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Haiti Under Siege
February 13, 2010, 4:12 am
Filed under: Caribbean, Haiti, History, Politics


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International Socialist Review Issue 35, May–June 2004

200 Years of U.S. Imperialism
Haiti Under Siege

By HELEN SCOTT

Helen Scott teaches Caribbean literature at the University of Vermont. Her writings include “Replacing the ‘Wall of Disinformation’: The Butterfly’s Way, Krik? Krak! and Representation of Haiti in the USA” in the Journal of Haitian Studies, and “The Mark Twain They Didn’t Teach Us In school,” ISR 10, Winter 2000. Her book on economic globalization and Caribbean women writers is forthcoming from Ashgate Publishers.

Why have you come to save me?
Why have you come to save me?
You, Americans, have saved me
Who will save me now?
—Popular song during the American occupation of 1994.1

IN THE U.S., Haiti is portrayed as a world apart: the “poorest country in the western hemisphere”–a place of inexplicable violence and instability, horrible poverty, and scant resources. Seldom are we reminded that this was the first nation after the U.S. to achieve independence, and was the first Black republic–that this is a country with a history not only of repression and violence but also of heroism, resistance, immense human and cultural vitality. Far from being “a world apart,” Haiti has from its inception been all too firmly locked into a world system that has exploited, battered, and abused its natural and human resources.

Perhaps the starkest omission is that the U.S. has played a long and devastating role in Haiti, including a brutal nineteen-year military occupation, from 1915 to 1934. Writes Historian Mary Renda:

While in Haiti, marines installed a puppet president, dissolved the legislature at gunpoint, denied freedom of speech, and forced a new constitution on the Caribbean nation–one more favorable to foreign investment. With the help of the marines, U.S. officials seized customs houses, took control of Haitian finances.… Meanwhile, marines waged war against insurgents (called cacos) who for several years maintained an armed resistance in the countryside, and imposed a brutal system of forced labor that engendered even more fierce Haitian resistance. By official U.S. estimates, more than 3,000 Haitians were killed during this period; a more thorough accounting reveals that the death toll may have reached 11,500.

Renda continues:”This extended breach of Haitian sovereignty constitutes an infamous but crucial chapter in Haitian history.” Yet, “the occupation has earned little more than a footnote in standard accounts of U.S. history.”2

This occupation was in fact a crucial moment in the development of American imperialism, and the brutality and betrayal of the long occupation is consistent with the treatment meted out to Haiti by the U.S. throughout its history to the present day.

From slavery to revolution

“Haiti” comes from the name given to the island it occupies by the original inhabitants, the Arawaks: “Ayiti,” meaning “land of the mountains.” The hilly island the Arawaks lived in was lush, beautiful, and bountiful. Edwidge Danticat explains in After the Dance, her account of the popular carnival at Jacmel, where Christopher Columbus first saw Haiti in the fifteenth century, that Columbus wrote in his log: “This island is very large…there are some of the most beautiful plains in the world, almost like the lands of Castille, only better.”3 It came to be known as the “jewel of the Caribbean” by the Spanish and then the French.4

There is much to suggest that the Arawaks were a generous and peaceable people. Columbus described their warm reception of him and his men: “They gave my men bread and fish and whatever they had. The Indians on my ship had told the Indian accompanying the sailors that I wanted a parrot, and he passed the word on.… They brought many parrots and required no payment for them.”5 As Danticat explains, the kindness was not reciprocated: “The cost to the Arawaks, however, was great. A hundred years after Columbus’s arrival, they had all but disappeared. And the Spaniards, having exhausted the mining possibilities of their lands, moved on to newer adventures…”6 French settlers moved in, and for some time they fought the Spanish for dominion of the land until, in 1697, they carved it in two, forming a French colony in the west, Saint Domingue (now Haiti); and a Spanish one, Santo Domingo in the east (now the Dominican Republic).

Haiti soon became a huge source of wealth for the French, who enslaved Africans and forced them to work on sugar, coffee, and tobacco plantations. Like all the plantation economies that provided the “primitive accumulation” of young capitalism, Saint Domingue was an ugly and brutal place: An immensely wealthy elite of slave-owners pursued lives of extravagance and opulence, while presiding over a system that denied the vast majority of Black slaves the most basic requirements of humanity. The central division was between the white slave-owning minority and Black slave majority, but the system also relied on an elaborate hierarchical system of divisions based on status and color. A minority of gens de couleur or mulattoes, light-skinned free Blacks, also owned slaves. The race-obsessed system divided the nonwhite population into no fewer than 128 divisions based on skin color and ancestry.

Again, like the other plantation societies of the eighteenth century, the slaves of Saint Domingue constantly resisted their enslavement, periodically in organized rebellions. Many escaped, and joined with other former slaves and affranchis, free Blacks, in the forests and mountains. These “maroons” became increasingly organized and sizeable, and in 1790 started to develop into rebel cells, using voodoo–a religion combining Catholicism with African traditions–and hornlike conch shells to communicate. In August 1791, according to Haitian legend, they came together in Bois Caiman–Caiman woods–under the leadership of a Vodou Houngan, or priest, and vowed to overthrow the brutal slave owners by coordinating a campaign of burning the plantations and killing the planters. Unlike the slave rebellions of other plantation societies, this was a successful revolution. Overcoming the armies of Spain, Britain, and France, and the divisions between themselves–the slaves, mulattoes, and free Blacks came together to fight their common enemy. In 1804, Haiti became an independent nation. This remarkable achievement forms a crucial part of Haiti’s popular culture and history.

