July 28, 2015 will evoke for many the centennial of the US occupation of Haiti that lasted from July 28 1915 to August 1934. The timelines below provide some of the context that led to this sad chapter in Haiti’s history and capture key events help to illustrate how history tends to repeat itself. We have also solicited comments from opinion leaders, academics and activists active in the Haiti reconstruction project. Some share with us their perspectives, lessons learned— or just not learned, to quote Dr. Margareth Armand from Florida.
Application of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 which opposed European interference in Latin America with WWI looming. It found its application in the Big Brother policy (late 1880s) and the Roosevelt Corollary Doctrine (late 1890s-early 1900s). It applied specifically to Haiti given strong German and French economics influences in the banking system and customs of Haiti and persistent rumors of Germany’s interest in Haiti’s Mole St Nicolas as a possible naval base - an idea previously entertained by US President Harrison. At the end of the 19th century with its variation, the Roosevelt Corollary, the Monroe Doctrine was in full motion with Marines invasion in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Dominican Republic and the construction of the Panama Canal.
1911- July 1915
Persistent political unrest in Haiti leads to the demise of six presidents in two years, with one perishing in the explosion of the national palace and another one, Guillaume Sam, lynched by a furious mob after the execution of several political prisoners. This latest development, coupled with the desire to put Haitian customs under receivership, secure economic interests of the National City Bank of New York —new owner of the Banque Nationale d’Haiti —and thwart European interests will provide the official justification to proceed with the debarkation of the US Marines.
July 28, 1915
Under order of President Woodrow Wilson, Admiral Caperton landed US Marines in Haiti. Up to 5,000 Marines mostly from the southern states will participate in the US occupation. Soldier Pierre Sully, who refused to stand down faced with US Marines approaching his military barrack, became the first casualty of the occupation.
The occupying forces imposed Sudra Dartiguenave to the Haitian legislators as president over fierce nationalist Rosalvo Bobo after surrounding the Haitian parliament to force a presidential vote.
October 17, 1915
As a gesture of protest and non-cooperation, poet and lawmaker Edmond Laforest committed suicide by drowning himself in a pool, a heavy dictionary – symbol of knowledge tied to his neck.
Charlemagne Peralte, a distinguished officer in Leôgane, retired in his native Hinche after refusing to surrender his command to the US Marines. From there he started to plan and launched the armed Cacos resistance movement against the US Marines. Cacos were peasant rebels who have in the past resisted oppressive governments through guerilla warfare. More than 40,000 cacos would participate in the guerilla war that lasted two years.
President Sudre Dartiguenave dissolved the parliament due to its refusal to approve a constitution drafted by the US Secretary of Marine Franklin D. Roosevelt. The new constitution achieves a major policy: the removal of a clause in effect since Haiti’s independence (1804) that forbade land ownership by foreigners to protect Haiti’s self-defense interests. According to historian Suzy Castor, this led to foreigners and especially US companies, acquiring about 15.000 hectare of land by 1929. Some of the lands will also be used to develop agricultural projects geared toward US markets (sisal, latex, mining…) deteriorating the land or the ecosystem in the process. As a result of expropriations, many laborers would leave the country to work in sugarcane fields for the Dominican Republic or Cuba.
US Marines move to implement “La Corvee,” a new legal provision that institutes 6 forced days of labor annually on peasants to help build roads and other public infrastructures.
October 31, 1919
Charlemagne Péralte in killed by two Marines in an ambush, betrayed by one of his lieutenants. He would later achieve a hero status in Haiti, comparable to Argentine’s Che Guevara in Cuba. A Haitian currency bears his portrait.
The US Occupation led to the building of a number of infrastructures, including some 1,700 miles of roads, a functional sanitation system, drinking water distribution system, the Agricultural School in Damiens, military barracks and creation of the Gendarmerie d’Haiti (a precursor to the Armed Forces of Haiti, disbanded in 1994). During this period, a new generation of Haitian physicians trained in the US will emerge. Several health campaigns are successfully implemented.
Ethnologist, political leader Dr. Jean Price Mars publishes an important voluminous essay “Ainsi Parla l’oncle / So Spoke the Uncle,” viewed as a rallying cry against the rejection of traditional Haitian and African practices and values. The publication was released both as a reaction to racist attitude exhibited by the marines and their officers – much of them from Southern states- and what Mars denounced as “intellectual bovarysm”, adoption of foreign values in an attempt a seeking validation. “Ainsi parla l’oncle”, prompted a return of Afro-centric values among Haitian intellectuals, led to the creation of the indigenous literary school and will be viewed later by many scholars as a key moment in the evolution of the Harlem renaissance movement.
Students at the Agricultural School demonstrate against the Freeman Law that removed entitlements that benefited students from rural origins on campus; the same year about 1,500 demonstrators from the areas of Torbeck and Chantal in the South of Haiti protesting the oppressive rules of President Borno supported by the Marines, and higher taxes on their harvests, are met by a group of Marines. The Marines fired at the crowd, killing some 20 people. This incident caused a major blemish to the US, prompting president Hoover to initiate a commission to investigate a withdrawal of the Marines.
The Herbert Hoover administration dispatches the Forbes Commission in Haiti to assess the political climate and a possible withdraw of the US troops.
Visit of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Haiti’s Cap-Haïtien in anticipation of the withdrawal of the US troops in Haiti.
The US troops depart from Haiti.
The US occupation of Haiti left a mix legacy. It halted internal in-fighting and can boast clear performances in the creation of lasting infrastructures in the country: roads, public administration buildings, organization of the financial system, structuration of a health care system, training of future public health experts, training of a national guard.
On the other hand, new migration fluxes due to forces expropriations, shift in agricultural priorities that affected resources, trade transactions that were always designed to benefit US investors to the detriment of Haiti, racist or discriminatory behaviors of the occupants that increased social tensions and led to subsequent socio-political clashes among black and mulatto elites are some of the negative legacy of the occupation.
The 1930 Forbes Commission concluded that the occupation, while contributing to the progress noted above, has not brought overall and significant changes in the life of the general population. Historian Hans Schmdit, in his masterful “The US Occupation of Haiti 1915-1934” looked at its outcomes 30 years later and concluded similarly. Ultimately, today more than ever, and with so many friends willing to support Haiti in the open – compared to 100 or 200 years ago, the improvement strategies and implementation remains the sole responsibility of Haiti’s elites, as nation building from outside rarely produces lasting change.
Selected materials: Les blancs débarquent by Roger Gaillard, The United States Occupation of Haiti 1915-1934 by Hans Schmidt; Réflexions stratégiques sur Haïti, par Luc Rémy; Haiti, by O. Ernest Moore, The Magic Island, William Seabrook; Haiti: Médecine et Santé Publique sous l’Occupation américaine 1915-1934, by Dr Ary Bordes