Haiti Under Siege
200 years of U.S. imperialism
by Helen Scott
International Socialist Review,
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 1 1,500.
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."
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
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." It came to be known as the "jewel
of the Caribbean" by the Spanish and then the French.
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." 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..."
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
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 slaveowning 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
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 affianchis,
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 horn-like 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."
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,
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.
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 dose 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.
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." 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 Mole-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.""
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."
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." 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. Since the start of
the First World War, Butler had been urging the state department
"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.
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." 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." 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 corvee - 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."
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.
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
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." 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."' 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."
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 literature engagee." 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 Francois 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 Riviere, 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 corvee 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."
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." 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." 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.
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." 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." 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 Stenio 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
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. Ieft 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. 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
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."3°
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
In this context, Francois 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," 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
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 Unifie 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
[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."
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.
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 Cite 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.
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. 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.
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
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.
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,
Iynching 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 Cite 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.
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
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.
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."' Duvalier
actually drove his BMW to the airport where he was met by a U.S.
C-141 Starlifter cargo plane and taken, with his family and his
ill-gotten riches, to a happy retirement in France.
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." Trouillot calls the orchestrated
removal and establishment of the CNG "a multinational exercise
in crisis management; a calculated break in the democratic path
that the Haitian people had embarked on."
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. 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 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.
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
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.
But if the U.S. Iargely 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 Guantanamo 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.
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.
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." 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."
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 attaches - 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." 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
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. 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. 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