View Full Version : Haiti

01-26-2010, 11:36 AM
Relatively few Americans are mindful that for almost 20 years U.S. Marines occupied Haiti, giving it what I believe to be the only reasonably honest and efficient government it has ever known. The occupation began in 1915 under one Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson. It ended in 1934 under another, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The events leading to American intervention in Haitian affairs were as bloody and dramatic as might possibly be imagined. A brief review of Haiti's transformation from what once was the richest colony in the New World into what it is today may perhaps give readers a new perspective on the man-made disasters that far more than nature's have kept its people so impoverished and so dependent on the welfare of others. On a per-capita basis, over the past two decades Haiti is said to be the largest recipient of U.S. aid in the world, and this even before its present crisis.

Under French rule, Haiti was a brutal slavocracy whose wealth was based on the cultivation of sugar and coffee. Revolution broke out in 1791 and led to horrific scenes of rapine and slaughter that continued year after year. In 1801, Napoleon I sent a veteran Army to bring this long revolution to an end and, more ominously, to reestablish slavery in the colony. The pitiful remnants of this army sailed for home two years later, leaving behind the graves of some 45,000 Frenchmen.

On Jan. 1, 1804, the date Haitians celebrate as their Independence Day, the following was read to a cheering throng by a hero of the Haitian Revolution: "We will write our Act of Independence using a white man's skull for an inkwell, his skin as parchment, blood for ink, and a bayonet as pen." Haiti's white citizens thereafter were systematically murdered. Of those who managed to escape, a few made their way to Charleston. The stories of what transpired in Haiti were told and retold here, fueling the racial paranoia that characterized the 1822 Denmark Vesey "Conspiracy" and, later, the role Charleston was to play in secession and the Civil War.

In the 19th century Haiti was ruled by kings, emperors and presidents who presided over the lasting impoverishment of its people and the ruination of its once fertile land. The early 20th century ushered in a period Haitian historians call the "Era of the Ephemeral Governments." Haiti's constitution called for the election, by the legislature, of presidents to seven-year terms. In the seven years leading to U.S. intervention, no fewer than seven were elected and deposed. The last of these was a self-proclaimed general named Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. Fearing that a plot was afoot to remove him from office (and why would he not have that fear?), he ordered the arrest of 167 political opponents, almost all of whom were members of prominent Port-au-Prince families.

They were thrown into the national prison, whose warden was given orders to summarily execute them should any attempt at a coup take place. An attack was made on the presidential palace, aided by the president's own guard. Sam sought asylum in the French Legation, which adjoined the palace grounds. The execution orders were carried out.

News of what happened inside the prison leaked out (with a considerable amount of blood) and the streets of the Haitian capital were soon filled with hysterical, weeping relatives of the slain prisoners. The prison warden hurried to the Dominican Legation.

In the hours that followed, both legations were invaded by angry mobs. The president and the warden were dragged away. Sam was hacked and torn to pieces. His body parts were then paraded through the streets of Port-au-Prince. The warden was shot. His mutilated body was left lying in a gutter.
"For foreigners the situation was extremely critical," wrote the senior U.S. diplomat in residence. "The foreign legations, up until this time, had never been invaded, but the invasion of the Dominican Legation ... followed by the invasion of the French, took away this last safeguard against violence from the natives ... and as a result there remained no place of safety, nor was there any Haitian authority which could be looked to for protection."

The armored cruiser Washington dropped anchor at Port-au-Prince shortly after the events described above. The ship's embarked flag officer, Rear Admiral William Caperton, hosted an emergency meeting of foreign diplomats on board. To a man they urged that he restore order in the chaotic capital. A dispatch was sent to the White House asking for instructions. The reply was slow in coming. On the admiral's authority as senior officer present afloat, two companies of Marines and three of Navy bluejackets landed six hours before authorization to do so was received from Washington.
Thus began the occupation of Haiti, an occupation that was to bedevil five American administrations until, under heavy domestic pressure, President Roosevelt brought it to an end.

When the last Marines hauled down the U.S. flag and left for home, Haitian politicians quickly reverted to their old ways.
In 1957, a country physician, poet and philosopher was elected president. His name was Francois Duvalier, the beloved "Papa Doc" of the Haitian peasant. In 1964 he was declared "President for Life."
And so it was that 30 years after the end of the U.S. occupation, Haiti quite possibly was the least democratic, least developed and poorest country in the entire world.

What a commentary on a U.S. fetish called "nation-building"!