Independent Haiti: Island in a storm

Yet Haitians had to continually struggle to maintain their security and their freedom: The contradictions of the slave economy and the hostility of the world’s powers formed insurmountable obstacles to the establishment of a healthy nation. The new rulers–drawn from the gens de couleur and Black military leaders–wanted to establish a profitable economy based on commodity production for export; many tried to re-establish plantations. The majority of former slaves wanted freedom from the humiliation and hardship of plantation labor, and the right to subsistence farming on their own plots of land. Meanwhile, the world powers, led by the U.S. and the Vatican, would not recognize Haiti’s sovereignty–the U.S. refusing to do so until 1862–and placed an embargo on trade and political relations with this lone Black nation. In 1825, France finally agreed to recognize Haiti, but at a price: Haiti was to pay 150 million francs as an indemnity to the French planters who lost their land in the revolution. This saddled Haiti with a debt that crippled its already foundering economy and increased Haitian dependence on France. The new Black nation also faced the constant threat of invasion by the world powers: Its territorial waters were in fact invaded many times in the second half of the nineteenth century by Spain, Britain, France, the U.S., Germany, Sweden, and Norway. Despite formal prohibitions, foreign merchants, particularly German and American, continued to operate in Haiti: The global ostracism ensured that trade would be on their terms, not the Haitians’. As Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot puts it “the foreign trader has always operated in Haiti with the assurance that he can call in a foreign power if necessary.”7

Haitian writer Michael J. Dash writes of how the U.S., fearing that the example of a successful slave rising and independence struggle might spread, used its influence in Haiti to promote internally repressive, externally obedient, regimes:

It was this influence that was feared, and the United States relaxed only when the counter-revolution led by elite interests within Haiti made the possibility of Haitian success unlikely. The United States since then has tended to favor any regime, Black or mulatto, from Boyer to Duvalier, which reduced Haiti to an impoverished, peasant community.8

Haiti became a nation with a weak and heavily dependent economy and growing divisions between the majority of peasants and the elite–who were willing to make deals with foreign powers to enrich themselves–and therefore chronic political instability was the rule.

Economic patterns developed that would determine Haiti’s crisis-prone future. The vast majority were agricultural workers–peasants using archaic methods of production, with a feudal relationship to the landowning class. The fruits of their labor were seized by the landowners and the middle men, who dealt with the foreign merchants who exported primary goods–coffee, cocoa, and logwood–for the world market.

Through heavy taxation on basic goods, peasants also bore the brunt of repaying the loans from foreign powers secured by the Haitian ruling class. A vicious cycle emerged whereby the peasants worked harder but produced less and sank further into poverty, while the urban elite enriched themselves. Despite their actual dependency on the mass of laborers, the elite became increasingly removed from them; this is shown by the fact that the peasantry became known as the mounn andeyo, “the people outside.” The rulers were Roman Catholic, spoke French, the official language, and enjoyed fine imported goods and culture from France; the masses practiced voodoo, spoke Haitian Creole, were mostly illiterate and lived perilously close to destitution. The pigmentocracy developed under the plantation system continued: The elite–perhaps 3 percent of the population at the time of the 1915 invasion–consisted mostly of light-skinned descendants of the gens de couleur while the majority were mostly Black.

The state became increasingly militarized and corrupt, dominated by patronage. The customs houses at Port-au-Prince, which accounted for all government revenues, became the country’s main power source. As the nineteenth century turned, a series of military governments rose and fell; of the eleven presidents between 1888 and 1915 none served a complete seven-year term, and all but one were either killed or overthrown. According to Trouillot, no single group was able to assume absolute power due to three factors: The military was decentralized; different regions of the country still exerted some autonomy from Port-au-Prince; and imperialist rivals abroad gave support to different factions, preventing any one from becoming all-powerful.

The 1915 occupation

The U.S. government’s official reason for invading was to protect human rights and restore democracy. Haitian President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was overthrown in July 1915, after he massacred 167 political prisoners; his opponents dismembered him and paraded his body parts around Port-au-Prince. Historian Hans Schmidt writes:

The United States, as the self-appointed trustee of civilization in the Caribbean, was obligated to maintain minimal standards of decency and morality. The weakness of this argument was readily demonstrated by opponents of the intervention. A prominent Haitian writer, referring to an incident in a southern United States town where a Black man was dragged form the local jail and burned alive in the town square, pointed out that barbarity also existed in the United States. In a 1929 U.S. congressional debate, several congressmen noted that the number of Haitian presidents assassinated over the years was almost the same as the number of American presidents assassinated and that since 1862, the year of the American recognition of Haiti, the number was identical–three presidents killed in each country.9

Such logic did not deter the U.S., since these justifications were simply alibis for the invasion and occupation, which were actually driven by imperialist competition. As Trouillot explains, “Plans for the invasion were in the works at least a year before the events that precipitated it.”10 The U.S. ruling class saw military occupation as a way to establish political and economic dominance of Haiti and secure a base of power in the region. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the United States had been interested in acquiring a naval base in the Caribbean. Securing Haiti’s deep and protected harbor at Môle-Saint-Nicolas had been considered favorably by presidents Johnson and Grant; and again seriously by Secretary of State James G. Blaine in the late 1880s. In the 1890s, increasing emphasis on American naval expansion and the subsequent building of the Panama Canal again heightened the attraction.

