100 years of American Occupation in Haiti
The centennial anniversary of the US invasion of Haiti, which began on this day in 1915, will go largely unnoticed in the US.
Even for those Americans willing to face their country’s historical misdeeds, the occupation of Haiti gets easily lost among the military adventurism in Latin America and the Caribbean – the so-called ‘Banana Wars’ – that characterized US foreign policy during its ascendance as a superpower in the early twentieth century.
Not so in Haiti. Even though the country is gearing up for the first elections in almost five years, and though the threat of waves of deportees arriving from the Dominican Republic remains, plenty of attention is still reserved for marking the anniversary of the American occupation.
A ceremony will take place today to honor the Haitian soldiers who resisted the occupation; several international symposia have taken place or are being planned to discuss its history and legacy; and later this year, a ‘symbolic tribunal’ will be held to judge the various personalities involved in placing Haiti under the yoke of occupation.
For many of the organizers of these events, the purpose is not simply to remember a chapter of Haiti’s history. Rather, it is to highlight the legacy of the Occupation and those consequences which still linger today. The Mouvman Patriyotik Demokratik Popilè (Popular Patriotic Democratic Movement), which has been promoting several of the events as part of a ‘Mobilization Week’ to mark the 100th anniversary of the Occupation, is using the slogan “1915-2015: With or without boots, the Occupation is still here.”
In a very literal sense, Haiti is under occupation today, this time by the United Nations Stabilization Mission In Haiti (known by its French acronym MINUSTAH), a peacekeeping force that has occupied the country since 2004.
Its legacy in Haiti includes inadvertently starting a cholera epidemic, and a slew of sexual exploitation and abuse incidents which MINUSTAH soldiers make little attempt to cover up —in one infamous incident, they even videotaped themselves — because the terms of the mission give them legal immunity in Haiti. Even so, a former US ambassador to Haiti is on record calling MINUSTAH “an indispensable tool in realizing core US government policy interests in Haiti.”
And while MINUSTAH is something of an aberration in UN history – never has so large a force been deployed for so long in a country that was not at war – it is certainly not an aberration in Haitian history. It is just the latest link in an almost unbroken chain that stretches back at least as far as the US Occupation that began 100 years ago.
Although the US Occupation officially began in July of 1915, the groundwork had been laid several years prior. The ‘Dollar Diplomacy’ strategy of the Taft Administration had encouraged US banks to lend money to Caribbean republics as a way of increasing US influence over them.
Knowing that many banks would be hesitant to lend to governments perceived as ‘immature’ or unstable, the US government often gave its explicit backing to the banks. The US would then leverage the banks’ support to Caribbean governments to demand control over a debtor country’s trade policies, or to secure concessions for other US companies.
In the early 1910s, National City Bank – today known as Citibank – was becoming increasingly involved in Haiti, and, because of its importance to the Dollar Diplomacy strategy, the potential inability of the Haitian government to repay National City Bank became a matter of US national interest. Thus on December 17, 1914, the USS Machias landed in Port-au-Prince, and American troops marched to the National Bank of Haiti and carried away $500,000, which was then delivered to National City Bank in New York.
This brazen escapade might have boosted the confidence of American banks, but it was becoming clear in Washington that ad hoc interventions to support specific corporate interests ultimately would not suffice. The US needed to exert total control over Haiti’s economy.
In addition to this mounting external pressure, Haiti was also suffering a string of internal political crises. In February 1915, President Theodore Davilmar – who had come to power through an armed revolt only a year before – was forced to resign, and a new president, Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, was elected.
The US sent an envoy to Haiti to inform the new president that his government would not be recognized by the US unless he signed an accord giving the US control over the country’s customs regime – an agreement similar to the one the US had obtained from the neighboring Dominican Republic in 1907.
“The Government of the Republic of Haiti would consider itself lax in its duty to the United States and to itself if it allowed the least doubt to exist of its irrevocable intention not to accept any control of the administration of Haitian affairs by a foreign Power.”
