The American occupation of Haiti set the country on a path of decline that has yet to be reversed nearly a century later….
“Slavery is abolished forever.”- Article 2 of the Haitian Constitution (1805).
The cataclysm that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010 devastated the poorest country in the Americas, destroyed its capital, effectively crippled the fragile Haitian state and its agencies, and has transformed the country into a long-term protectorate of the international community. Haiti, for much of the 20th century, has been a dysfunctional state, a quasi-colony of the United States, and a society that struggled to escape the burdens of European and American resentment that it stood as a symbol and a reality of black freedom in the Americas. Haitian freedom marked the collapse of slavery in, and the end of European colonial rule over, the territory that had been the richest sugar colony in the world and which had served as the pivot of the French imperial project in the Americas. The Haitian Revolution contributed to reshaping the Atlantic World in the wake of the American and French Revolutions and it provided a further impetus for the challenge to Spanish imperial rule in the Americas at the turn of the 19th century.
It was an accomplishment that also brought into question the entire project of African slavery in the Americas. The trans-Atlantic system of slavery had emerged as a response to the demand for labour to exploit the riches of the New World on behalf of the European colonial powers in the Americas. African slaves and the skills that they brought to the Americas were instrumental in the exploitation of the hemisphere’s resources after the collapse of Native American populations that resulted from the encounter with Old World diseases against which they had no immunity. This demographic collapse was compounded by the systematic destruction and displacement of many of these communities by the Europeans in their quest to secure their lands and the resources therein. In a world shaped by the destruction of Native American communities and the enslavement of Africans to be shipped across the Atlantic, the Haitian Revolution represented the unwillingness of the subjugated to accept slavery. The choice of Haiti, the original Amerindian term for the region, to name the new country was a powerful statement from the ex-slaves that they were willing to assert the importance of breaking free of European colonization. In the preamble to the 1805 Constitution, the drafters wrote:
As individuals and in the name of the Haitian people who have legally constituted us the faithful voices and interpreters of their will;
In the presence of the Supreme Being before whom all mortals are equal, and who has spread so many different creatures over the surface of the globe only in order to demonstrate his glory and power by the diversity of his works;
Before all of nature, we who have been for so long and so unfairly considered to be its unworthy children, declare that the terms of this constitution are the free, voluntary, and unchanging expression of our hearts and of our constituents’ general will;…
Unlike their North American counterparts, whose Constitution reflected the schizophrenia that informed the champions of white freedom deeply invested in maintaining black slavery, the Haitians adopted an uncompromising hostility to the ideology of slavery and African inferiority. Under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture and his colleagues who forestalled British and French efforts to reassert European control and slavery, the Haitian Revolution had become, to use the term of Michel Rolph Trouillot – “An Unthinkable History” – that broke the narrative of European superiority and African subjugation.
Facing defeat in Haiti, Napoleon Bonaparte sold Louisiana to the United States to help finance his goal of French military dominance in Europe. The Louisiana Purchase under the Jefferson administration paved the way for the expansion of slavery in the new territories of the American South over the first half of the 19th century. It also helped to foster the North-South divide and the contradictions of a society – half-slave, half-free – that exploded in the American Civil war and led to the end of slavery in the United States. In the larger hemispheric context, Haiti proved a source of material support for Simon Bolivar and the challenge to Spanish colonial rule in the Americas and stood as a constant reminder of the fragility of slavery in the other societies. The Haitian Revolution was simultaneously a product of, and a stimulus to, the Era of Atlantic Revolutions, and its legacy as symbol and promise remained a source of inspiration thereafter for both intellectual and political challenges to slavery and colonial rule in the Americas. The institution of New World slavery that had been built after 1492 was legally abolished across the hemisphere within a century of the initial slave uprising of 1791 that paved the way for Haitian independence.
For much of the 19th century, Haiti navigated between the twin challenges of domestic political instability and the fear of external pressures that could jeopardize its independence. The United States refused to recognize Haiti as an independent country until Abraham Lincoln, in the throes of the Civil War, decided to end the policy of non-recognition in 1862. Haiti also faced the burden of a French-imposed debt to pay reparations for the loss of their colony and slaves – a debt that was not paid until the mid-20th century and which was a major contributor to Haitian political instability and impoverishment after independence. In effect, Haiti’s room for maneuver was defined by the pressures exerted by Europe and the USA in an Atlantic World – a world where slavery remained central to economic activity until the second half of the 19th century. After the end of slavery, there was a continued focus among the major European powers and the United States upon the continuation of a politics of Black/African subordination and the pressure on Haiti did not diminish. The country also served as a destination for African American migrants seeking to flee the United States and its politics of racial oppression. In sum, Haiti stood as an example of black self-government in the 19th century Americas and, as a consequence, was marginalized. Haiti was the first black republic in the hemisphere and, as a society, was created as an alternative to the white supremacist order established by European slaveholders and their descendants. Having failed to re-conquer Haiti, the European powers and the United States were determined to neutralize its potential appeal and/or influence across the hemisphere.
By the turn of the 20th century, the United States began to pursue an expansionist policy into the Caribbean and the Pacific, and the Spanish-American War of 1898 marked the beginning of a sustained American effort to transform the Caribbean into an American chasse-gardée as it drove the decrepit Spanish empire from the region. As a result of the 1898 war, the United States obtained Puerto Rico as a colony and occupied Cuba for a brief period before acquiring a naval base at Guantanamo and imposing a Constitution upon Cuba with a clause (the Platt Amendment) which guaranteed the right of intervention in Cuban politics by the American government. This process of imperial expansion also led to American support for the secession of Panama from Colombia, and American control over the route for a canal linking the Atlantic and the Pacific. For Haiti and other independent states in Central America and the Caribbean, the American imperial project in the Caribbean posed the most powerful threat to their survival as independent countries in the 20th century. The Roosevelt Corollary, articulated by Theodore Roosevelt in his Annual Message to Congress in 1904 stipulated that:
Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.
