- As a candidate in 2000, George W. Bush flatly stated his
top priority for Latin America: "The first goal in our hemisphere
But the questions of what constitutes a democracy and how far the
United States will go to defend it have become murkier since a U.S.
plane flew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide out of Haiti and into exile.
Aristide's Haiti was no poster child for democracy. There was little
respect for free speech or tolerance of political opponents. The
country's 2000 legislative elections were flawed. Aristide's own victory
in a presidential election that year was tainted by an opposition
boycott, low turnout and charges of intimidation.
Yet, the world recognized Aristide as Haiti's legitimate leader. And
the days were supposed to be long-gone when democratically elected Latin
American leaders were forced from office under the threat of violence.
The circumstances of Aristide's departure remain unclear. U.S.
officials vehemently deny his claim that they forced him to resign. But
there's little question they wanted him to go.
With rebels poised to attack the capital of Port-au-Prince, Secretary
of State Colin Powell voiced doubts about Aristide's ability to run the
country. Aristide agreed to be flown out of Haiti on Feb. 29 after
learning the United States would not protect him.
Regional leaders and some Democratic lawmakers see this as a crack in
what was supposed to be the United States' rock-solid support for
democracy: If Haiti is one case where the United States can condone the
removal of an elected leader under the threat of violence, are there
In a statement last week, leaders of 14 Caribbean governments said
Aristide's departure sets "a dangerous precedent for democratically
elected governments everywhere as it promotes the unconstitutional
removal of duly elected persons from office."
The State Department said it did not advocate Aristide stepping down,
though it made clear the United States would not try to save him.
"We ended up rescuing him by taking him out of the country in the
face of almost certain violence," spokesman Richard Boucher said.
The Organization of American States' No. 2 official, Luigi Einaudi,
expressed some uncertainty when asked if Aristide's removal sets a
"Put abstractly, obviously yes. Put in the concrete of Haiti, in
this case, perhaps less so," Einaudi said in an interview. He cited
Haiti's unique problems and Aristide's tainted election.
After decades of dictatorships, Latin America takes pride in its
embrace of democracy. The region had long been ridiculed for its
never-ending coups and heavily bemedaled military rulers. Many of those
dictators were supported by U.S. governments more concerned about
anti-communist credentials than democratic tendencies.
Democracies flourished in the 1980s and '90s. As a sign that military
dictators would no longer be tolerated, the Clinton administration sent
20,000 U.S. troops to Haiti in 1994 to restore Aristide, three years
after his first term was interrupted by a coup.
The region sealed its commitment to democracy as the 34 active OAS
members - Cuba has long been suspended - approved a democratic charter.
That charter said people in the hemisphere had a right to democracy and
that nations could face penalties if there was a "an
unconstitutional interruption of the democratic order."
That charter developed a symbolic importance because of the date it
was adopted: Sept. 11, 2001. At an OAS meeting in Lima, Peru, Powell
used it to take a stand for democracy while the United States was under
"They can destroy buildings, they can kill people and we will be
saddened by this tragedy, but they will never be allowed to kill the
spirit of democracy," Powell said.
Aristide isn't the first regional leader to come under fire since the
charter was adopted. Last October, Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de
Lozada was forced to resign after massive, violent street protests.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has had tense relations with the
Bush administration, was briefly removed during a 2002 coup, which the
administration was slow to condemn.
But Sanchez de Lozada did not face rebel fighters, and the coup
against Chavez did not stand. The threat to Aristide raised questions of
how far the United States would go to defend a democratically elected
leader who is not much of a democrat.
Aristide's departure and the U.S. position afterward give a signal.
"We can't be called upon, expected or required to intervene
every time there's violence against a failed leader," the State
Department's Boucher said. "Because we can't spend our time running
around the world or the hemisphere saving people who had botched their
chance at leadership."