Unless violent thugs manage to overturn it, the apparent victory of the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the race for president of Haiti is a breakthrough toward democracy in a part of the world where it is seldom achieved.

If Aristide's victory holds up, it will mark the first time this poor Caribbean nation has had a freely-elected government in 186 years.Though marred by delays and irregularies, including the detention of foreign reporters, the election seems to have been fair and free of bloodshed. That makes Sunday's voting a big improvement over previous voting.

Thankfully, there were no repeats of incidents like the November 1987 election where 34 voters were shot or hacked to death by thugs backed by the army.

If Aristide, a 37-year-old Catholic priest, is indeed declared president, he will have a difficult time writing a new chapter of progress in his country's history.

Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. In 1987, unemployment was recorded at 50 percent. The literacy rate is only 23 percent and only 20 percent of those eligible attend school. There are only 803 physicians in a country of over 6.2 million. The economy remains largely dependent on agricultural crops, chief among them coffee.

Like the fledgling democratic governments in eastern Europe, Haiti's new leadership will need courage to take the country through the hopeful but difficult days ahead.