American warships had in fact been very active in Haitian waters in the previous fifty years, visiting Haitian ports to “protect American lives and property” on numerous occasions. In the late nineteenth century the State Department worked actively to develop American trade, in competition with France and increasingly Germany, which had successfully penetrated the Haitian economy. By the first decade of the twentieth century, U.S. capitalism had made significant inroads in trade, and investments in railroad construction and banking. This interest in Haiti was part of the larger Caribbean plan, which in turn was part of the broader effort by the U.S. to become an imperialist power capable of challenging its European rivals. Mary Renda summarizes: “[Haiti] was one of several important arenas in which the United States was remade through overseas imperial ventures in the first third of the 20th century. The transformations of imperialism were also effected in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Nicaragua, China, the Philippines, and dozens of other places around the globe.”11 The Monroe Doctrine explicitly staked out Latin America and the Caribbean as the United States’ sphere of influence. The “big stick” policy of President Roosevelt–based on dominating Latin America through military might–was continued by President Taft, whose policy was “oriented towards introducing American financial participation as a means of limiting European influence.”12

While the U.S. had direct commercial interests to defend and expand, the central motivation for the invasion of Haiti in 1915 was negative: It wanted to stop its rivals, particularly Germany, from acquiring more influence.

The immediate actions of the occupying forces blatantly contradicted the rhetoric of bringing freedom and democracy to Haiti. First, they installed a puppet president, Philippe-Sudre Dartiguenave, one hundred armed marines “overseeing” his “election” by the senate (which they dissolved the following year). They wrote and imposed a convention giving the U.S. the right to police the country and take control of public finances. They seized the national bank and the customs houses. They wrote a new constitution that granted foreigners the right to own property–removing one of the central principles of Haitian independence. When the National Assembly refused to pass the constitution, the occupiers compelled the puppet president to dissolve the assembly. The official story was that the president Dartiguenave was responsible for the dissolution, but Major General Smedley Butler, who was in charge of the occupation at the time, observed privately that the assembly had become “so impudent that the Gendarmerie had to dissolve them, which dissolution was effected by genuinely Marine Corps methods.”13 The new constitution also created a Council of State, to be appointed by the client president, to take over all legislative functions until the elected legislature was reconstituted, at some unnamed future date. The occupying forces instructed Dartiguenave to declare war against Germany in July 1918, which enabled them to intern or supervise all Germans in the country and sequester their property.14 Since the start of the First World War, Butler had been urging the state department to

“cook up” some scheme to drive the German influence out of this country, now that the ‘open season’ for Germans is upon us, as after the war we should control this island.… A declaration of war would permit us to take most any step we saw fit towards the German holdings here.15

In one of Edwidge Danticat’s short stories a character says: “The Americans taught us how to build prisons. By the end of the 1915 occupation, the police in the city really knew how to hold human beings trapped in cages.”16 The U.S. did indeed establish a national gendarmerie, or military police force. The marines who became gendarmerie officers ruled their respective regions, and the commandant–the first was Butler–effectively ruled the country. Butler had previously headed up the occupation of Nicaragua. The Nation in 1921 noted that his brutality was so broadly known that Nicaraguan mothers threatened naughty children that “General Butler will get you.”17 The gendarmerie’s rank and file came from the Haitian poor, and this became an avenue for social advancement for a small section of this class. In order to facilitate their control of the whole country, the occupying force also embarked on a project of road building, and to do this they imposed a corvée– a system of forced labor–on the Haitian people. The occupation at the same time initiated a policy of “uplift,” in keeping with the racist idea of the “white man’s burden” that was so central to British imperialism. They set up a technical school system, and embarked on a project of public works and public health. But these social programs were always secondary to two objectives. First, national development was, as Mary Renda puts it “based on the assumptions and imperatives of international capitalism.”18

Electricity, plumbing, telephones, paved roads, and bridges…would facilitate the establishment of stability because policing could be more effective with improvements in communication and transportation…(and) they would make possible increased American investment in the Haitian economy.19

Second, investment in infrastructure, public education, and health was always subordinate to debt repayment. Successful maintenance of foreign debt repayment was in fact probably the only “positive” achievement of the nineteen-year occupation.

Furthermore, the idea of benevolent development coexisted with vicious racism. Schmidt’s history gives us plenty of examples of the attitudes of those who implemented and ran the occupation: Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan infamously said of the Haitian elite “Dear me, think of it! Niggers speaking French.”20 State Department Counselor Robert Lansing believed that “[t]he experience of Liberia and Haiti show that the African race are devoid of any capacity for political organization and lack genius for government. Unquestionably there is in them an inherent tendency to revert to savagery and to cast aside the shackles of civilization which are irksome to their physical nature.”21 And Assistant Secretary of State William Philipps bemoaned “‘the failure of an inferior people to maintain the degree of civilization left them by the French.”22 Such attitudes posed practical problems. At one point the president of the Black Tuskegee College (which was often cited as a model for the technical school), Robert Moton, was charged by President Hoover to visit Haiti and advise the administrators. However, as the visiting team members were Black, they were not allowed passage to Haiti on U.S. Navy ships.

The American occupying army was met with hostility and resistance. The majority of Haitians were against the occupation and their opposition took many forms. Within the elite there emerged new movements known variously as “Indigenist,” “Haitianist,” or “Africanist,” forerunners of the negritude movement, that rejected the influence of European culture and looked for a new identity based in Haiti’s Black, African origins. New cultural movements investigated and celebrated Haitian folklore–the religion and language of the peasantry. Among Haitian novelists and poets there arose a new style of socially engaged literature–”la litterature engagée.” Politically, Marxist internationalism became more influential and in 1934 writer Jacques Roumain founded the Haitian Communist Party. Left intellectuals were oriented around newspapers critical of the occupation; their editors and writers were frequently arrested and imprisoned by the American authorities, who maintained ruthless censorship throughout their rule. But the political reaction to the occupation that would become dominant was based around nationalism and patriotism, which paved the way for the noirisme or Black nationalism, manipulated by dictator François Duvalier.

