There is much about Haiti that pulls at the heart strings: the fact that it’s the poorest country in the hemisphere, that it was established by former slaves after a courageous slave rebellion, and that it is struggling against great odds to be a democracy.

When it comes to countries worthy of help from the developed world, Haiti should be at the front of the line.

Instead, Haiti has been pleading for help for weeks as gangs of armed thugs have been moving in to take control of its capital.

The Bush administration, always quick to proclaim the U.S. as a beacon of democracy in the world, is apparently willing to let this struggling democracy go down in flames right in America’s own backyard.

The closest Bush came to offering even a message of hope and encouragement to besieged Haitians was this: “I have made it abundantly clear to the Coast Guard that we will turn back any refugee that attempts to reach our shore.”

That’s what it says on the Statue of Liberty — right?

Preventing boats full of desperate Haitians from reaching America seems, so far, to be the main concern.

One is struck by how much keener Bush was to dispatch U.S. troops to Iraq last year. Of course, we were told they were urgently needed to dismantle Iraq’s frightening stockpile of weapons.

Now that that rationale has been thoroughly discredited, along with claims of an al Al Qaeda connection, Bush is insisting his invasion was actually about overthrowing a dictator and installing democracy. Still no mention of oil. And still no sign of democracy, either.

Washington has, in fact, been resisting Iraqi demands for elections to be held soon, preferring to hand over power to a hand-picked Iraqi government loyal to the Bush administration.

Meanwhile, when faced with a real-live democracy under grave threat only a stone’s throw from his own borders, Bush’s response is to beef up U.S. border security.

I’ve always been puzzled by the notion of the U.S. as a beacon of democracy. The invasion of Iraq led millions to question that claim.

But for decades before that, Washington intervened abroad to advance the interests of its corporate elite, overthrowing democratically elected governments that got in the way (as in Iran and Chile) and propping up ruthless dictatorships (as in Indonesia, Guatemala and Saudi Arabia).

Democracy in Haiti, for that matter, has long been stifled by Washington. The U.S. invaded Haiti in 1915, occupied the country for the next 20 years, and then propped up the brutal Duvalier father-and-son dictatorships, which ruled on behalf of the country’s tiny rich elite for 50 years, until finally overthrown by popular protests in 1985.

The Clinton administration briefly reversed this anti-democratic tradition, intervening in Haiti in 1994 to restore the elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide after it was overthrown by dead-enders of the Duvalier regime.

But the Bush administration has revived the old anti-democratic practices, destabilizing the Aristide government by blocking foreign loans and encouraging the rich elite and its thugs. Former death squad leaders from the Duvalier years are prominent among the gangs now bearing down on the capital. Canada has basically followed Washington’s lead, intervening with Clinton and laying back with Bush. Defence Minister David Pratt didn’t miss an opportunity last week, however, to use the Haitian crisis to push for a beefed-up Canadian military.

The U.S., Canada and France, along with the media, have focused on the democratic deficiencies of the Aristide government, putting its corruption and reliance on heavy-handed militias under a magnifying glass while focusing less on the strong popular support Aristide enjoys among the nation’s poor.

If we’re looking for democratic deficiencies, we can find much worse in Azerbaijan, an oil-rich state carved out of the old Soviet empire, where Ilham Aliyev has just taken over the reins of power from his dictator father in an “election” denounced as fraudulent by international observers. More than 1,000 people were arrested; Human Rights Watch documented plenty of torture.

But the Azerbaijan dictatorship has granted billions of dollars in oil contracts to ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco and BP-Amoco. Last December, U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Azerbaijan, where he brushed aside reporters’ questions about democratic deficiencies. “The United States has a relationship with this country. We value it.”

But to the democratically elected Haitian government, which has nothing to offer the U.S. but the anguished cries of its people, Washington apparently sees nothing of value.

For the impoverished descendants of slaves who fought so painfully for liberty, the message from the leader of the free world comes across loud and clear: Don’t even think of getting in those boats.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...