THE DEMONSTRATIONS in Haiti against the present dictatorship are reported to be spreading. The sooner the dictatorship is forced out of power, the better for Haiti. Nowhere in the Western Hemisphere is there a government more corrupt and more cruel. Nowhere in the hemisphere is there a government that, by its own greed and incompetence, has perpetuated so deep and hopeless a degree of poverty among its people.

The immediate cause of the current demonstrations was evidently the death of three young people shot by soldiers, or perhaps police, in Cap Haitien. In response the Catholic archbishop, Francois Gayot, publicly denounced this "brutal and blind repression." The Catholic Church has taken on the role of chief spokesman for human rights in Haiti at some risk, for even the church's immunity is not absolute. The government forced a Catholic radio station off the air last month, and earlier expelled several Belgian priests who had had the impertinence to question the referendum last July that by 99.98 percent of the vote (according to the government) had supposedly confirmed Jean-Claude Duvalier's presidency for life.

The Duvalier family has now ruled Haiti for 29 years, Jean-Claude having stepped into the office of president-for-life at the age of 19 on the day that his father, the notorious Papa Doc, died in 1971. The cost of the Duvalier regime to Haiti's unfortunate 6 million people is beyond reckoning. Even setting aside the routine and daily violation of their human and legal rights, you hardly begin to describe the conditions in which they live when you say that theirs is the poorest country in the hemisphere.

Incomes there are one-fourth the level in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with it, or in Jamaica, a close neighbor to the west. The infant mortality rate in Haiti is four times as high as in Jamaica, and the average life expectancy 15 years shorter. During three decades that have otherwise seen much social progress in the Caribbean, Haiti has lived under a regime that perpetuates ignorance and destitution as instruments of political control.

The courage of this week's demonstrators deserves admiration. The Duvalier family rules by the gun, and its armed squads have repeatedly opened fire on crowds. The shootings in Cap Haitien were not an isolated instance. Those in other countries who watch this growing resistance must hope for the sake of Haiti's people that the demonstrations are brief -- but that they succeed, at last, in liberating the country from the violent and degrading rule of the Duvaliers.