From armed resistance to mass rebellion

The occupation confronted powerful resistance from the peasantry, who organized into rebel armies known as cacos. According to mythology they were named after a fiery red bird, and this is why they wore patches of red material to identify themselves. From the initial invasion, cacos fought the marines. Like their marroon ancestors, they used conch shells to communicate, and gathered in the mountains to plot against the hated invaders. The occupying army followed a policy of “vigorous pursuit and decimation,” and used all the latest in weaponry against the hoes, sticks, and stones of the Haitian peasants. In a single battle at Fort Rivière, 200 cacos were killed; there were no American casualties. Butler talked of his men hunting the cacos like pigs (he was awarded a medal by President Roosevelt for this). By the fall of 1915, the first caco resistance was crushed. But after the imposition of forced labor, the cacos came back in even greater numbers and the scattered resistance turned into full-scale revolt. The corvée was officially terminated, but the rebellion was not able to end the occupation. Rebel leader Charlemagne Peralte organized a provisional government in the north and thousands of Haitians fought alongside him–some estimates suggest as many as 15,000 at the height of resistance–but the American government and military maintained the myth throughout that opposition was restricted to an elite minority.

Again the Americans used all their superior weaponry to destroy the opposition. In the first case of recorded air-ground combat, the marines surrounded groups of cacos and dropped bombs on them. The Marine Corps officially registered more than 1,800 Haitian fatalities in 1919. Among them was Charlemagne Peralte. Two marines, disguised as Haitians and tipped off by an informer, went to his camp and shot him. The triumphant marines tied his dead body to a door and displayed it in an attempt to intimidate the population, but the Haitians saw a resemblance to Jesus on the crucifix, and Peralte became a popular martyr. The rebellion was nonetheless crushed, and until 1929 the occupation met little organized resistance.

After fifteen years there had been no democratization or shift toward self-determination, and the occupation remained monolithically authoritarian. The occupation had, in fact, become an embarrassment to the American government since the end of the First World War, but they were unable to extricate themselves. Only the massive military presence kept the client government in place; without it the country would have replaced the U.S.-imposed regime with something of their own choosing. By the late 1920s, opposition was mounting at home: The Nation published an issue on the case for Haitian independence, and prominent Americans, especially African Americans, made links with the Haitian opposition. Stories of atrocities committed by marines at the highest levels against Haitian civilians were made public, fueling opposition in the United States.

Meanwhile, the economic recession caused the coffee market, already hit by a bad crop in 1928, to collapse, removing the one source of income for most Haitians. At the same time, the occupying government increased taxes and once more “postponed” elections, at a time when the client president, Louis Borno, was widely hated. “These factors exacerbated the latent hatred of the occupation inspired by American racial condescension and boorish military dictation.”23

The result was a mass rebellion against the occupation. It started with a series of student strikes against the technical school established by the occupying regime. In late October 1929, students walked out to protest changes in how scholarships were awarded. A British reporter in the Manchester Guardian wrote, “resentment against the American occupation has long been smoldering and needed only some minor dispute to cause it to burst into flame.”24 This was the spark.

Sympathy strikes spread across private and public schools all over the country. The authorities attempted to pacify protesters by announcing that President Borno would not return to power at the end of his term, but at the same time the regime appealed for more marines. In December, the rebellion became generalized, with a strike by workers at the customs houses in Port-au-Prince–the heart of the country’s wealth. The strikes led to general mass protests on the streets, where marine patrols were stoned. The Americans imposed a curfew and military law, shut down the opposition press, dispatched marines across the nation, fired government workers who had gone on strike, and arrested protesters. On December 6, 1,500 peasants protested against taxes and arrests of protesters in Cayes. Marine airplanes dropped bombs on the harbor, which only enraged the Haitians more. Around 1,500 peasants armed with stones, machetes, and clubs, confronted twenty marines armed with automatic weapons. The marines opened fire into the crowd, killing two dozen and injuring more than fifty Haitians. The U.S. Navy awarded the Navy Cross to the commander of the detachment for “commendable courage and forbearance.”

The official response, carried by the “embeds” of the time, Associated and United Press reporters who were also marine officers, maintained that opposition was restricted to a minority, “a few elite politicians.” An American colonel said that the strikes and protests were the work of an “international red conspiracy” and “dishonest, paid agitators.” But as news reached the world, public opinion turned strongly against the occupation. One American congressman remarked, while criticizing the U.S. marines for “playing pirates” in Haiti: “Our smugness irritates the world and does not blind it. The White House often fools the country, but seldom fools the world.”25 The Communist Party played a major role in publicizing the truth of the occupation. They sent out, for example, a press release about the Cayes massacre to African American newspapers across the U.S. and worked with the Anti-Imperialist League to organize conferences and generate and distribute literature about imperialism in Haiti.26

The criticism coming from across the world, including Latin America and at home, was very embarrassing to the Hoover administration, which had been boasting about their “good neighbor” policy towards Latin America. As protests escalated, the U.S. government sent in a task force, “the Forbes Commission,” to evaluate the occupation. They were met by 6,000 protesters with placards denouncing the occupation. The commission’s report, predictably, mostly praised the occupation, but, recognizing the scale of the problem, also recommended that Colonel John H. Russell, Haiti’s appointed high commissioner, be removed, and preparations be made for American withdrawal. President Borno was to be replaced by an interim government and elections were scheduled for November 1930. Ominously, the report concluded of Haitians’ future that, “their best hope is for a benevolent despot to arise, who like Porfirio Diaz in Mexico, will guide them.”27 As historian Schmidt points out, Diaz was benevolent only to American interests.

In Haiti, the rebellion continued to escalate after the commission left. Protesters burned down homes of marine colonels in what High Commissioner Russell referred to as an attempt to “create a reign of terror among the Americans.”28 There was a general strike in Cap Haitien. Longshoremen, coffee sorters, logwood workers, agricultural laborers, public works, and sanitary department employees all walked out, undaunted by the punishments meted out against previous striking workers.

