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Haiti: The US Occupation, 1915-1934

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Haiti: The US Occupation, 1915-1934

Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam

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Responding to near-anarchy in the Republic of Haiti, the United States occupied the nation from 1915 to 1934. During this time, they installed puppet governments, ran the economy, military and police and for all intents and purposes were in absolute control of the country. Although this rule was relatively benign, it was unpopular with both the Haitians and the citizens of the United States and American troops and personnel were withdrawn in 1934.

Haiti’s Troubled Background:

Since gaining independence from France in a bloody rebellion in 1804, Haiti had gone through a succession of dictators. By the early twentieth century, the population was uneducated, poor and hungry. The only cash crop was coffee, grown on some sparse bushes in the mountains. 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 of them 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 expanding its sphere of influence in 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 administer it. The strategic value of the canal, both economically and militarily, was enormous. In 1914, the United States had also been meddling in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

Haiti in 1915:

Europe was at war and Germany was faring well. President Woodrow Wilson feared that Germany might invade Haiti in order to establish a military base there: a base that 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 February of 1915, pro-US strongman Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam seized power and for a while it seemed that he would be able to look after US military and economic interests.

The US 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 keeping a close eye on events. The marines that stormed the shores of Haiti were met with relief rather than resistance and an interim government was soon set up.

Haiti Under US 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. The most interesting inclusion in the constitution was the right of whites to own land, which had not been permitted since the days of French colonial rule.

Unhappy Haiti:

Although the violence had ceased and order had been restored, most Haitians did not approve of the occupation. They wanted Bobo as president, resented the Americans’ high-handed attitude towards the reforms and were indignant about a Constitution that was not written by Haitians. The Americans managed to irk every social class in Haiti: the poor were forced to work building roads, the patriotic middle class resented the foreigners and the elite upper class was mad that the Americans did away with the corruption in government spending that had previously made them rich.

The Americans Depart:

Meanwhile, back in the United States, the Great Depression hit and citizens began wondering why the government was spending so much money to occupy an unhappy Haiti. In 1930, President 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. The last of the American Marines left in 1934. A small American delegation remained in Haiti until 1941 to defend American economic interests.

Legacy of the American Occupation:

For a while, the order established by the Americans lasted in Haiti. The capable Vincent remained in power until 1941, when he resigned and left Elie Lescot in power. By 1946 Lescot was overthrown. This marked the return to chaos for Haiti until 1957 when they tyrannical François Duvalier took over, beginning a decades-long reign of terror.

Although the Haitians resented their presence, the Americans accomplished quite a bit in Haiti during their 19-year occupation, including many new schools, roads, lighthouses, piers, irrigation and agricultural projects and more. The Americans also trained the Garde D'Haiti, a national police force that became an important political force once the Americans left.

Source: Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present.New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.

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