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The Legacy of the U.S. Occupation of Haiti

Money for Nothing

Written by Jacob Kenney (B.PAPM, Carleton University).
Nominated by Professor A. Diptee

Charlemagne Péralte (1886-1919). Haitian nationalist opposed to the US invasion of his country.

Charlemagne Péralte (1886-1919). Haitian nationalist opposed to the US invasion of his country.

 

The world is no stranger to American intervention in the domestic affairs of others, nor is it unusual to have the U.S. supporting these interventions with ideological rhetoric when their actions can be better explained through financial motives. In our own time, skeptics such as Michael Moore have called into question the justifications used in the most recent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, notably in Moore’s film “Fahrenheit 9/11”, but history holds up far more egregious incursions of which the American occupation of Haiti is a prime example. In theory, the U.S. invasion of Haiti in 1915 (Maus, 2015) would be a simple transaction. The Americans would bring unto the Haitian people joyous gifts of democracy and stability, while the U.S. gained nothing but a few private business endeavours.

 

Charlemagne Péralte. Assassinated by US Marines.  His body was left to rot in the sun for days as a message to Haitians who sought to resist US occupation.  The US Marines produced hundreds of copies of this photo as a warning to other Haitians who would dare to resist.  The Haitian flag was draped behind his body.

In actuality, one finds that the American occupation made Haiti a more chaotic, undemocratic and impoverished nation for the purpose of economic gain. By underfunding the educational system, rewriting the Haitian constitution, installing puppets into government and training a military force which took power after the Americans left, the United States unmistakably altered Haiti’s historical trajectory, ensuring that the nation would suffer chronic poverty, instability and atrocity for the remainder of the twentieth century. Thus, when we turn on our televisions and see the news coverage of Haiti, and we are bombarded by themes of scarcity, tyranny and violence, we are not simply witnessing the aftermath of an earthquake, but rather seeing the legacy of an American operation to starve, destabilize and desolate the Haitian people for nothing more than a weighty profit.

Being that the most important affairs of Haiti’s government were conducted by American military officials during the nineteen years of U.S. occupation, Haiti was certainly not in control of its destiny during that time. In fact, in his work, “Education During the American Occupation of Haiti 1915-1934”, A. J. Angulo described American power over Haiti as “controlling the government revenues and customs houses — in addition to Haiti’s land policy and constitution — American officials had veto power over the provisional, parallel Haitian government” (2010, p. 3). However, the policies carried out by the Americans during this occupation significantly impaired Haiti’s ability to govern its own fate long after the marines had all left.

First, it was through the transformation of the Haitian economy to suit foreigners and the education system to develop unskilled labourers, that Haiti was forced into poverty. Following hundreds of years of colonialism, the independent Haitian government had made tremendous progress in converting the plantation style landscape into a fully functioning, self-sustaining local economy. According to Franklin F. Knight, the Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Professor of History at John Hopkin University, “the Haitians dramatically transformed their conventional tropical plantation agriculture…from a large-scale latifundia dominated structure into…marginally self-sufficient producers who reoriented their production away from export-dependency to an internal marketing system supplemented by a minor…export market sector” (2005, p. 395). Unfortunately from an American standpoint, this meant that a market for their goods and a supplier of cheap agricultural products was suddenly closing its doors. It should come as no surprise that the U.S. officials in charge of the occupation unilaterally decided it was in Haiti’s best interests for their law forbidding foreign ownership to be conveniently struck from the record (Maus, 2015). As Angulo puts it, “The constitution prior to the invasion explicitly made foreign landownership illegal….But this was an offensive legal obstacle to large-scale American agricultural, timber, and mining interests” (2010, p. 3). Americans began rapidly acquiring land that they were now constitutionally allowed to purchase, putting a swift end to subsistence farming. Angulo mentions that “American sugar and coffee companies consolidated and expanded their landholdings in Haiti. Over 170,000 acres of prime farm lands were acquired by these investors under the U.S. occupation. (2010, p. 5-6)” Almost every facet of the Haitian state controlled by the Americans became focussed on aiding these economic interests, including one area where the Americans theoretically had no control, the education system (Angulo, 2010).

As such, the goal of education in Haiti became “to educate the Haitian to become a good laborer (Angulo, 2010, p. 4)”, not to provide Haitians the skills necessary to economically prosper after the marines had left. Thus, when the occupation was finally over, Haiti was left with a land and populace that were hardwired to produce raw materials that their people did not need. Although some might grow fabulously wealthy from trading these raw materials, for the rest there was little hope of prosperity or sustainability (Wilkonson, 2010). Therefore, the theme of poverty found in news media coverage of Haiti (Potter, 2009), was caused by the American occupation.

Of course, nations do not go about conquest and enslavement for free, and while the Haitian people suffered, there were some in the United States who enjoyed great benefits. Writing in 1935, a year after the American occupation of Haiti had concluded, Major General Smedley Butler formerly of the Marine Corps famously declared, “I was a racketeer for capitalism.…I helped make Haiti…a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in.” Coupled with the fact that before the 1915 occupation, the National City Bank in New York convinced the State Department to smuggle $500,000 out of Haiti accompanied by armed escort (Angulo, 2010), and that the Americans took such an interest in ensuring that they were able to buy Haitian property, this quotation clearly indicates just how tremendous the economic benefits of this type of quasi-imperialism were. They were also incredibly diverse, with bankers able to profit from Haitian debts caused by Dollar Diplomacy[1], manufacturers exploiting an increase in cheap raw materials such as sugar from new plantations and investors taking advantage of the numerous public works projects built by forced Haitian labour (Danticat, 2015). This further explains why Haiti is considered as poor as it is today, as their wealth was pulled from the ground, whipped from its peoples’ backs and transported to the sky-palaces atop Wall Street.