— President Theodore Davilmar
When former President Davilmar, had been offered the same choice – diplomatic isolation or cessation of control over his country’s customs and finances – he flatly rebuffed the Americans, saying “The Government of the Republic of Haiti would consider itself lax in its duty to the United States and to itself if it allowed the least doubt to exist of its irrevocable intention not to accept any control of the administration of Haitian affairs by a foreign Power.” But the new President Sam was willing to negotiate. He made several counter-proposals to the US envoy, which where were then sent back to Washington.
All the while, US warships were just offshore, waiting for a pretext to invade and take control of the struggling country.
President Sam’s willingness to negotiate ceding control of his country’s affairs to the US had earned him Washington’s trust, but it made him, unsurprisingly, very unpopular in Haiti. As discontent mounted, and the threat of a popular uprising against him became ever more credible, Sam decided to go on the offensive: On July 27, he ordered the killing of 167 political prisoners, among them another former President.
Whatever support Sam still had among the population evaporated after this massacre, and he was forced to flee the Presidential Palace, seeking refuge in the French embassy. The next day, July 28, he was dragged from the embassy and beaten to death by an angry crowd.
Sam’s assassination had deprived the US of its most pliable ally in years, but it also provided the pretext for an invasion for which President Woodrow Wilson’s administration had been waiting. Within hours of Sam’s death, US Marines had come ashore and taken control of the capital. Martial law was declared, and a 19-year occupation began.
‘Civilising’ Haitian people
The US Occupation was justified through a flurry of paternalistic rhetoric that seized on the purported inability of an uneducated people to manage their own affairs. Robert Lansing, then Secretary of State, justified the occupation on the grounds that Haitians were still primitive Africans and therefore incapable of self-government; they had, he said, an “an inherent tendency toward savagery and a physical inability to live a civilized life.”
Medill McCormick, a Senator from Illinois wrote in 1920 that the American occupation was necessary “to develop the country, the Government, and above all, the civilization of the people, of whom the overwhelming majority have African blood in their veins.”
“We are there, and in my judgment we ought to stay there for twenty years…There is a need for merchants, for telegraph and cable facilities, for regular shipping. Private enterprise ought to march with the enlightened “occupation” under a new administration. We are proud of our service to Cuba. There is a greater service to be rendered and as great a harvest to be gathered in Haiti and Santo Domingo”
— U.S. Senator Medill McCormick, 1920
The opportunity to develop a “primitive” country, free from the impediments that a sovereign government might impose, prompted a great deal of enthusiasm. By the time of McCormick’s writing in 1920, the ability of American private enterprise to gather the harvest that Haiti offered had been facilitated by the occupiers’ re-writing of Haiti’s constitution.
Ever since Haiti’s independence from France, foreign ownership of land had been constitutionally prohibited. Some German merchants had gotten around this prohibition by marrying Haitians and owning property through their spouses, but for an American psyche still shaped by the segregationist racial attitudes of the early 1900’s, mingling with the local population was not an option. In any case, as the rulers of a country under martial law, the US no longer needed to resort to careful manipulation.
In 1917, the US State Department submitted a proposal to amend Haiti’s Constitution to allow foreigners to own land. When Haiti’s National Assembly refused to approve it, the occupying force disbanded the legislature and would not allow it to reconvene for the next 12 years.
The US quickly organized a ‘popular referendum’ to approve the new constitution, and it was accepted in a sham vote in which less than 5% of the population participated. The restraints were off and Haiti was finally for sale to outside investors.
Aside from the obvious afflictions visited upon a people living under foreign military occupation – routine physical violence, sexual assault, and stifling media censorship to name a few – Haitians suffered countless other indignations during the Occupation.
Bureaucrats were imported from the US to manage Haiti, and their extravagant salaries were paid directly from the Haitian treasury. Meanwhile, Haitian functionaries doing the same work were paid far less. In the countryside, able-bodied Haitian men were rounded up and forced into hard labour, often building roads through land that had been seized from them by the Marines.