The elections soundly defeated the American-supported candidate and selected the Haitian nationalist Sténio Vincent. The U.S. was forced to withdraw ahead of schedule and troops finally left in 1934. Before leaving, however, the U.S. government made a deal with Vincent, bypassing the more principled Haitian legislature, in the Executive Accord of August 1933. In exchange for withdrawal of troops and a loan, the U.S. government would maintain supervision of Haitian finances until all outstanding American bonds expired in 1952.

What was the outcome of the occupation’s vaunted policy of “uplift?” After nineteen years, 95 percent of Haitians remained illiterate–the same as before the invasion. Despite an explicit goal of diversifying and therefore stabilizing the Haitian economy, Haiti was even more dependent on a single crop, coffee. While sisal, a plant fiber used for making rope, and banana production had started to develop, both were controlled by American companies. The terms of trade had been shifted overwhelmingly in favor of U.S. interests. The occupation also intensified the inherently unjust system of raising money through taxes and customs duties from the Haitian peasantry.

The U.S. left a highly centralized state apparatus in Port-au-Prince and a large U.S.-trained military well practiced in repressing domestic rebellions. The gendarmerie of Haiti was to become the Duvalier dictatorship’s chief weapon; just as the constabularies developed during the U.S. occupation of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua were central to the Batista, Trujillo, and Somoza dictatorships. All the practices of absolutism perfected by the Duvalier regime were actually introduced by the occupation: Martial law and military tribunals for civilians; intimidation and imprisonment of journalists; dissolution of the legislature; indiscriminate killing of peasants; civilian administrative roles filled by soldiers; censorship of culture.29 The negative role of the U.S. in Haiti throughout the twentieth century was more than simply a legacy, however. U.S. power continued to hover over Haiti, aiding its dictators and intervening more directly whenever necessary.

The Duvalier regime

By the 1950s the conflicts exacerbated by the occupation came to a head, as the peasantry, already drained to such an extent that it was at or below subsistence level, was hard hit by another collapse in the international coffee market. A series of short-lived governments were unable to offer any solution other than increased taxation and repression.

In 1957, a campaign of military terror was unleashed on the suffering population, “the totalitarian response was the brainchild of the army trained by the marines, and particularly of the cadets of the graduating class of 1930—1931.”30 That year a decree banned “drawings, prints, paintings, writings, or any other mode of expression of thought aimed at undermining the authority of the state” and another outlawed the wearing of khaki or “or any other cloth of that shade”–the army was instructed to open fire on anyone wearing light brown or olive green.31

In this context, François Duvalier won the presidential election in September 1957. Using the rhetoric of noirisme, Black nationalism, he promised to redistribute the wealth out of the hands of the light-skinned elite to the Black majority. In fact, once in power, he favored the very elite he claimed to despise. Duvalier made sure that the share of coffee profits would grow for the merchants and middlemen, and fall for the peasants. Duvalierism thus led to an extreme social polarization between an astonishingly wealthy minority on the one hand, and the impoverished bulk of the population on the other. The only wealth he redistributed was from the pockets of the poor via the state coffers into the pockets of his henchmen and lackeys.

As Trouillot puts it, Duvalier “formalized the crisis” of Haiti. He attacked all national institutions that could support an opposition; shut down the press, purged the Catholic Church, schools, and colleges; cracked down on the unions; punished his critics with torture and execution and rewarded his followers from his slush funds; and created a climate of terror through random violent attacks by the military. He built “a maniacal private security force,”32 a new plain clothes body of armed thugs, the dreadful tonton-makout or Tontons Macoutes, named after the frightening bogeyman of folklore who stole children and put them in his basket. The Macoutes made it clear that nobody was immune from state terror. Women, children, the elderly, state officials–all were vulnerable to indiscriminate attack at any time.

While “Papa Doc” Duvalier, as he came to be known (in a name that linked him to the voodoo deities), was not installed by the U.S. government, and at times, especially during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, was not on good terms with it, ultimately his regime survived and thrived on American support. This was because Duvalier proved himself very useful to U.S. imperialism in two major ways. First, he unconditionally supported U.S. capital. In the first four years of his regime, for example, the American Reynolds Mining Company, with a monopoly on Haitian bauxite mining, paid a mere 7 percent of its earnings to the Haitian state; and those exports controlled by the U.S.–sisal, sugar cane, copper, and bauxite increased. Second, during the Cold War Duvalier acted as a bulwark against communism, a counterweight against Cuba. He proved his anti-communist credentials by destroying the Haitian Communist Party, Parti Unifié des Communistes Haitiens or PUCH (Unified Party of Haitian Communists), and then pursuing a witch hunt against the Left that would have been the envy of Joseph McCarthy:

[Duvalier’s government] physically eliminated, imprisoned, or forced into exile hundreds of progressive intellectuals, writers, professors, journalists, and union and peasant leaders. The vast majority of these people had no contact with the PUCH or with any other political organization. In ideological terms, most of the victims were barely what U.S. nomenclature would describe as left of center. But that was all it took.… Duvalier used the proven existence of a few armed communists to push the legislature into voting a legal monstrosity, the Anti-Communist Law of April 1969. Every “profession of communist belief, verbal or written, public or private” was declared a crime against national security and made its perpetrator into an “outlaw eligible for the death penalty meted out by a permanent military court.”33

From then on, Haiti became a firm ally of the United States. Nelson Rockefeller visited to pay his respects to Papa Doc, and when his son Jean-Claude Duvalier inherited the presidency, U.S. vessels patrolled Haitian waters to make sure the inauguration was not interrupted.34

From neoliberalism to Lavalas

Jean-Claude Duvalier, who came to power in 1971, played just as important a role for imperialism’s next phase, neoliberalism. He opened up the economy to light industry and oversaw the development of assembly plants that offered cheap, non-unionized labor–predominantly of young women–to manufacture clothing, baseballs, and other goods for American companies on wages that barely covered costs of transport and food for the worker. In the coming decades, neoliberalism would transform the nation, accelerating the decline of the peasant system of agriculture, causing hundreds of thousands to flee rural poverty for the cities. The poor crowded into slums like Cité Soleil outside Port-au-Prince, where more than 200,000 people live in tin-roofed, cinderblock, and cardboard shacks without electricity, water, or sewers.

