U.S. Impact on Haiti often Tragic
Abundant news footage of U.S. soldiers landing on the shores of Haiti to help with relief in the wake of the devastating earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince on January 12 likely inspired mixed feelings among those familiar with the long history of U.S. political interventionism and military occupations in that country. Although current U.S. efforts to help with earthquake relief in Haiti are both laudable and necessary, long-term solutions to Haiti’s problems must rest on the bedrock of its political and economic autonomy from the United States.
George Washington was the first American president to intervene in Haiti’s internal politics. When a slave insurrection broke out in the French West Indian colony of Saint Dominique (present-day Haiti) in 1791, the Washington administration supplied French planters with provisions, arms and munitions, before officially declaring U.S. neutrality. The U.S. president declared it “Lamentable! to see such a spirit of revolt among the Blacks” of Saint Dominique. The rebels triumphed despite U.S. aid to the French and created an independent republic in 1804. The U.S. withheld diplomatic recognition until 1862.
U.S. companies invested heavily in Haiti after the Civil War and by 1900 U.S. marines had landed in Haiti eight different times “to protect American lives and property.” In 1915, the Woodrow Wilson administration launched a full-scale military
occupation of Haiti that continued until 1934. Wilson argued that the island nation might be used by the Germans for military activity against the United States during World War I. But Wilson was also influenced by U.S. railroad and banking companies with extensive interests in Haiti who feared European competition and continuing political unrest. U.S. occupation officials wrote a constitution for Haiti, but then suspended the legislature for thirteen years. U.S. marines built hospitals and highways in Haiti but also introduced racism and segregation. Haitians resented their colonial status and rebelled frequently; in 1919 alone, U.S. marines killed over 2000 residents in their efforts to quell the unrest.
To assist in pacifying Haiti, U.S. military leaders created the Garde d’ Haiti, which became known for its brutality. After the U.S. military withdrew, the Garde continued to play an important role in Haitian life and democracy remained elusive.
In 1946, a revolution placed the government in the hands of the Garde, and in 1957 the ruthless dictator Francois Duvalier (“Papa Doc”) assumed power. He was succeeded by his equally ruthless son, “Baby Doc,” who ruled until being ousted in 1986. Both leaders maintained strong ties to the United States.
Since 1986, instability has continued to plague Haiti and the U.S. has periodically intervened, ostensibly in an effort to restore order. Yet Haiti remains the most impoverished nation in the Western hemisphere, despite its wealth of resources
and proud tradition of defying white colonial powers.
The point here is not to inspire cynicism in the face of one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time, but to suggest that long term solutions to Haiti’s problems will require that the United States finally accede to Haitians the independent political and economic development they have sought since 1804.