MEXICO CITY — Mexico City. -- Last week's overthrow of Haiti's first democratically elected president may for the first time spark joint military action by the Organization of American States (OAS).
If so, the action to reinstall President Jean-Bertrand Aristide would mark a turning point for a 43-year-old organization that has been little more than an obscure debating society long dominated by the United States.
The OAS early Thursday voted to send its secretary general and representatives of eight countries to read the riot act to the military junta in Port-au-Prince.
The message is clear: Either restore President Aristide or face total isolation, including the loss of millions of dollars in trade and donations to the hemisphere's poorest nation.
Should the OAS mission fail -- a distinct possibility in view of Haiti's past history -- the organization will reconvene to consider other options, including military force.
What is striking about the OAS action is that an ultimatum and military intervention would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
Until the 1970s, many of the most powerful of the 32 OAS members, including Brazil and Argentina, were dominated by dictatorships who feared the double-edged sword of intervention.
Now the situation has reversed.
With the exception of Cuba, Guyana, Suriname and possibly Mexico, the Western Hemisphere is now composed of democracies who view the military takeover in Haiti as an unacceptable precedent that poses a threat to them.
If the OAS sits on its hands over Haiti, would that give the green light for military coups in other struggling democracies, such as Guatemala?
Four months ago in Santiago, Chile, the OAS became "revitalized" in the words of President Bush.
It adopted a vaguely worded but historic resolution that opened the door for multilateral interventions in cases where "democratic institutions" are threatened, or when "the legitimate exercise of power by a democratically elected government" is interrupted.
"The resolution was a mere skeleton, but it was important because now it is being translated into real policy over the Haiti coup," said Robert Pastor, President Jimmy Carter's Latin America adviser on the National Security Council and the man who organized the December election that was won by President Aristide.
"Ultimately, military intervention has to be an option for the OAS. The new policy has the distinction of not being unilateral action but an expression of collective interest in preserving democracy," said Mr. Pastor, now a professor in Latin American studies at Emory University in Atlanta.
The Haiti crisis is also coming on the heels of a successful collective action by an international body -- the United Nations -- to restore Kuwait to its rightful owners.
But the United States, the prime mover in the Persian Gulf war, is reluctant to adopt a similar role in the Western Hemisphere because, President Bush says, "I am disinclined to use American force. We've got a big history of American force in this hemisphere, and so we've got to be very careful about that."
In this century alone, the United States has intervened militarily in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Nicaragua, Panama, Grenada and Haiti.
The Bush administration is still trying to assuage the diplomatic damage caused by the 1989 invasion of Panama.
Ironically, in the weeks leading up to the Panama invasion, the weakness of the OAS was exposed, as its negotiators tried vainly to get Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega to accept the results of free elections.
It was largely as a result of that experience that President Carlos Andres Perez of Venezuela and other Latin leaders decided that the OAS needed to toughen its policy.
"There was a feeling that we needed to take a collective responsibility for the democratic health of the hemisphere," said a Bolivian diplomat. "It was also felt that the U.S. must subject its interests to the will of all and not act unilaterally."
Intervention, no matter how disguised, still raises hackles in countries such as Mexico, whose foreign policy has steadfastly rejected all forms of outside interference. But even Mexico is changing.
While the press here was loudly proclaiming that Mexico had vetoed military intervention at the OAS's Thursday deliberations, the official communique seemed to leave that door open should the secretary general's Haiti mission fail.
According to the communique, Foreign Secretary Fernando Solana told the OAS that, "Mexico is disposed . . . to take additional measures to ease the return of legality in Haiti, providing that it is in accord with Mexican foreign policy principles, the OAS Charter and international law."
The "additional measures" were not spelled out.
A senior Mexican official at first categorically denied that Mexico would favor military action in Haiti, saying it would set a precedent that would permit invasions elsewhere.