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One century of US occupation & two centuries of US-French combined intervention in Haitian affairs

—by Tontongi

This month marks the centennial of the US military intervention and occupation of Haiti on July 28, 1915, which would last nearly twenty years. This first occupation of Haiti by the United States constitutes such a trauma, shame and sense of failure for a people rightfully proud of their victory over the army of Napoleon Bonaparte, that they don’t like to talk much about it.

However, the history of Haiti is not like any other: it is unique in the most authentic sense of the word. It is the exceptional story of the first Black republic, the single successful slave rebellion in history, the first Latin American revolution, and second in independence only to the US in the hemisphere. Given this history, it is remarkable, as Howard Zinn has pointed out, that “in American education we learn nothing about Haiti.”1. Make no mistake: Haiti is, by definition, a country founded by a people who decided to risk everything in the name of freedom and human dignity.

Writing in The Nation in 1922 about the US occupation of Haiti, Frank P. Walsh observed the connivance between Wall Street interests and hawks in the US cabinet and in the military, and that “the American Foreign Office is in Wall Street. (…) Wall Street and the General Staff constitute a permanent governing force in our foreign affairs in whose hands our elected officials are puppets.” Walsh defined the events of July 1915 in a nutshell: “…after failure to obtain an acceptance by Haiti of a treaty abdicating its sovereignty, the United States landed marines, seized the treasury, subjugated the country, and proceeded to administer it.”

For Frank Walsh there was no doubt that the US “humanitarian” intervention, supposedly to save lives, was a pretext for a more sinister aim: to control the entire island. He likened US behavior in occupied Haiti and Dominican Republic (occupied in 1916) to that of the British against Irish patriots in Ireland, “Martial law has for six years held these tiny republics in its iron bondage. Journalists, protesting in the name of our own immortal principles, the crime against their country, have been ‘tried’ by court martial and thrown into jail at hard labor. These patriots who took to the hills with inadequate weapons and tried to cope with the Imperial United States’ Forces were ruthlessly exterminated.”2

History textbooks in the US, France, as well as the official propaganda of Haitian governments since 1915 have perpetuated the notion that it was the “collapse of order” occasioned by the events of July 27th and 28th of that year (the attack by pro-Caco3 masses against the National Palace, the massacre of political prisoners by order of police chief Charles Oscar, the flight of president Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, his seizure from the French Consulate and eventual lynching) that brought about the United States intervention and occupation of Haiti.

Haitian historian Claude Moïse describes how one year prior (in July 1914), Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then undersecretary of the US Navy “…revealed that instructions were given […] marines ready to intervene in Haiti with orders to protect American lives and properties. […] The United States, throughout the year 1915, sent warships to station in Haitian waters in order to keep close surveillance of Haiti’s coasts, follow the evolution of the political unrest, and be ready to intervene.”4

Not long before the US occupation, there was a military intervention by France, whose government sent the warship Le Descartes to the northern city Au Cap, reportedly to protect French citizens. The warship dropped anchor in Au Cap on June 19, 1915. Writes Moïse, “About fifty French marine riflemen landed and kept guard around the Consulate and the Episcopal Palace. As soon peace was re-established, the French went back to the Descartes which remained in position on the coast until the Washington (the US warship) took over on July 1st 1915.”

There is a school of thought that suggests the US-Americans—true to the Monroe doctrine—may have been motivated by a desire, right in the middle of World War I, to keep the other world powers like France, England, Germany, from taking advantage of Haiti’s political crisis. While this may be an attractive thesis, the reality is that France and the United States have collaborated in the dual domination of Haiti throughout the island nation’s existence as a State. Furthermore, the United States sided with France during the first major crisis between Haiti and its former colonizer: the French demand in 1825 of an indemnity or payment, under military threat, for so-called losses by defeated French colonists, and imposing an embargo against Haiti. The US established its own embargo against Haiti, which lasted until 1863 under Abraham Lincoln. As the United States, took control of Haiti after 28 July 1915, France passed the balance of payment of Haiti’s indemnity obligations to the US.

US-French complicity in Haiti’s domination did not stop at the indemnity payment or the repression of the Cacos; it continues to the present day. The two powers joined forces again in February 1986, to give a sweet exile to Baby Doc amid revolutionary popular insurrection. Against the will of the people and through manipulations of the Haitian internal power struggle, the French and the US-Americans helped put in power a series of fascist-like juntas, until the US and the international community were forced to accept the 1990 democratic election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in December, with 67% of the national vote.

As we know, there were two subsequent US-French collaborative interventions in Haiti: the September 30, 1991 coup d’état against President Aristide, and the February 28–29, 2004 coup d’état during Aristide’s second term.

At the 100-year anniversary of the United States’ occupation of Haiti, we observe a persistent trend and pattern:

  1. the continual French-US collaboration in subverting Haitian interests throughout Haiti’s history as a nation;
  2. the pattern of common interests and cooperation among western imperialism or neocolonialism, the Haitian corrupt State and the dominant elite or bourgeoisie against the aspirations of the masses;
  3. the accommodation by the United States of continual French cultural domination in Haiti. Indeed, even under the US occupation regime, the Concordat of 1860—the agreement between the Haitian State and the Vatican which granted the monopoly to control education in Haiti to the French Catholic order, Les Frères de l’Instruction Chrétienne (“The Brothers of Christian Education”)—continued to be honored and implemented.

