The U.S. Occupation of Haiti From 1915 to 1934

Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States of America.
Wikimedia Commons

The United States occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934. During this time, it installed puppet governments; ran the economy, military, and police; terrorized citizens; and established economic control over Haiti that would continue after they withdrew in the 1940s. It was unpopular with both Haitians and citizens of the United States, and American troops and personnel were withdrawn in 1934.

Background

Haiti gained independence from France in a bloody rebellion in 1804, but France and the European powers did not simply withdraw and leave Haiti in peace. The European powers sabotaged Haiti for being Black and free: Haiti was actually the first independent Black country, and Europeans made an example of Haiti to discourage other enslaved people from fighting for their freedom.

Due in part to this European intervention, much of Haiti's population was uneducated, poor, and hungry by the early 20th century. But it should be noted that Haiti was—and is—poor because France made the nation pay reparations for gaining independence until the 21st century, and European powers refused to trade with Haiti because its citizens were mostly Black and because of the country's history of standing up for its rights. In 1908, the country totally broke down. Regional warlords and militias known as "cacos" fought in the streets. Between 1908 and 1915, no less than seven men seized the presidency and most met some sort of gruesome end: one was hacked to pieces in the street, another killed by a bomb, and yet another was probably poisoned.

The United States and the Caribbean

Meanwhile, the United States was colonizing the Caribbean. In 1898, it had won Cuba and Puerto Rico from Spain in the Spanish-American War: Cuba was granted freedom but Puerto Rico was not. The Panama Canal opened in 1914. The United States had invested heavily in building it and had even gone to great pains to separate Panama from Colombia in order to be able to use it. The strategic value of the canal for the U.S., both economically and militarily, was enormous.

The building and opening of the Panama Canal helped make the U.S. an imperialist world power. It shaved 8,000 miles of traveling distance from the Atlantic to the Pacific and vice versa. Ovidio Diaz-Espino, a lawyer who grew up in Panama and author of the book "How Wall Street Created a Nation: J.P. Morgan, Teddy Roosevelt, and the Panama Canal" explained what the canal meant to the United States: "The U.S. for the first time was going to be able to gain control of both oceans. That was critical in times of war. There was no airpower, so the way you fought an enemy was through the sea. World power was consistent with maritime power."

Fully 27,000 people died in the building of the canal, and in creating it, the U.S. pushed aside Nicaragua (the original site for the canal) and dominated the area for decades through a series of tin generals who controlled Panama.

But U.S. hegemony did not start and end with the Panama Canal. In 1914, the United States had also been meddling in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. No less an authority than the U.S. State Department notes that between "1911 and 1915, seven presidents were assassinated or overthrown in Haiti" prompting President Woodrow Wilson to send in U.S. troops supposedly to restore order. The U.S. also "...removed $500,000 from the Haitian National Bank in December of 1914 for safe-keeping in New York, thus giving the United States control of the (Haitian national) bank." The State Department admits that the sending in of troops and the "transfer" of funds was done to protect U.S. interests: "In actuality, the act protected U.S. assets..."

Haiti in 1915

Europe was at war and Germany was faring well. Wilson feared that Germany might invade Haiti in order to establish a military base there, which would be very close to the precious Canal. He had a right to worry: there were many German settlers in Haiti who had financed the rampaging ​"cacos" with loans that would never be repaid, and they were begging Germany to invade and restore order.

In actuality, though, the U.S. Haiti occupation was, essentially, the intersection of U.S. imperialism and racism and Wilson's personal views, both exacerbating the other. Wilson was an avowed racist, even by the standards of his time. From the period of U.S. Reconstruction, the White House was integrated, and Black employees represented about eight to 10% of the government workforce in Washington. Wilson, shortly after being elected in 1912, set about segregating the White House—for the first time in more than half a century. The percentage of Black people living and working in Washington dropped precipitously.

