ONCE AGAIN a Haitian general has proclaimed himself president, and with that his country lurches back into an unhappily familiar pattern. Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy was previously president of the six-man council that had been running Haiti following the flight of President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier last month. Now Gen. Namphy has evidently decided that things will move more briskly with fewer people at the top. He has proclaimed himself president of a new council, to consist of himself and two subordinates. In this reorganization Gen. Namphy has dropped several people who had been particularly close to the Duvalier regime. But he has also dropped Gerard Gourgue, the head of the Haitian League of Human Rights and the only outspoken critic of the Duvaliers among the six. The chief difference is that a committee has now been replaced by something that looks very much like a military command.

The United States bears a clear responsibility to do what it can to steer Haiti toward a better future than its tragic history implies. The American influence in Haiti is great, and the Haitian need for economic aid is urgent. There is still an opportunity to achieve something better than another authoritarian government that stuffs into foreign banks accounts the money desperately needed for roads, clinics and schools.

This latest reorganization seems to have been precipitated by the continuing inability of the committee of six to maintain order and establish a reliable rule of day-to-day government. Having forced out the detested Duvaliers, the people who were in the street demonstrations now -- understandably -- want to see some immediate and tangible improvement in their lives. Their hopes are unrealistic, you could say, but hope is an essential ingredient of any kind of democratic politics, and wise governments nourish it.

The United States has begun to allow aid to flow to Haiti, citing the past month's improvement in the observation of human rights. That's entirely proper. But it needs to be made clear to Gen. Namphy that the dimensions of future aid will necessarily depend on progress toward elections. It is quite true that elections have not always turned out well in Haiti. Elections alone won't create a happy and prosperous land. But they are an essential part of the process. It's up to the United States, as the closest and largest of the foreign aid donors, to make that clear to President Namphy before he too becomes president-for-life.