Such a heavy-handed occupation could only provoke discontent and uprisings, but the beleaguered and impoverished Haitian masses were ultimately no match for a few thousand heavily-armed American Marines, or for the Gendarmerie, a force composed of both Americans and Haitians that the Occupation used to quell rebellions and put down protests.
Ending the official occupation
Even though the Haitian resistance produced a number of charismatic and quixotic figures, what ultimately brought about the end of US military occupation was not any defeat suffered by the Marines; rather it was their success in crushing the discontented masses with increasingly brutal efficiency.
On December 6, 1929, Marines opened fire on an unarmed crowd of protesters in Les Cayes, killing at least a dozen people. The Cayes Massacre attracted plenty of unfavorable attention from international newspapers, and provoked protests within the US against the Occupation of Haiti.
The Occupation had become increasingly unpopular, but it was also becoming less profitable: the Great Depression and the collapse of commodity markets had caused a steep fall in the price of coffee, which was the Haitian economy’s principal export.
Faced with diminishing returns, President Herbert Hoover had no enthusiasm for prolonging any further the Occupation that he had inherited, and declared in February of 1930: “The primary question which is to be investigated is when and how we are to withdraw from Haiti. The second question is what we shall do in the meantime.”
Enduring legacy of occupation
Despite the pressure to withdraw, the Occupation force had become so thoroughly embedded in every aspect of Haitian life that it was not easy for the US to extricate itself. The Marines would not leave Haiti until August 15, 1934 and the US would maintain direct control of Haiti’s external finances until 1947. But even then, the Occupation was not really over.
In the years that followed, the Gendarmerie – the American-trained force created during the Occupation – became the principal power broker in Haitian politics. Presidents were imposed and deposed by the Gendarmerie through a series of bloody coups d’états; three of the military strongmen who assumed power during the tumultuous 1950s were graduates of the American Military School in Haiti that had been set up during the Occupation.
Quite evidently, the stated goal of the US Occupation – to bring ‘stability’ to Haiti – had failed spectacularly. In fact, the revolving door of warrior presidents wouldn’t end until 1957 with the rise to power of “President for Life” Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, a brutal dictator who won US support because of his anti-Communist rhetoric.
Yet it seems rather naïve to describe the Occupation of Haiti as a failure for the promotion of US’ interests. Indeed, far from being“America’s least successful experiment in imperialism” as The Guardian described it at the time, the Occupation of Haiti seems to have been one of the most enduring.
The US remains deeply implicated in Haiti’s economy, and still insists on the right to intervene for the benefit of US corporations. In 2009 when the Haitian government passed a measure to raise the country’s meagre minimum wage from 24 cents an hour to 61 cents an hour, several US-based garment manufacturers that have factories in Haiti – including Levi’s, Hanes and Fruit of the Loom – protested to the US embassy in Port-au-Prince. The US Ambassador then pressured René Préval, Haiti’s President at the time, to halt the increase from going into effect. As a result, the Haitian government agreed to limit the minimum wage to 31 cents per hour.
Although such interventions are certainly less dramatic than troops marching on the National Bank, the resulting transfer of wealth from Haitians to US corporations is no less so.
And the US has also continued to maintain multiple levers for manipulating Haitian politics: forming paramilitary groups, intervening to influence elections, and buying support from Haitian politicians (including the current President) through USAID.
It is not difficult to see other echoes of the Occupation’s logic in Haiti today: That expats deserve higher salaries than Haitian staff doing the same work remains an article of faith both for official aid agencies and the many international NGOs operating in the country today. And the caricature of Haitians as a people inherently prone to violence and unable to govern themselves – so frequently cited by the apologists for the American Occupation – is still used today as justification for the prolongation of MINUSTAH’s disastrous presence in Haiti.
If the US remains as entrenched in the management of Haiti’s affairs as it did during the Occupation, it is because that same missionary capitalism – borne of a sense of untapped opportunity, and a White Man’s Burden to develop a people still seen as culturally backward – that was so ebulliently expressed by Senator McCormick in 1920 continues to captivate so many Americans today.