Jean-Claude Duvalier's hasty flight into exile has its precedents in Haitian politics. A generation ago Haiti was sedately ruled by an army officer named Paul Magloire until a decline in the economy -- largely owed to devastation of crops by Hurricane Hazel -- undermined his authority. On a December evening in 1956 Magloire and his wife were led to a plane and flown into exile. There was a period of rejoicing that turned into rioting, much like last month's outburst, and soon the country held a presidential election.

The winner was Francois Duvalier, who ruled with extreme brutality until his death 14 years later when, in the regal manner, his son Jean- Claude succeeded him. As in 1957, Haiti is now moving again toward a presidential election. But there is very little in the country's experience to suggest to Haitians that elections alone will lead to a better and more just government.

Within days of Haiti's revolution last month, it was overshadowed by the events in the Philippines, more dramatic and involving a country of much more urgent strategic interest to the United States. There is already a habit forming here in Washington of considering the two countries together, as similar cases with similar requirements. But Haiti and the Philippines are very different places.

Haiti has always been afflicted by internal divisions that led to rule by the sword and gun. There's a long history of tension between the mulattoes who comprise most of the country's small educated elite and the blacks of whom the great majority are, or until recently were, peasant farmers. In the terms of that division, Francois Duvalier represented the black populist movement.

One crucial change from the 1950s has been the shift of the peasant population from the stripped and impoverished countryside into the overcrowded cities. With unemployment very high there, one consequence was the stream of desperate people attempting to make their way by small boats across the open sea to Florida. That route of escape was closed by the U.S. Coast Guard in late 1981, further raising social pressures in the Haitian cities. That, at least one Haitian politician argues, indirectly contributed to the discontent that eventually led to the expulsion of Duvalier.

While Duvalier is gone, widespread suspicion of the present government remains. The present government, after all, is made up predominantly of people who were close to Duvalier and who held office under him. Some Haitians go farther to argue that, while the United States was happy to see Duvalier pushed out, it will continue to support the existing social structure and the small elite that continues to control most of the country's wealth.

That accusation is probably correct in the sense that American aid gives priority to economic development for a country as a whole, rather than to income equalization. For Haiti any rational development strategy will have to try to attract as much foreign investment as possible, and to persuade some of Haiti's expatriate middle class to return. That's not consistent with any very heavy emphasis on equalization.

But the beginnings of a stronger economy are already visible. In an illuminating monograph, Ernest H. Preeg, who was the American ambassador there in the early 1980s, points out that Haiti has been moving away from total dependence on agricultural commodities for its foreign earnings. By 1983, manufactured goods were half of its exports. That implies not only more stable foreign income but important social movement as well, as the commercial middle class grows. The most rapid expansion has been in what are called the assembly industries -- plants that use Haitian labor to assemble components produced elsewhere, re-exporting the finished products. Mr. Preeg counted about 200 companies in that business, of which about 80, he said, were wholly owned by Haitians. Another 60 or so included Haitians as part owners.

The assembly industries illustrate one advantage of being only a short distance from the United States. But there is a corresponding disadvantage. A great many Haitians have friends and relatives in the United States, and know a lot about wage levels and social benefits here. The wages in Haitian assembly plants are $3 or $4 a day. That's several times the going wage in rural Haiti for those fortunate enough to find any work at all. But a lot of Haitians also know that $3 is below the minimum wage for an hour's work in the United States. The anxiety to find steady work at any wage in Haiti does not necessarily obliterate the resentment of the far higher wages in Florida. It's a constant source of irritation in the politics of Haiti and, for that matter, of the whole Caribbean.

With trade, development aid and competent government, Haiti could grow rapidly. It is not an inherently poor country. In the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with it, the average income per capita is four times as great as in Haiti. But competent government, stable and reliable, is not easily achieved in a country that has hardly ever known it. Rising employment would immensely strengthen the prospect for it. But economic development moves slowly, while political passions can rise very fast.