Killing Haitian Democracy

The US's repeated interventions in Haiti have left a legacy of despotism.

US Marines marching in Haiti in 1934. Bettmann / CORBIS

On July 28, 1915 the United States invaded Haiti, and imposed its diktat on the nation for close to two decades. The immediate pretext for the military intervention was the country’s chronic political instability that had culminated in the overthrow, mob killing, and bloody dismemberment of President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam.

The American takeover was in tune with the Monroe Doctrine, first declared in 1823, that justified the United States presumption that it had the unilateral right to interfere in the domestic affairs of Latin America. But it was not until the late 1800s when America had become a major world capitalist power that it actually acquired the capacity to fulfill its extra-continental imperial ambitions. In 1898 it seized Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam and soon afterwards took control of the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti.

The US’s goal was to transform the Caribbean into an “American Mediterranean” inoculated from the influence of French, German, and Spanish power.

The 1915 invasion was in fact the culmination of America’s earlier interferences in Haiti — on eight separate occasions US marines had temporarily landed to allegedly “protect American lives and property.” The latter part of this claim was more accurate than the former, for these earlier skirmishes served to solidify and enhance the presence of American financial banking interests.

This priority became clear when, on December 17, 1914, US marines, acting on the orders of US Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, forcibly removed Haiti’s entire gold reserve — valued at $500,000 — from the vaults of Banque Nationale. The bullion was transported to New York on the gunboat Machias and deposited in the National City Bank.

American imperialism had thus announced its designs; it was bent on undercutting French and German economic dominance as well as signaling to Haitian authorities that they would be forced to pay their debt to US private banks. From Washington’s perspective, Haiti had to establish a political order serving American economic and strategic objectives. Ultimately, the means to that end was an occupation.

The first task of the occupiers was to select a new president to replace Sam. Rosalvo Bobo, who headed a caco army that led the insurrection ending with Sam’s brutal demise, was on the verge of moving into the Palais National. The United States, however, had other ideas. Washington viewed Bobo as too nationalistic to assume the reins of power.

While Capt. Edward Beach, the chief of staff of Adm. Caperton who led the Marines’ takeover of Haiti, acknowledged Bobo’s immense popularity, he deemed him “utterly unsuited to be Haiti’s President” because he was “an idealist and dreamer.” In fact, Beach informed Bobo that the United States considered him “a menace and a curse to [Haiti]” and thus forbade him to stand as a candidate for the presidency.

A revolutionary nationalist like Bobo was inimical to American interests. While he was being forced into exile and his cacos were launching a futile uprising against the occupying forces, Adm. Caperton installed a new president who would “realize that Haiti must agree to any terms laid down by the United States.” This new president was Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave.

The US not only imposed the unpopular Dartiguenave on Haiti, it also compelled Haitian authorities to sign a treaty legalizing the occupation. Caperton had orders “to remove all opposition” to the treaty’s ratification. If that failed, the United States had every intention to “retain control” and “proceed to complete the pacification of Haiti.”

Not surprisingly, on November 11, 1915 the Haitian Senate ratified the treaty and placed the country under an American protectorate. The United States was to take full control of the country’s military, law enforcement, and financial system. The repressive and fraudulent means by which the occupation was rendered officially “legal” symbolized what “democracy” and “constitutional rule” meant under imperial rule.

Not satisfied with the mere ratification of the treaty, the United States sought to compel the Haitian National Assembly to adopt a new constitution made in Washington. Faced with the assembly’s opposition, Maj. Smedley Butler, the head of the Gendarmerie d’Haiti — the military contingent created by the United States to replace the Haitian army that it had disbanded — arbitrarily dissolved the assembly.

Having no room to maneuver, Dartiguenave signed the decree of dissolution. In waging their own coup d’état, the occupying forces continued a long-held practice of Haitian politics, but they modernized it. As Butler proclaimed, the gendarmerie had to dissolve the assembly “by genuinely Marine Corps methods” because it had become “so impudent.”

The “impudence” of the assembly partly stemmed from its refusal to grant foreigners the right to own property in Haiti. The US found this refusal unacceptable and decided that a coup was warranted to impose the laws of the capitalist market.

Armed with military power, imbued with an imperial mentality, and convinced of their “manifest destiny” and racial superiority, the American occupiers expected deference and obedience from Haitians. In fact, the key American policymakers in both Washington and Port-au-Prince entertained racist phobias and stereotypes and were bewildered by Haitian culture.

At best, the occupiers regarded Haitians as the product of a bizarre mixture of African and Latin cultures who had to be treated like children lacking the education, maturity, and discipline for self-government. At worst, Haitians were like their African forbears, inferior human beings, “savages,” “cannibals,” “gooks,” and “niggers.”

Robert Lansing, the secretary of state in the Woodrow Wilson administration, exemplified the racist American view:

The 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 . . . It is that which makes the Negro problem practically unsolvable.