The dire consequences of American influence in this period can be seen graphically in the Creole pig incident of the early 1980s. On the (unproven) grounds that an outbreak of African swine fever threatened the North American pork industry, the U.S. government paid Duvalier to exterminate the Creole pigs that played a crucial role in the peasant economy and replace them with pigs imported from the United States. Many, especially poorer peasants, never received the promised replacement pigs; those who did found that these animals failed miserably to adapt to the Haitian environment. This struck a terrible blow to the rural economy and further contributed to the problem of deforestation, as many of the rural poor turned to charcoal production to replace their lost pigs.35

The period of the Duvaliers’ rule was also one of increased international “aid,” largely in the form of loans from the International Monetary Fund, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the North American and Western European governments. The corrupt regime siphoned off much of the money for personal gain and very little was invested in development. Between 1973 and 1980 Haiti’s debt increased from $53 million to $366 million, while the percentage of the population living in extreme poverty increased from 48 percent in 1976 to 81 percent 1985. Loans were contingent on an economic orientation on agricultural exports and the assembly industry–”The American Plan”–which ruined Haiti’s peasant farmers while benefiting only U.S. and Haitian corporate elites.36 The American plan proved an economic disaster. Official unemployment increased from 22 to 30 percent between 1980 and 1986, and in the same period economic growth showed an annual 2.5 percent decline.37

But after a decade in which a minority continued to enrich itself and flaunt its extravagances, while the majority was squeezed and battered, Haiti’s majority again rose up to fight against its enemies at home and abroad. In the late 1980s, a mass movement developed, using the church and radio stations to organize an opposition to the Duvalier regime and to the conditions brought on them by American imperialism and global capitalism.

Despite repression, tens of thousands took to the streets until, in 1986, they ousted Jean-Claude Duvalier. Gage Averill’s eyewitness account conveys the jubilant mood:

As the news of Duvalier’s exile spread throughout the country, throngs took to the street, stripping trees of their branches and hoisting them high in the air as symbols of renewal. Crowds sang the French version of Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne,” a song of parting that takes on sarcastic overtones when bidding farewell to a humiliated or despised ruler.38

The people of Haiti, free of Duvalier, talked of dechoukaj–Haitian Creole for uprooting–which meant pulling the old regime up by the roots. A popular song of the time, (translated from the Haitian Creole) declared, “Wo, uproot them/ We’re uprooting all of the bad weeds/ in order to unite,” and the poor did just that:

Dechoukaj ruled the land as Haitians administered a people’s justice, looting the villas of the rich, lynching Tontons Macoutes and staging strikes and sit-down protests to drive Duvalierists out of their jobs and into hiding. The Macoutes’ new national headquarters was turned into a school; some cabinet ministers handed back their salaries; communist historian Roger Gaillard was named head of the university; the Cité Simone slum, named for Duvalier’s mother, was renamed after the Church’s Radyo Soley; and women marched to demand their rights for the first time in Haitian history.39

By the end of the decade the movement consolidated into Lavalas–which means cleansing wave or flood–and the slogan “alone we are weak, together, together we are a flood” rang loud in the streets, on t-shirts, and on posters. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a radical priest and activist for the rights of the poor, emerged as a leader. In 1990 he was elected on a reform platform by a 67.5 percent majority–in a contest that had fourteen candidates–and Haiti’s majority celebrated their seeming liberation on the streets of cities and villages across the nation.

Just nine months later, however, a military coup was launched, funded by the nation’s seven richest families and orchestrated by Duvalierist thugs. The coup regime took its revenge on the population with mass arrests, assassinations, torture, beatings, rapes, and atrocities for the next three years. And in September 1994, U.S. troops again entered Haiti. The goal of this invasion, the official story goes, was not to repress but to liberate the Haitian people, remove a military regime, and reinstate a democratically elected president living in exile in the United States. “Operation Restore Democracy” was to be the poster child of American foreign policy in the post—Cold War era: This was to be a “humanitarian intervention.” Stephen Solarz, in his stunningly naive foreword to Schmidt’s history of the first intervention, summarizes the official ideology of the 1994 invasion:

The primary difference between the interventions in 1915 and 1994 was the motivation…in the latter, the purpose of our intervention was not to deny a foreign power the use of Haitian territory for military purposes, but to restore to its proper place on Haitian territory the democratically elected government of the country.40

In reality, the substance remained the same, only the details were different. The goal of this invasion, like the first, was to protect the interests of American imperialism. The main threat to those interests was not the coup regime, but rather the masses–who had already unseated a U.S. ally, Duvalier, and now were challenging the entire system of neoliberalism.