Haiti as a Project of Being

How do we respond constructively, in 2015, to the centennial of the nearly 20 year US occupation of Haiti, my homeland? In my recent book, La Parole indomptée / Memwa Bakoukèt (“The Untamed Speech”)5 I note that our modernity started with both the French and the Haitian Revolutions. The French Revolution set forward the revolutionary impulses first exhibited by the European masses during the Cromwell rebellion in 1649. The Haitian Revolution brought a new, indispensable element to the project of human complétude or completeness of being, that was touched upon by the French Revolution: the irreducibility of Being to a category other than itself. It is total, or it is not. If the Being—or a person—is less than total, there is wrongdoing, there is injustice, there is perversion of the ideal of being that demands correction, which is revolutionary change.

Today in Haiti we have a situation, as a result of the US-French anti-Aristide coup in 2004 and exacerbated by the January 2010 earthquake, where the national State is subservient to dominant Western powers like the United States, France, and Canada. These powers basically handpicked, in the election campaign of 2011 (with highly paid public relations strategists) the current president of Haiti, Michel Martelly. Recent revelations by Al Jazeera have detailed USAID’s payments to Haitian political parties during the 2010 presidential election campaigns, including a $100,000 donation to Martelly’s party Mouvement Tèt Kalè (MTK).6

The feeling of guilt which shamed the Western powers and others into pledging $13 billion to the post-2010 reconstruction of Haiti did not translate to real allocation or disbursement of money. When that actually happens, the lion’s share of the money goes to Western consultants and corrupt private companies, the so-called “reconstruction companies”, constituted specifically to lend a legal facade to the enterprise. The ultimate result of this situation is that while many earthquake victims continue to live under tents or are simply homeless, Haiti reconstruction money, money actually given by donor countries as grants for reconstruction, is used mostly to line the pockets of government officials, and paying for large travel expenses for the president and his cronies, and to build not homes, but rather a 5-star hotel in Port-au-Prince.

There are, fortunately, many bright points of resilience and change that have also taken place in Haiti. For one, the continual protests and demands by the people and the civil society to have their rights respected and to be included in the power structure, is a positive achievement, given the fact that the dominant classes, supported by Western imperialism, have done all they could to silence the people and keep them in zombie-like passivity.

Linguistically, something very worthy is also going on in Haiti. Even among members of the French-educated so-called intelligentsia, many of those who, historically, have kept the Haitian national language, Creole or Kreyòl, in inferior status, have come to the realization that the Haitian language is not only important in terms of Haiti’s cultural identity, but also as a positive and indispensable factor in Haiti’s national development.

It is in this context that we should see the new Akademi Kreyòl Ayisyen (Haitian Creole Academy) founded in Port-au-Prince in 2012. By creating the Academy, a State institution with symbolic power and intellectual standing, the intelligentsia has shown a profound change of heart and understanding that could be of tremendous help not only to Haiti’s pride but also to Haiti’s economic development.

Even amid her history of pain, foreign domination, class oppression and internal self-destruction, I still view Haiti as a project of being. A process in action animated, motivated by an ideal: the ideal that human beings have fundamental rights that are deemed sacred and which should be protected. Rights which, when violated, impact people’s sense of what the French call complétude, or completeness, the sense of being a total human being.

—Tontongi, editor in chief of the review Tanbou, and author most recently of La Parole indomptée, “The Untamed Speech”)


1. “One Long Struggle for Justice”: An Interview with Historian Howard Zinn (2011), http://zinnedproject.org/2011/01/howard-zinn-interview-one-long-struggle-for-justice/
2. See Walsh, “American Imperialism” 114:115-116 Feb. 1, 1922 (http://www.unz.org/Pub/Nation-1922feb01-00115, and Editors, “The Rape of Haiti,” The Nation113, no. 2940 (1921): 548.)
3. Cacos, is the name given to Haitian insurgents or revolutionary rebels, who for several years maintained an armed resistance in the countryside, that the US military repressed and kept from taking power in 1915 and beyond. US forces sidelined Caco leader Rosalvo Bobo and installed their own proxy as president, Sudre Dartiguenave. The Cacos continued to fight against the occupation under their new chief Charlemagne Péralte, today considered a national hero and martyr.
4. Claude Moïse, Constitution et lutte de pouvoir en Haïti (1915–1987), Éditions CIDIHCA, Montreal, 1990 [quotes translated from the French are my own].
5. Tontongi, La Parole indomptée / Memwa Bakoukèt, Paris: Ed. L’Harmattan, 2015.
6. See Al Jazeera, “USAID funded group supporting Haitian president in 2010”, July 15, 2015: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/7/15/usaid-funded-group-supporting-haitian-president.html

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