For the occupiers, Haitians thus had no capacity to run their own affairs or even appreciate the alleged benefits of America’s invasion. As High Commissioner Russell put it, “Haitian mentality only recognizes force, and appeal to reason and logic is unthinkable.”

And indeed, the American-led gendarmerie used brutal force to impose its grip on Haitian society and squash all opposition. Adm. Caperton declared martial law on September 3, 1915. It would last fourteen years, facilitating the establishment of a new regime of corvée (forced, unpaid labor), as well as the brutal suppression of the caco guerrilla resistance against American forces.

Overseen by the repressive control of the gendarmerie, the unpopular corvée system compelled peasants to work as virtual “slave gangs.” The massive mobilization of coerced labor helped build roads that reached remote areas of the territory; the creation of a viable network of transportation was not merely a means of spurring economic and commercial development, but a result of American strategic considerations.

Putting down the cacos who had supported Bobo and joined the popular guerrillas of Charlemagne Péralte required the penetration of the countryside to prevent any further recruitment of peasants into the forces of resistance.

The corvée system of forced labor extraction,and the military repression of the guerrillas were thus symbiotically connected. Riddled with abuse, the corvée failed to stifle opposition, however. Instead, coercing the peasantry to labor on infrastructural projects just fueled greater resistance to the occupation.

Popular support for the cacos grew, and soon there was an embryonic movement of national liberation with an increasingly sophisticated guerrilla force under the leadership of Péralte. Péralte, who called himself Chef Suprême de la Révolution en Haïti, explained that he was fighting the occupiers to gain Haiti’s liberation from American imperialism.

In the eyes of American authorities, however, the cacos, Péralte, and his supporters were nothing but “bandits,” “criminals,” and “killers” who had to be thoroughly “pacified.” And so they were. Péralte was shot on November 1, 1919 and his successor, Benoît Batraville, suffered a similar fate on May 19 of the following year. By 1921 the American pacification of the country was virtually complete. Some 2,000 thousand insurgents had been killed, and more than 11,000 of their sympathizers had been incarcerated.

Still, pacification did not imply popular acquiescence. It is true that the traditional Haitian elites initially collaborated with and even welcomed American imperialism. But as they experienced the unmitigated racism of the occupying forces, the elites turned against them and espoused varied forms of nationalist resistance.

While not inclined to back the caco insurgents, these elites developed a sense of nationhood that curbed the significance of color but had little impact on the salience of class identities. In the eyes of most Haitians, those who had participated actively in the occupation machinery, like President Dartiguenave or his successor, Louis Borno, were opportunistic collaborators or simply traitors.

In fact, many of these collaborators had authoritarian reflexes and shared some of the paternalistic and racist ideology of their American overlords. Convinced that Haitians were not prepared for any democratic form of self-government, these elites believed in the despotisme éclairé of the plus capables (the enlightened despotism of the most capable).

In addition, from their privileged class position they regarded the rest of their compatriots — especially the peasantry — with contempt. In an official letter to the nation’s prefects, President Borno openly expressed this disdain:

Our rural population, which represents nine-tenths of the Haitian population, is almost totally illiterate, ignorant and poor . . . it is still incapable of exercising the right to vote, and would be the easy prey of those bold speculators whose conscience hesitates at no lie.

[The] present electoral body . . . is characterized by a flagrant inability to assume . . . the heavy responsibilities of a political action.

Borno was a dictator, but a dictator under American control. His rule embodied what Haitians called la dictature bicéphale, the “dual despotism” of American imperialism and its domestic clients. This regime of repression had unintended consequences. It intensified the level of nationalist resistance to the occupation and contributed to a convergence of interests between intellectuals, students, public workers, and peasants.

This growing mobilization against the occupation precipitated the 1929 Marchaterre massacre, when some fifteen hundred peasants protesting high taxation confronted armed marines who then opened fire on the crowd. Twenty-four Haitians died and fifty-one were wounded. The massacre set in motion a series of events that would eventually lead the United States to reassess its policies and presence in Haiti.

President Herbert Hoover created a commission whose primary objective was to investigate “when and how we are to withdraw from Haiti.” The commission — which took the name of its chair, Cameron Forbes, who served in the Philippines as chief constabulary and then as governor — acknowledged that the US had not accomplished its mission and that it had failed “to understand the social problems of Haiti.”

While the commission astonishingly claimed that the occupation’s failure was due to the “brusque attempt to plant democracy there by drill and harrow” and to “its determination to set up a middle class,” it ultimately recommended the withdrawal of the United States from Haiti.

The commission advised, however, that the withdrawal not be immediate, but rather that it should take place only after the successful “Haitianization” of the public services as well as the gendarmerie. Forbes also understood that President Borno had no legitimacy and could be sacrificed. Borno was forced to retire and arrange the election of an interim successor who would in turn organize general elections. Sténio Vincent, a moderate nationalist who favored a gradual, negotiated ending to the occupation, thus became president in November 1930.