The evidence for this is everywhere. First, in the fact that the U.S. government consistently sponsored the Duvalier regime while it was in power, and when the uprising threatened to bring him down, they came to the rescue. Greg Chamberlain describes Duvalier’s exit in February 1986 this way: “It was clear…that the longer the revolt went on, the more radical influences and anti-U.S. sentiment would grow. Washington had to act, organizing a night escape of the Duvaliers into exile in France.”41

Once they’d removed Duvalier to safety, the U.S. installed the National Government Council (CNG), containing key figures of the old regime and led by right-wing General Henri Namphy; the CNG officially abolished the Tontons Macoutes, “but many simply changed uniforms and slipped quietly into the ranks of the army or police.”4243

The U.S. government granted $2.8 million in military aid for CNG’s first year, even as human rights organizations protested and Haitians demonstrated against the government. And with good reason: The CNG, using U.S. money, gunned down more Haitians than had Duvalier in the previous fifteen years.44 Throughout the period the U.S. maintained a hostile stance toward Aristide. In the 1990 elections, the U.S. supported and funded former World Bank official and darling of of the multinational corporations Marc Bazin, through the ironically named “National Endowment for Democracy.” Journalist Bob Shacochis, who was in Haiti during the period, witnessed the institutional double-dealing:

The CIA, in collusion with elements in the Defense and State Departments, Congress, the INS and the national press, was openly working to subvert the White House’s stated policy. It launched a smear campaign against Titid’s (Aristide’s nickname) mental health with fabricated evidence recycled by…a senior analyst at the agency.… [T]he agency functioned as a behind the scenes architect of FRAPH, a paramilitary terrorist organization run by a media-slick, cocaine-snorting, self infatuated madman named Emmanuel “Toto” Constant.45

The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s Colonel Patrick Collins met with Constant and “urged him to organize an effective counterforce to Aristide’s base of popular support among the masses.” Agents met with Constant almost daily, gave him $700 a month, walkie-talkies, and updates from their surveillance.46

Many of the junta members and supporters received substantial U.S. funding, through the National Endowment for Democracy, the U.S. Agency for International Development, as well as the CIA–all agencies that have worked against the development of popular movements in Haiti. The Haitian people saw through the duplicity of the United States. Gage Averill cites Haitian popular songs from the late 1980s that

suggested that little had really changed in Haiti since February 7, 1986: Duvalierists still held state power, class relations were largely unchanged, and the transition in Haiti was being managed by the U.S. State Department precisely to forestall revolutionary change.47

But if the U.S. largely orchestrated the coup, it adamantly denied responsibility for the ensuing suffering. During the coup’s reign of terror in 1991, 38,000 Haitians fled and sought refuge in the United States. Of those, less than 5 percent received asylum and the rest were repatriated or held in prison camps at Guantánamo Bay. Even more criminally, U.S. agencies actually gave names and addresses to coup leaders of some of those who had attempted to flee, guaranteeing arrest, torture, and execution for unknown numbers.48

The U.S. agreed to an embargo on the coup regime. But its impact was exclusively on the poor, not the ruling class, as Shacochis recognized with characteristic derision:

The embargo’s impact on one’s opportunity for fine dining in Petionville was zero…except for the better hotels, the military caserns, central police stations, and homes flush enough to afford a generator, the entire country had been living in darkness, without electricity, for months.49

Prior to the invasion, the U.S. secured a deal with the coup leaders in the infamous Governor’s Island Accord, with former President Jimmy Carter as the American spokesperson, chosen, as embassy spokesman Stanley Schrager put it, because “Carter knows how to ingratiate himself with tyrants and dictators.”50 The accord secured the coup leaders a role in the new regime. Aristide, on the other hand, would only be allowed to serve out the rest of his term (even though most of it had been stolen by the coup) and had to sign on to a strict structural adjustment program “intended to narrow the role of the state and control government spending, privatize the state-owned enterprises, maintain low wages, eliminate import tariffs, and provide incentives for export industries.”51

The actual military occupation did not disarm but rehabilitated the thugs of the Duvalier and coup regimes, giving the old police a facelift and calling it something new. In the process of supposedly monitoring the coup regime’s activities, U.S. officials seized approximately 150,000 pages of documentation from the headquarters of FRAPH and the Haitian army and refused to hand them over to Aristide. They doubtless contained evidence of years of atrocities, and of course CIA complicity.

Shacochis observed a typical scene in Port-au-Prince, where attachés–basically Macoutes by another name–fired into a crowd while the American army looked the other way. “The objective of the U.S. military now seemed rather conclusive–to protect the well-heeled elites up on the mountainside from the wrath of a million poor people in the slums below, whom the troops had supposedly come to liberate.”52 The other reason, made clear by the Clinton administration’s imprisonment of Haitian refugees, was to create the semblance of order in Haiti in order to justify a policy of refusing Haitian immigration into the United States.

Ten years after the occupation, the situation in Haiti had become so bad that, as a recent survey found, 67 percent of the population would emigrate if they could.53 Conditions are worse than ever. Poverty has grown more severe by the embargo on aid imposed by the U.S., European Union, Canada, and Japan supposedly because of electoral irregularities. The U.S., having happily paid for decades of Duvalier brutality, had the gall to refuse money to Aristide until he proved that such money would be “honestly spent.”

But Aristide, serving his second term as president, bore little resemblance to the rebel priest, advocate of the poor that so threatened the world’s rulers. None of the promised “literacy campaigns, rural clinics, public works, and land reform” materialized.54 His Lavalas Party was torn apart by divisions, and Aristide proceeded to rule by a cult of personality, totally disconnected from the mass movement that brought him to power, and he offered new Export Processing Zones at the border with the Dominican Republic as the solution. Tragically, the only opposition with any forces has come from the Right, which led to the new coup to remove Aristide, orchestrated by the Haitian ruling class in collaboration with the U.S. state.

Haiti’s mass movement for change has once again been cut down, with the collusion of the Haitian ruling class and U.S. imperialism. Yet the hope for the future remains where it always has–in the inspiration of the masses. They can only win if we do our part here, in exposing and opposing U.S. imperialism, and ultimately removing this major obstacle to Haitian freedom.


1 Quoted in Bob Shacochis, The Immaculate Invasion (New York: Viking, 1999), 254.

2 Mary A. Renda, Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915—1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 10,11.

3 Edwidge Danticat, After the Dance: A Walk through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti (New York: Crown Press, 2002), 39.