Wilson also lied to Black leaders who had strongly supported him in his election as president. At a meeting with Black leaders in the White House, Wilson said that the segregation of Black government employees in Washington was being done to "reduce friction" and it was for the "benefit" of Black people. When Black leaders challenged Wilson's interpretation of segregation, he became incensed, said he was "insulted," and threw the Black delegation out of the Oval Office—including top civil-rights leader William Monroe Trotter. It was no surprise, then, that Wilson would treat Haiti as he treated Black people in the U.S., as an island populated mostly by Black people to be controlled and managed.

Indeed, in February 1915, pro-U.S. strongman Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam seized power, and for a while, it seemed that he would be able to look after U.S. military and economic interests.

The U.S. Seizes Control

In July of 1915, however, Sam ordered a massacre of 167 political prisoners and he was himself lynched by an angry mob that broke into the French Embassy to get at him. Fearing that anti-US "caco" leader Rosalvo Bobo might take over, Wilson ordered an invasion. The invasion came as no surprise: American warships had been in Haitian waters for most of 1914 and 1915 and American Admiral William B. Caperton had been surveilling the country ahead of the invasion.

Haiti Under U.S. Control

Americans were put in charge of public works, agriculture, health, customs, and the police. General Philippe Sudre Dartiguenave was made president in spite of popular support for Bobo. A new Constitution, prepared in the United States, was pushed through a reluctant Congress: according to a debated report, the author of the document was none other than a young Assistant Secretary of the Navy named Franklin Delano Roosevelt. One of the most racist inclusions in the constitution was the right of White peole to own land in a Black country, which had not been permitted since the days of French colonial rule.

Unhappy Haiti

Haitians opposed the occupation. During the occupation, U.S. Marines assassinated Charlemagne Péralte, a Haitian freedom fighter on November 1, 1919, and also massacred civilians during a December 6, 1929, protest, killing 12 and wounding 23. Overall, 15,000 Haitians were killed during the U.S. intervention in the country, and dissent was brutally suppressed.

Haitians wanted Bobo as president and resented White Americans for imposing their will on Black Haitian citizens. The Americans managed to irk every social class in Haiti, given that Haitians didn't fight for independence from France a century earlier just to end up back under White control.

The Americans Depart

Meanwhile, back in the United States, the Great Depression hit, and Haitian occupation was no longer fiscally or strategically advantageous for the United States. In 1930, President Herbert Hoover sent a delegation to meet with President Louis Borno (who had succeeded Sudre Dartiguenave in 1922). It was decided to hold new elections and begin the process of withdrawing American forces and administrators. Sténio Vincent was elected president and the removal of the Americans began. Americans maintained a presence in Haiti until 1941.

Legacy of the American Occupation

During its 19-year occupation, the U.S. transferred Haiti's finances to the U.S., built schools and roads using forced Haitian labor, and crushed any dissent. Vincent managed to remain in power until 1941 when he resigned and left Elie Lescot in charge. By 1946 Lescot was overthrown. In 1957, François Duvalier took over and began a decades-long dictatorship that was not under American control.

There were also a number instances of where American marines killed Haitian citizens; during the occupation, 15,000 Haitians were killed. The U.S. also trained the Garde D'Haiti, a national police force that became a political and repressive force once the Americans left. The legacy of the U.S. occupation and the meddling of colonial powers essentially bankrupted Haiti and relegated many of its people to decades of poverty, creating a cycle of poverty and instability that continues to this day.

Sources

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Minster, Christopher. "The U.S. Occupation of Haiti From 1915 to 1934." ThoughtCo, Jul. 19, 2021, thoughtco.com/haiti-the-us-occupation-1915-1934-2136374. Minster, Christopher. (2021, July 19). The U.S. Occupation of Haiti From 1915 to 1934. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/haiti-the-us-occupation-1915-1934-2136374 Minster, Christopher. "The U.S. Occupation of Haiti From 1915 to 1934." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/haiti-the-us-occupation-1915-1934-2136374 (accessed October 22, 2021).