CHRISTOPHER Columbus called the verdant landscape of Hispaniola "a miracle" when he first set eyes on the Caribbean island in 1492.

The French colonists who arrived at the end of the 17th century called it "the Pearl of the Antilles" because it was so rich in tobacco, coffee, mahogany and sugar cane.Today, Haiti, the western third of Hispaniola, is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, three times as poor as its eastern neighbor, the Dominican Republic, which shares the same island.

One in six Haitians relies on international relief agencies for daily meals - a statistic that rivals the poverty of sub-Saharan Africa.

Even if Haiti's military rulers are ousted by a U.S. invasion, it would take a long occupation - and billions of dollars - to rebuild the economy.

The once-luxuriant tropical forests have been hacked down. Erosion and slash-and-burn farming have turned the topsoil to dust.

Two-thirds of Haitians still live off the land but as subsistence farmers, using primitive implements to cultivate small plots of corn, sorghum and rice. Storms periodically destroy their harvests.

Conditions in the countryside have driven many farmers to Port-au-Prince where a glut of workers makes Haiti's wages the lowest in the Caribbean. Those with jobs have to support extended families of 15 to 20 people on $3 a day.

Haiti's 6.9 million citizens are former African slaves. For two centuries they have been terrorized and exploited by a small ruling elite, wealthy mixed-race mulattoes who form 5 percent of the population and traditionally lord it over the poor black masses.

The 200 or so wealthiest families have grown rich through monopolies enforced at gunpoint. They work in cahoots with army commanders, who extort payoffs from every urban businessman and exporter of agricultural products.

In rural communities, military-backed section chiefs act as feudal overlords who beat, jail and extort money from peasant farmers at will.

Political chaos killed the tourism industry that bloomed briefly in Haiti in the late 1970s.

A conference of aid workers and Haitian experts sponsored by the University of Miami earlier this year agreed that "institutionalized thuggery" was to blame for many of Haiti's ills. But things have grown decidedly worse since the United Nations imposed a petroleum and arms embargo in October 1993 and broadened it to all trade in May.

This eliminated coffee and mango exports that supported 400,000 peasant farmers and closed the export assembly plants seen as Haiti's best hope for economic improvement. Another 100,000 Haitians lost their jobs in factories lacking spare parts.

The international relief agency CARE reports widespread hunger and severe malnutrition.

A U.S. invasion could rid Haiti of its thugs, but that would be just a start. The country has had only two free elections in 190 years. Its society and economy are in ruins. It would take years - if the Clinton administration has the heart - to rebuild Haiti to the point where its people no longer want to flee to the Florida mainland.

In the words of Richard Millet, a researcher at the University of Miami, Haiti has "never had a free market system or democratic traditions to restore. It has no infrastructure. It has a very low education level. It lacks natural resources. Where do you even start?"