4 Ibid., 41.

5 Ibid., 40.

6 Ibid.

7 Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Haiti, State Against Nation: The Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990), 67.

8 J. Michael Dash, Haiti and the United States: National Stereotypes and the Literary Imagination, Second Edition (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 137.

9 Hans Schmidt, The United States Occupation of Haiti 1915—1934 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995), 66.

10 Trouillot, 100.

11 Renda, 12.

12 Schmidt, 45.

13 Quoted in Schmidt, 97.

14 Germans had circumvented the constitutional ban on foreign ownership by marrying landowning Haitian women.

15 Quoted in Schmidt, 94.

16 Edwidge Danticat, “Nineteen Thirty-Seven,” Krik? Krak! (New York: Soho Press, 1995), 35.

17 Quoted in Schmidt, 81.

18 Renda, 116.

19 Ibid., 117.

20 Quoted in Schmidt, 48.

21 Ibid., 62.

22 Ibid., 63.

23 Ibid., 196.

24 Ibid., 205.

25 Ibid., 204.

26 Renda, 269.

27 Schmidt, 216.

28 Ibid., 218.

29 Trouillot, 102—08.

30 Ibid., 148.

31 Ibid., 151.

32 Irwin Stotzky, Silencing the Guns In Haiti: The Promise of Deliberative Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 25.

33 Trouillot, 202—03.

34 Ibid., 204.

35 Charles Arthur, Haiti: A Guide to the People, Politics and Culture (New York: Interlink, 2002), 42.

36 Ibid., 48—49.

37 “Growth and Structure of the Economy,” Haiti, Library of Congress country studies, avaiable at http://countrystudies.us/haiti/.

38 Gage Averill, A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey: Popular Music and Power in Haiti (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 160.

39 Greg Chamberlain, “Up by the Roots: Haitian History Through 1987″ in NACLA, Haiti: Dangerous Crossroads (Boston: South End Press, 1995), 13—26, 19.

40 Stephen Solarz, “Foreword,” Schmidt, x.

41 Chamberlain, 18.

42 Averill, 162.

43 Trouillot, 226.

44 Ibid., 222.

45 Bob Shacochis, The Immaculate Invasion (New York: Viking, 1999), 29. Constant currently lives in the U.S.–a terrorist “harbored” by the country that backed him.

46 Ibid.

47 Averill, 165.

48 Nikol Payen’s personal account of her experience as Creole interpreter for the military at Guantánamo Bay tells of accompanying a boat of repatriated refugees from the naval base to Haiti. She watched in horror as a U.S. state department staff member handed over the refugees’ identity cards to Haitian soldiers waiting as they disembarked. “Something in the Water…Reflections of a People’s Journey” in Edwidge Danticat, ed., The Butterfly’s Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States (New York: Soho Press, 2001), 66—82.

49 Shacochis, 87.

50 Quoted in Shacochis, 74.

51 Arthur, 50.

52 Shacochis, 133.

53 Michael Norton, “No Solutions in Haiti,” Haiti Info, March 18, 2000, available at http://www.haiti-info.com/imprimer.php3?id_article=59.

54 New York Review of Books, March 13, 2003, 2



Haiti in Review
February 11, 2010, 6:01 am
Filed under: Caribbean, Haiti, History, Politics

James, C. L. R. (1963). The Black Jacobins. Random House, Inc.

Cyril Lionel Robert James chronicles the events leading to Haiti’s successful revolution between the years 1793-1801.  James illustrates that cultural continuity among the Yoruba slaves, James notes that Toussaint L’Ouverture had to grow into political maturity before he could lead African revolution. Once he reached his peak as both a statesman and  a leader, L’Ouverture, with help from mulatto factions and liberal French military advisors, successfully drove the Spanish to the east of the island of Hispaniola, then overcame the British and then finally Napoleon’s forces. When French forces captured L’Ouverture using the promise of a peace treaty with Napoleon as a successful ruse, Haiti never recovered.

Williams. E, E. (1970). From Columbus to Castro, The History of the Caribbean 1492-1969. Random House, Inc.

Dr. Eric Williams writes this book from a unique perspective, as both a former prime minister of Trinidad and professor of political science and history from Howard University. The Caribbean in general, Haiti in particular, France, Britain, and Spain coveted and exploited Haiti for two natural resources: gold and sugar. Between the Papal Bull of 1455 and the rise of European nationalism, the Caribbean proved to ripe for colonial conquest, especially since Portugal had already successfully developed a market for the sugar and slaves by using African slaves to cultivate sugar from the coastal African nations like Guinea.

Renda, M. A. (2003). Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940. The University of North Carolina Press.

Mary Renda, professor of U.S. history at Mount Holyoke College, proves two things that a 19-year military occupation leads to resentment and that one cannot export democracy. The only thing that U.S. military succeeded at while occupying Haiti was forcing themselves on Haitian women and forcing democratic reforms. Ultimately, the U.S. proved to succeed at the former and fail at the latter.

Farmer, P. (1994). The Uses of Haiti. Common Courage Press.

Dr. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health, an agency which offers free health care to various nations in the 3rd and 4th world including Haiti, where he observed the rise of Aristead. Farmer sees Aristead as a hero and a martyr, despite the fact that he incited a massacre of thousands of landless Haitians by the hands of mercenaries paid by wealthy landowners whom he could not subordinate. While Farmer lauds Aristead’s idealism, he seems to forget that the Catholic Church has often supported the powerful élite while promising the landless the endless hope of land redistribution.



Hello world!
February 11, 2010, 1:10 am
Filed under: Caribbean, Haiti, Uncategorized

This is the first time blogging on word press. I’m looking forward to writing vigorously and meeting new friends. This will be a great place on The Web.




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