Vincent’s gradualism was in tune with the Forbes Commission’s recommendation for the accelerated Haitianization of the commanding ranks of the government and the eventual withdrawal of all American troops. While Forbes and Vincent operated on the assumption that the United States’ withdrawal would not occur until 1936, the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 altered events.

Roosevelt’s new “Good Neighbor” strategy toward Latin America was rooted in the premise that direct occupation through military intervention was expensive, counterproductive, and in most instances unnecessary. It was not that the forceful occupation of another country was precluded; it simply became a last resort.

Roosevelt understood that in Latin America, the United States could impose its hegemony through local allies and surrogates, especially through military corps and officers that it had trained, organized, and equipped. It is this perspective that explains the American decision to withdraw from Haiti. In fact, what Haitians came to call “second independence” arrived two months earlier than expected. On a visit to Cape Haitien, in the north of the country, Roosevelt announced that the American occupation would end on August 15, 1934.

After close to twenty years of dual dictatorship, Haitians were left with a changed nation. American rule had contributed to the centralization of power in Port-au-Prince and the modernization of the monarchical presidentialism that had always characterized Haitian politics. With the American occupation, praetorian power came to reside in the barracks of the capital, which had supplanted the regional armed bands that had hitherto been decisive in the making, and unmaking, of political regimes.

Moreover, the subordination of the Haitian president to American marine forces had nurtured a politics of military vetoes and interference that would eventually undermine civilian authority and help incite the numerous coups of post-occupation Haiti. To remain in office, the executive would have to depend on the support of the military, which had been centralized in Port-au-Prince.

The supremacy of Port-au-Prince also implied the privileging of urban classes to the detriment of the rural population. Peasants continued to be excluded from the moral community of les plus capables, and they came under a strict policing regime of law and order.

The occupation never intended to cut the roots of authoritarianism; instead, it planted them in a more rational and modern terrain. By establishing a communication network that became a means of policing and punishing the population, and by creating a more effective and disciplined coercive force, American rule left a legacy of authoritarian and centralized power. It suppressed whatever democratic and popular forms of accountability and protests it confronted, and nurtured the old patterns of fraudulent electoral practices, giving the armed forces ultimate veto on who would rule Haiti.

Elections during the occupation, and for more than seventy years afterward, were never truly free and fair. In most cases, the outcome of elections had less to do with the actual popular vote than with compromises reached between Haiti’s ruling classes and imperial forces. Thus, elections lacked the degree of honesty and openness required to define a democratic order. The occupation imposed its rule through fraud, violence, and deceit, and little changed after it ended.

It is true that the imperial presence from 1915 to 1934 contributed to the building of a modest infrastructure of roads and clinics, but it did so with the most paternalistic and racist energy. American authorities convinced themselves that their mission was to bring development and civilization to Haiti. They presumed that Haitians were utterly incapable of doing so on their own. Not surprisingly, they used methods of command and control to achieve their project, a practice that reinforced the existing authoritarian patterns of unaccountable, undemocratic governance.

Interestingly, when one examines the strategy and rhetoric from the 1915–1934 occupation, one can see that it foreshadowed the contemporary “modernization” and “failed states” theories that have justified western interventionism during and after the Cold War era. Except for its unmitigated racism, the old interventionism differs little from the twenty-first century doctrines of “humanitarian militarism” and “responsibility to protect.”

In fact, since the fall of the US-backed Duvalier dictatorship in 1986 and the catastrophic earthquake of 2010, the country has been involved in an unending democratic transition marred by persistent imperial interventions that have transformed it into a quasi-protectorate of the international community.

Foreign powers, particularly the United States and to a lesser extent France and Canada, have regarded Haiti as a “failed state” that could not function without the massive political, military, and economic presence of outsiders.

One hundred years after the first American occupation and three decades after Jean-Claude Duvalier’s popular ouster, Haiti has been reoccupied twice by American marines, who have paved the way for the current, interminable, and humiliating presence of a United Nations “peace-keeping” force. The imperial language has barely changed. American rhetoric justifies occupation in the name of “stability,” “domestic security,” and the dangers of “populist and anti-market political forces.” The US continues to promise the development of a modern capitalist economy, a middle class society, and a democratic order.

That all of these occupations failed miserably to achieve these goals indicate the obdurate limits and contradictions of any project of development sponsored and imposed by imperial forces. These occupations warn us also about the justifications, dangers, and vicissitudes of interventions in the current era of neoliberal globalization.

Facilitated by the corruptions of its ruling classes, old and new imperial interventions have consistently failed to deliver what they promise; in fact, they have condemned Haiti to virtual trusteeship, a vassal country suffering from a recurring emergency syndrome.