Associated Press

As a candidate in 2000, George W. Bush flatly stated his top priority for Latin America: “The first goal in our hemisphere is democracy.”

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 others?

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 dangerous precedent.

“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 attack.

“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.”