BAS VAUDREUIL, HAITI -- It is not far from this village to Port-au-Prince, Haiti's teeming capital. At highway speeds, a car could drive there in 20 minutes.

But there is no car here and no highway. So when 19-year-old Rinette Santelis began to feel labor pains one day earlier this month, her family took a bed out of their mud-walled house, laid her on it and carried her toward Port-au-Prince and the nearest hospital.

For three hours, they staggered and strained under a searing sun, along rutted tracks of dust and rock that weave among the sugar cane fields. Rinette's husband, 22-year-old Petuel Theagere, figured they still had another hour of carrying before reaching the nearest paved road and hitching a ride to the city.

For people used to life in a developed country, Santelis' plight is difficult to picture. For Washingtonians, it might be analogous to a young woman from Reston being carried to the nearest road, at Wolf Trap Park, in search of a ride to the closest hospital, at George Washington University.

Rinette's family and neighbors stood around her bed and rested for a moment the other day, dripping sweat, while Rinette grimaced silently, her arms around her swollen belly. It was then that the four-wheel-drive vehicle of an international development organization swung around a curve in the track and stopped to offer a ride to the hospital.

Bas Vaudreuil is only 16 miles from Port-au-Prince. But the sight of Rinette's family bearing her toward the capital on her bed was one of many illustrations here of a deep isolation of rural Haiti from the turbulent politics of its capital and the political evolution that the United States is encouraging in this country. This impoverished hamlet of about two dozen mud-and-thatch homes is also a reminder that, 17 months after the dictatorship of the Duvalier family was swept aside, virtually nothing has changed in the lives of most Haitians, except that they may now talk publicly about their problems.

"We thought life would be better after Jean-Claude {Duvalier}, but it has become more difficult," said Joseph Rogevot, a middle-aged man who, like most men in Bas Vaudreuil, described himself as unemployed.

Villagers clustered in the shade of a small house, out of the searing sunshine. The men answered questions while women listened in silence and children peered cautiously at two foreign visitors.

The children's appearance spoke eloquently of Bas Vaudreuil's problems: their hair, dull, brittle and reddening, signaled the early stages of kwashiorkor, a protein deficiency that can stunt physical and mental growth. Villagers said they eat mostly manioc root, yams, bananas and rice. They often rely on a meager income from relatives who hustle for a living in the Port-au-Prince slums. They said there is no money to buy milk, meat or eggs.

Bas Vaudreuil is set on the Cul de Sac Plain, a dusty, desert-like area of cactus and scrub that defies foreigners' assumptions that Caribbean islands are lush and fertile. Partly because of careless clear-cutting of Haiti's forests during and after the 107 years of French colonial rule, Haiti's seasonal rains have washed topsoil and fertility from much of the land.

Still, the fields of tall sugar cane near here support the villagers' claims that they could farm if they had water. But the irrigation system is owned by the Haitian-American Sugar Co., and villagers say they are not allowed to use it.

Women from nearby villages gathered at the company's canals to scoop buckets of water for cooking and drinking, but the villagers' only hope for successful farming, a government project for irrigation wells, ground to a halt during the Duvaliers' rule.

"Water is the problem here, both for irrigation and drinking," said Martha Hopewell, an administrator with Foster Parents Plan, a Rhode Island-based development organization. Hopewell's organization is behind the one improvement that Bas Vaudreuil's villagers could cite: a hand-pumped well nearby that saves the women from hauling water -- in buckets balanced on their heads -- from a source 20 minutes away.

With Rinette Santelis and her family crowded into the back of Hopewell's vehicle the other day, she drove to the hospital and spoke about how tough development work is here. Her program has encouraged local families to try new farming methods, plant trees, raise rabbits or make other investments that could pay off in better lives.

"I used to always believe in the rule that it's better to teach people to fish than to just give them a fish," Hopewell said. "But the poverty here is so great. . . . I think this may be a case where we can't really ask them to work for a distant goal when they don't even know how they'll find something to eat tonight."

Several development workers said their efforts are hindered by a tendency among many Haitians to await help from others and by what seems an uninterested government. The provisional government, led by Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy, has been preoccupied with keeping the country stable and establishing real political institutions to fill the vacuum left by the flight of the Duvaliers.

Some foreigners expressed understanding that this burden prevents the government from beginning sweeping economic reforms and development programs to improve the lives of the majority of Haitians who live in poverty.

But these villagers, and the residents of the slums around Port-au-Prince, said they do not understand.

Duvalier, the man who was thought to be at the root of their troubles, has been gone for a year and a half. But the hoped-for wells have not come, and prices for whatever they might grow remain depressed. There is cynicism about Namphy's rule and the evolution toward an elected government in which the United States is backing him.

"A chief of state, he should be like a father to his people. But Namphy has been a bad papa," said Clebert Elie, a village leader.

"None of the so-called political leaders in Port-au-Prince is respected here," said Elie's son, Dunel. He and others said they see no reason to take part in elections for a permanent government later this year. "None of these people is going to help us," he said.