The United States justified its incursion into Haiti on the grounds that it was going about the business of nation building and the punishing of tyrants (Danticat, 2015). One can certainly see a similar ideology presented in Roosevelt’s Corollary wherein “chronic wrongdoing…which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society” would “force the United States…to the exercise of an international police power” (1904). That being said, even if the United States’ primary objective was to democratize Haiti, it would still be obvious that they had utterly failed in that goal. As Barack Obama proclaimed in 2009 about the spreading of democracy, “I think the thing that we [the United States] can do most importantly is serve as a good role model” (Spillius, 2009).

That certainly was not the case in Haiti, where the United States displayed that it is somehow justifiable for foreign country to choose the leader of a nation, direct its public policy, rewrite its constitution and enslave its people because it happens to have more guns (Maus, 2015), hardly setting a good example. The Americans only made the situation worse when John Russell, the commandant of the Marine Corps and the “most powerful man in Haiti” (Angulo, 2010, p. 4) decided that literacy was not necessary in order to foster a democratic spirit (Angulo, 2010). Being that the Haitians still had control of their education system, however, Russell would have ignore the advice of the puppet President and create a new schooling system from within the Department of Agriculture as well as withhold funds from the current education system (Angulo, 2010). All told, after nineteen years of using forced labour to build public works, making a mockery of the Haitian government and perverting the educational system, democracy had no chance to flourish once American boots were off the ground. Consequentially, another stereotype of media coverage, the undemocratic nature or “failed state” status of Haiti (Potter, 2009), can be attributed to American intervention.

Finally, the trope of violence permeates much of the media coverage of Haiti (Potter, 2009), and that too can be ascribed to the U.S. occupation. If one goes searching for violence in Haitian history, they need look no further than the fifteen thousand people who were killed during the American incursion (Danticat, 2015). In the capture and execution of the popular resistance leader, Charlemagne Péralte, the Americans went so far as to put the body on public display and distribute pictures of his corpse across rebel camps (Philogene, 2015). But the American damage to Haitian peace was from far from only psychological. In the tradition of any great conqueror, the United States’ marines began training a force of collaborators to police their fellow Haitians and enforce their commander’s will (Maus, 2015). Once the Americans left, they neglected to bring this military police force back with them, and the Gendarmerie, as they were called, “became the principal power broker in Haitian politics. (Maus, 2015).” Here was an American trained death squad in a nation that had been terrorized, pillaged, plundered and taught by the U.S. that might makes right. There could have been no situation more ripe for conflict than the one the Americans had created through their nineteen brutal years of occupation.

The American media seems to rarely miss an opportunity to blame the woes of the Haitian people on the Haitians themselves, characterising the entire nation as a backwards “cesspool” of poverty, despotism and violence. As Potter noted in 2009, the “notion that Haiti is a failed state…done in by itself…is a common frame…found on the pages of U.S. newspapers. (p. 208)” But these themes, to the extent that they are true, have been caused in a large part from events which the people of Haiti had no hand in, the American occupation being prime among them. Instead of bringing prosperity, order and stability to Haiti, the U.S. marine wrought a campaign of death, destruction and under-development, leaving only the poverty, despotism and violence that the news media is all too eager to cover. All of this, the underfunding of the education system, the murder of fifteen thousand lives, the rewriting of the Haitian constitution and the training of the Gendarmie was done for nothing more than the goal of making a few wealthy individuals even richer. Thus, the Americans took money for nothing and left the entire nation of Haiti to foot the bill.

References

Angulo, A. J. (2010) “Education during the American occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934.” Historical Studies in Education, Vol. 22 (2).

Butler, S. D. (1935) “America’s armed forces: ‘In a time of peace,’ Common Sense, Vol. 4 (11).

Danticat, E. (2015, July 28). “The long legacy of occupation in Haiti.” New York City: The New Yorker. Retrieved October 16, 2015, from http://www.newyorker.com/news/news‐desk/hait i‐us‐occupation‐hundred‐year‐anniversary

Knight, F. W. (2005). “The Haitian revolution and the notion of human rights.” Journal of The Historical Society, Vol. 5 (3): 391–416. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-5923.2005.00136.x

Maus, D. K. (2015, July 2008) “One hundred years of American occupation in Haiti.” Antillean Media Group. Retrieved October 16, 2015, from http://www.antillean.org/american‐occupat ion‐in‐haiti‐100

Moore, M. (Director). (2004). “Fahrenheit 9/11” [Motion picture on DVD]. United States: Lionsgate Films.

Philogene, J. (2015) ‘“Dead citizen” and the abject nation: Social death, Haiti, and the strategic power of the image.’ Journal of Haitian Studies, Vol. 21 (1).

Roosevelt, T. (1904, December 6). “Message to Congress.”

Spillius, A. (2009, June 2). “Barack Obama says US must lead by example.” London, UK: The Telegraph. Retrieved October 16, 2015, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/ barackobama/5426465/Barack-Obama-says-US-must-lead-by-example.html

Wilkinson, T. (2010, January 21). “Haiti’s elite hold nation’s future in their hands.” LA Times. Retrieved October 16, 2015, from http://articles.latimes.com/2010/jan/21/world/la-fg-haiti-elites21-2010jan21

[1] Dollar Diplomacy was a foreign policy strategy in which “US banks [were encouraged] to lend money to Caribbean republics as a way of increasing US influence over them.” Maus, 2015

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