The poverty-stricken Caribbean nation of Haiti has survived its first threat since the Dec. 16 election to choose a democratic government. A brief coup attempt failed, but given the island's history, it could just as easily have gone the other way. And it may not be the last try to seize power.

Tyranny is more familiar than freedom for the 6 million inhabitants who have been mostly ruled by dictators since Haiti gained independence from France in 1804.Roger Lafontant, a former aide to ousted dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, tried this week to stage a coup by seizing the National Palace and declaring himself Haiti's new leader.

Lafontant, the reputed head of the dreaded Tonton Macoute militia that enforced the Duvalier regime, was disenchanted with the election results, which he called a "masquerade."

He had vowed "to do everything" short of violence to stop Jean-Bertrand Aristide from assuming the presidency. Nevertheless, Aristide was elected by a landslide in the country's first free nationwide vote and is scheduled to take office Feb. 7, the fifth anniversary of Duvalier's fall in a popular uprising.

Haiti has had five governments in the tumultuous years since Duvalier fled into exile, and a November 1987 attempt at free elections was thwarted when thugs aided by soldiers shot or hacked to death at least 34 voters. It was believed that former Tonton Macoutes were involved.

It is encouraging that this time, Haitians were enraged by the threat to their country's first peaceful transition to democracy and took to the streets to protest. Aristide, who has survived several assassination attempts, is a self-proclaimed champion of Haiti's impoverished majority.

It seems clear where the country wants to go, but it won't be easy. With such a spotty past, there will undoubtedly be other roadblocks ahead as Aristide attempts to carry out his mandate.

That Haiti has managed to create a democratic government at all - given the impoverished condition of the country - is nothing short of amazing. Whether Haitian democracy can survive remains uncertain. The country needs all the help it can get to overcome poverty and build a sense of hope for the future.