It was this doctrine that was invoked in the American invasion and occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934 and the Dominican Republic which shares the island of Hispaniola also enjoyed the “benefits” of American tutelage in the arts of “civilization” over the period 1916-1924. In effect, like Cuba, the entire island of Hispaniola became effective garrison colonies for the projection of American military power and control over the Caribbean.
The American occupation of Haiti set the country on a path of decline that has yet to be reversed nearly a century later. American military rule during the occupation was accompanied by a counter-insurgency campaign that targeted opposition in rural areas. It also resulted in the emergence of an elite which cultivated a collaborationist relationship with the American government to ensure its long term survival after the end of the occupation. The ethos of Jim Crow segregation informed American policy in the country and did little to reduce tensions between the communities of whites, gens de couleur, and its black population – the latter constituting the majority of the population. For the American occupation forces, there was a level of comfort with the “light-skinned” elite which mirrored the American domestic racial hierarchy. In effect, the American occupation closed avenues for the development of a democratic political order in Haiti even as it compromised the country’s sovereignty. The anti-democratic dispensation, the influence of American racism, and the compromised sovereignty – all legacies of the American occupation – combined to cripple the development of Haiti over the course of the 20th century.
As occurred in Cuba, Nicaragua, Panama and the Dominican Republic – another key legacy of the American occupation of Haiti was the creation and institutionalization of military and para-military forces that were supported by the United States. These armed forces became part of the politics of collaboration between elites in these societies and the United States, and served as instruments of American influence upon the internal politics of these countries. Notwithstanding the American claims to promote democracy as a goal of its foreign policy, the American occupations in Central America and the Caribbean in the early 20th century resulted in the creation of anti-democratic policies heavily dependent upon military forces as instruments of governance. One of the paradoxes of the Roosevelt Corollary was that anti-democratic rule became emblematic of the American mission civilisatrice in the Caribbean and all of these societies were, as a consequence, shaped by the American project of militarization as a strategy of “good governance.” In this context, Haiti became a perennial example of failed democracy over the course of the 20th century, capped by the megalomaniacal Duvalier dynasty (Francois 1957-71, Jean Claude 1971-86) that ruled Haiti until it was overthrown by a popular uprising in 1986 and the seizure of power by the Haitian military.
The end of the Duvalier regime opened an era marked by the struggle to create both a democratic political order and a culture of accountability in Haiti. This new era has resulted in an even greater increase in American covert intervention in Haiti that has, in fact, undermined the emergence of a democratic order. After initially supporting the end of military rule that followed the fall of the Duvaliers and elections for a new President in 1990, the George H.W. Bush administration accepted the military overthrow of the democratically elected Jean Bertrand Aristide in 1991. Aristide went into exile in the United States and was able to win support from African Americans and other allies who helped to secure a commitment from the new President, Bill Clinton, to return Aristide to power in Haiti.
As a result, a team of negotiators led by the former President, Jimmy Carter and Colin Powell, was sent to Haiti in 1994 to negotiate the departure of the military rulers. The team was backed by American military forces that were charged to return Aristide to the Presidency. A multinational peacekeeping force under the sponsorship of the United Nations and the Organization of American States arranged new elections in 1995.
Aristide was blocked constitutionally from running in those elections and he was relegated to playing the role of President- in-waiting while Rene Preval, his political ally, was elected as President. In 2000, eligible again for the office, Aristide was re-elected to the Presidency but lived in constant fear that his rule would be undermined by the unholy alliance of the Haitian elite and the American Embassy. In 2004, his fears were realized when he was deposed by rebel forces with the support of the George W. Bush administration and the French and other governments. He was then flown out of Haiti and has been living in exile in South Africa. It was perhaps a signal of the Bush administration’s antediluvian imperial agenda that Aristide – as a symbol of the Haitian search for a democratic order – was deposed in the year that marked Haiti’s bicentennial as an independent country. New elections were held in 2006 that saw the return of Preval for another term as President. The country continues to function under the protection of United Nations peacekeeping units and with the former American President, Bill Clinton, serving as the UN Special Representative for Haiti.
Haiti, even before the earthquake in January 2010, had been effectively stripped of its sovereignty. Since 1991, the search for democratic governance in Haiti has been compromised by American policies aimed at preventing Jean Bertrand Aristide from becoming a transformational figure in the country’s politics. His election in 1990 promised to reshape the political order and the influence of the American-backed elites that had dominated the country’s life since the early 20th century. The decision to depose Aristide in 2004 and to send him into exile in South Africa was a signal that the democratization process had been seriously derailed. Rene Preval has been, at best, a place-holder until the United States could find a way to create an alternative leadership that would reconstitute the alliance between the Haitian elite and the United States.
The 2010 earthquake triggered a scale of devastation that requires Haiti to be physically and politically reconstructed from the ground up. It is a challenge that will bring an end to American illusions that the United States record of intervention in Haiti has been anything but destructive and designed to cripple Haiti as a symbol of black freedom in the Americas. More important, it is evident that the United States lacks the resources to rebuild Haiti and the reconstruction of Haiti will result from multi-lateral efforts by countries across the international system. Such multilateral engagement offers an opportunity to create a functioning democratic system in Haiti that would be representative of the country’s majority and open a path to its integration into the inter-American system on terms that will allow it to escape the long history of marginalization to which it has been subject in the Americas. Haiti’s revolutionary struggle for freedom can then be seen – not as “Unthinkable History” – but as part of the wider narrative of the multiple struggles for freedom that have defined the history of the hemisphere. Haiti deserves no less.
Article photo by Habitat for Humanity.