Did Haiti Benefit from America's Years of Occupation (1915-1934)
Due to civil disturbances and lack of a stable friendly government, the United States occupied and ruled Haiti by means of a military government between 1915 and 1934. During the occupation, a number of infrastructure development projects were accomplished that made real material improvements to the country and the people. These included road and bridge building, disease control, establishment of schools, and the development of a communications infrastructure. The status of Port-au-Prince as the major city and trading center in today's Haiti is largely the result of the changes made during the occupation. However, despite the material improvements and good intentions of the U.S. military occupation forces, resentment of the foreign occupation led to protests and several notorious episodes in which scores of Haitian civilians were killed by the US Army and/or Marines. Among some of the population there is still resentment against the U.S. for the severity (and occasional brutality) of the former occupational forces. When the final U.S. service members left in 1934, a Haitian military elite was left in charge which reverted to the typical dictatorial style characterizing Haitian government since colonial times.
General Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, who had helped to bring Leconte to power, took the oath of office in March 1915. Like every other Haitian president of the period, he faced active rebellion to his rule. His leading opponent, Rosalvo Bobo, reputedly hostile toward the United States, represented to Washington a barrier to expanded commercial and strategic ties. A pretext for intervention came on July 27, 1915, when Guillaume Sam executed 167 political prisoners. Popular outrage provoked mob violence in the streets of Port-au-Prince. A throng of incensed citizens sought out Guillaume Sam at his sanctuary in the French embassy and literally tore him to pieces. The spectacle of an exultant rabble parading through the streets of the capital bearing the dismembered corpse of their former president shocked decision makers in the United States and spurred them to swift action. The first sailors and marines landed in Port-au-Prince on July 28. Within six weeks, representatives from the United States controlled Haitian customs houses and administrative institutions. For the next nineteen years, Haiti's powerful neighbor to the north guided and governed the country.
Representatives from the United States wielded veto power over all governmental decisions in Haiti, and Marine Corps commanders served as administrators in the provinces. Local institutions, however, continued to be run by Haitians, as was required under policies put in place during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. In line with these policies, Admiral William Caperton, the initial commander of United States forces, instructed Bobo to refrain from offering himself to the legislature as a presidential candidate. Philippe Sudre Dartiguenave, the mulatto president of the Senate, agreed to accept the presidency of Haiti after several other candidates had refused on principle.
With a figurehead installed in the National Palace and other institutions maintained in form if not in function, Caperton declared martial law, a condition that persisted until 1929. A treaty passed by the Haitian legislature in November 1915 granted further authority to the United States. The treaty allowed Washington to assume complete control of Haiti's finances, and it gave the United States sole authority over the appointment of advisers and receivers. The treaty also gave the United States responsibility for establishing and running public-health and public-works programs and for supervising routine governmental affairs. The treaty also established the Gendarmerie d'Haïti (Haitian Constabulary), a step later replicated in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. The Gendarmerie was Haiti's first professional military force, and it was eventually to play an important political role in the country. In 1917 President Dartiguenave dissolved the legislature after its members refused to approve a constitution purportedly authored by United States assistant secretary of the navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.* A referendum subsequently approved the new constitution (by a vote of 98,225 to 768), however, in 1918. Generally a liberal document, the constitution allowed foreigners to purchase land. Dessalines had forbidden land ownership by foreigners, and since 1804 most Haitians had viewed foreign ownership as anathema.
The occupation by the United States had several effects on Haiti. An early period of unrest culminated in a 1918 rebellion by up to 40,000 former cacos and other disgruntled people. The scale of the uprising overwhelmed the Gendarmerie, but marine reinforcements helped put down the revolt at the estimated cost of 2,000 Haitian lives. Thereafter, order prevailed to a degree that most Haitians had never witnessed. The order, however, was imposed largely by white foreigners with deep-seated racial prejudices and a disdain for the notion of self-determination by inhabitants of less-developed nations. These attitudes particularly dismayed the mulatto elite, who had heretofore believed in their innate superiority over the black masses. The whites from North America, however, did not distinguish among Haitians, regardless of their skin tone, level of education, or sophistication. This intolerance caused indignation, resentment, and eventually a racial pride that was reflected in the work of a new generation of Haitian historians, ethnologists, writers, artists, and others, many of whom later became active in politics and government. Still, as Haitians united in their reaction to the racism of the occupying forces, the mulatto elite managed to dominate the country's bureaucracy and to strengthen its role in national affairs.
The occupation had several positive aspects. It greatly improved Haiti's infrastructure. Roads were improved and expanded. Almost all roads, however, led to Port-au-Prince, resulting in a gradual concentration of economic activity in the capital. Bridges went up throughout the country; a telephone system began to function; several towns gained access to clean water; and a construction boom (in some cases employing forced labor) helped restore wharves, lighthouses, schools, and hospitals. Public health improved, partially because of United States-directed campaigns against malaria and yaws (a crippling disease caused by a spirochete). Sound fiscal management kept Haiti current on its foreign-debt payments at a time when default among Latin American nations was common. By that time, United States banks were Haiti's main creditors, an important incentive for Haiti to make timely payments.
In 1922 Louis Borno replaced Dartiguenave, who was forced out of office for temporizing over the approval of a debtconsolidation loan. Borno ruled without the benefit of a legislature (dissolved in 1917 under Dartiguenave) until elections were again permitted in 1930. The legislature, after several ballots, elected mulatto Sténio Vincent to the presidency.
The occupation of Haiti continued after World War I, despite the embarrassment that it caused Woodrow Wilson at the Paris peace conference in 1919 and the scrutiny of a congressional inquiry in 1922. By 1930 President Herbert Hoover had become concerned about the effects of the occupation, particularly after a December 1929 incident in Les Cayes in which marines killed at least ten Haitian peasants during a march to protest local economic conditions. Hoover appointed two commissions to study the situation. A former governor general of the Philippines, W. Cameron Forbes, headed the more prominent of the two. The Forbes Commission praised the material improvements that the United States administration had wrought, but it criticized the exclusion of Haitians from positions of real authority in the government and the constabulary, which had come to be known as the Garde d'Haïti. In more general terms, the commission further asserted that "the social forces that created [instability] still remain--poverty, ignorance, and the lack of a tradition or desire for orderly free government."
The Hoover administration did not implement fully the recommendations of the Forbes Commission, but United States withdrawal was well under way by 1932, when Hoover lost the presidency to Roosevelt, the presumed author of the most recent Haitian constitution. On a visit to Cap Haïtien in July 1934, Roosevelt reaffirmed an August 1933 disengagement agreement. The last contingent of marines departed in mid-August, after a formal transfer of authority to the Garde. As in other countries occupied by the United States in the early twentieth century, the local military was often the only cohesive and effective institution left in the wake of withdrawal.
*Editor: FDR did not write the Haitian constitution. See http://hnn.us/roundup/entries/3914.html.
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