It's a vacuum."

"Haitian government corruption and insensitivity to the plight of the average Haitian are pervasive," said a House Foreign Affairs Committee staff report in May. "This impedes U.S. aid programs and those of other donors from achieving many of their objectives."

Said one U.S. embassy source about the allegations of corruption: "I don't know how rich a country has to be to be moral, but Haiti is a long way from it."

Haiti's image was also tarnished last spring by the disappearance of $20 million in stand-by credit with the International Monetary Fund.

"We doubt most of the money went into the pockets of officials," said one American who tracked the transaction. "But it was used to invest in sugar refineries and a fishing fleet, projects everyone recommended against because they weren't considered viable."

Somehow, the Haitian government also managed to lose $2.4 million out of $11 million worth of Mexican crude obtained in April.

American officials who pieced the story together say Haiti assumed it would pay less than $11 million for the oil under the San Jose Accords, a new series of agreements between Mexico and certain Caribbean nations. The accords would have given Haiti a 30 percent price concession for Mexican oil to be used in development projects.

American officials say two middlemen, one alleged to be President Duvalier's father-in-law, obtained the crude from Mexico, then had it refined in Curacao into No. 2 fuel oil. The idea was to turn a profit and pocket the difference, say the officials, but the middlemen miscalculated the market and got caught in a price squeeze.

Because of a glut on the market, the fuel oil was worth only $8.6 million at the time, which still would have produced a profit given the price break Haiti expected to get on the crude.

But then Mexico discovered that Haiti hadn't yet signed the San Jose Accords and wasn't eligible for the concessions. It billed Haiti for the full $11 million.

"Everyone's been pointing fingers, but even the middlemen didn't make money," says one source. "Everyone got duped."

The refined product was then sold to an American firm, Sun Oil Co. It never reached Haiti.

To conform to some accounting principles, Haiti plans to put its budget on a fiscal system next year, instead of dumping much of its budget pell-mell into the Regis du Tabac account, through which President Duvalier has reportedly funneled much of the family wealth as well as monies for his "Ton Ton Macoutes," or Volunteers for National Security, as they are now called.

The fatalism of the peasant masses also shares the blame for the difficulty of getting development projects off the ground here.

Ruggedly independent, they cling to the land, believing that God, not President Duvalier, makes it all happen. Some talk of Duvalier's generosity at Christmas time, when he races through the streets in his limousine, throwing money to the poor.

Haitians remain distrustful of outsiders, the central government and new tools and fertilizers that would improve their lot.

"Everyone gets tired of hearing, 'It takes time,' " says one AID field worker. "But by God, in Haiti it does."