QUEBEC – The presence of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide at the Summit of the Americas is testing the resolve of leaders who want to make democracy a key to membership in an ambitious free-trade zone across the region.
Leaders at the 34-nation summit, who ratified a plan Saturday barring undemocratic nations from such a trade zone, were debating whether to condemn flawed elections that restored Aristide to power last year. The elections have mired the hemisphere's poorest and most unstable nation in yet another political morass.
It's a tricky issue for the leaders because the United States insisted that communist Cuba, the only non-democratic nation in the region, not be invited to the summit.
"This summit is a gathering of, by and for democracies — and only democracies," said President Bush, who met Saturday with Aristide and Caribbean leaders.
But defining democracy in the Caribbean and Latin America has become more complex since the demise of many military and civilian dictators. Today, threats to freedom are more insidious, coming sometimes from democratically elected officials.
Haiti is an example. A recent survey there showed most people favored a return of the murderous army disbanded by Aristide in 1995.
Such disenchantment with democracy is a worrying trend across the region where increasing numbers of voters, tired of poverty, corruption and instability, look back nostalgically to the days of dictatorship and autocracy.
In Haiti, Aristide's legitimacy is under question by opponents who boycotted November presidential elections because of previous, fraudulent legislative elections. He hasn't said a word on the subject.
But Justice Minister Gary Lissade touted Aristide's invitation to Quebec as his "consecration" by the international community as Haiti's duly elected president.
Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien said he hoped the summit would make a statement on Haiti but called for understanding, saying "Not all countries have the democracy that we do. ... Some are weaker than others."
Meanwhile, 28 former presidents and premiers from the region sent a letter to the summit saying non-democratic nations should be excluded from regional integration.
Signatories — including Jimmy Carter of the United States, Raul Alfonsin of Argentina and Violeta Chamorro of Nicaragua — said minimum democratic standards should include free multiparty elections, secret balloting and an honest count, respect for human rights, public accountability and an independent judiciary.
By that yardstick, Haiti might qualify only for its secret balloting, which gave Aristide an 80 percent majority in parliament. The count was challenged by the international community, which has suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.