Haiti’s resistance to U.S. rule

August 7, 2015

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Haiti, which began in July 1915 and lasted 19 years--and ended only after a massive rebellion against the brutal rule of the U.S.

Here, we print an excerpt from a featured article by Helen Scott that appeared in the International Socialist Review in May-June 2004, titled "Haiti Under Siege: 200 Years of U.S. Imperialism." This excerpt describes the 1915 invasion and occupation and the Haitian resistance to it.

The 1915 occupation

The U.S. government's official reason for invading was to protect human rights and restore democracy. Haitian President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was overthrown in July 1915, after he massacred 167 political prisoners; his opponents dismembered him and paraded his body parts around Port-au-Prince. Historian Hans Schmidt writes:

The United States, as the self-appointed trustee of civilization in the Caribbean, was obligated to maintain minimal standards of decency and morality. The weakness of this argument was readily demonstrated by opponents of the intervention. A prominent Haitian writer, referring to an incident in a southern United States town where a Black man was dragged form the local jail and burned alive in the town square, pointed out that barbarity also existed in the United States. In a 1929 U.S. congressional debate, several congressmen noted that the number of Haitian presidents assassinated over the years was almost the same as the number of American presidents assassinated and that since 1862, the year of the American recognition of Haiti, the number was identical--three presidents killed in each country.

Illustration of the capture of Fort Riviere by U.S. Marines
Illustration of the capture of Fort Riviere by U.S. Marines (D.J. Neary)

Such logic did not deter the U.S., since these justifications were simply alibis for the invasion and occupation, which were actually driven by imperialist competition. As Trouillot explains, "Plans for the invasion were in the works at least a year before the events that precipitated it." The U.S. ruling class saw military occupation as a way to establish political and economic dominance of Haiti and secure a base of power in the region. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the United States had been interested in acquiring a naval base in the Caribbean. Securing Haiti's deep and protected harbor at Môle-Saint-Nicolas had been considered favorably by presidents Johnson and Grant; and again seriously by Secretary of State James G. Blaine in the late 1880s. In the 1890s, increasing emphasis on American naval expansion and the subsequent building of the Panama Canal again heightened the attraction.

American warships had in fact been very active in Haitian waters in the previous fifty years, visiting Haitian ports to "protect American lives and property" on numerous occasions. In the late nineteenth century the State Department worked actively to develop American trade, in competition with France and increasingly Germany, which had successfully penetrated the Haitian economy. By the first decade of the twentieth century, U.S. capitalism had made significant inroads in trade, and investments in railroad construction and banking. This interest in Haiti was part of the larger Caribbean plan, which in turn was part of the broader effort by the U.S. to become an imperialist power capable of challenging its European rivals. Mary Renda summarizes: "[Haiti] was one of several important arenas in which the United States was remade through overseas imperial ventures in the first third of the 20th century. The transformations of imperialism were also effected in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Nicaragua, China, the Philippines, and dozens of other places around the globe." The Monroe Doctrine explicitly staked out Latin America and the Caribbean as the United States' sphere of influence. The "big stick" policy of President Roosevelt-based on dominating Latin America through military might-was continued by President Taft, whose policy was "oriented towards introducing American financial participation as a means of limiting European influence."

While the U.S. had direct commercial interests to defend and expand, the central motivation for the invasion of Haiti in 1915 was negative: It wanted to stop its rivals, particularly Germany, from acquiring more influence.

The immediate actions of the occupying forces blatantly contradicted the rhetoric of bringing freedom and democracy to Haiti. First, they installed a puppet president, Philippe-Sudre Dartiguenave, one hundred armed marines "overseeing" his "election" by the senate (which they dissolved the following year). They wrote and imposed a convention giving the U.S. the right to police the country and take control of public finances. They seized the national bank and the customs houses. They wrote a new constitution that granted foreigners the right to own property-removing one of the central principles of Haitian independence. When the National Assembly refused to pass the constitution, the occupiers compelled the puppet president to dissolve the assembly. The official story was that the president Dartiguenave was responsible for the dissolution, but Major General Smedley Butler, who was in charge of the occupation at the time, observed privately that the assembly had become "so impudent that the Gendarmerie had to dissolve them, which dissolution was effected by genuinely Marine Corps methods." The new constitution also created a Council of State, to be appointed by the client president, to take over all legislative functions until the elected legislature was reconstituted, at some unnamed future date. The occupying forces instructed Dartiguenave to declare war against Germany in July 1918, which enabled them to intern or supervise all Germans in the country and sequester their property. Since the start of the First World War, Butler had been urging the state department to

"cook up" some scheme to drive the German influence out of this country, now that the 'open season' for Germans is upon us, as after the war we should control this island….A declaration of war would permit us to take most any step we saw fit towards the German holdings here.

In one of Edwidge Danticat's short stories a character says: "The Americans taught us how to build prisons. By the end of the 1915 occupation, the police in the city really knew how to hold human beings trapped in cages." The U.S. did indeed establish a national gendarmerie, or military police force. The marines who became gendarmerie officers ruled their respective regions, and the commandant-the first was Butler-effectively ruled the country. Butler had previously headed up the occupation of Nicaragua. The Nation in 1921 noted that his brutality was so broadly known that Nicaraguan mothers threatened naughty children that "General Butler will get you."

The gendarmerie's rank and file came from the Haitian poor, and this became an avenue for social advancement for a small section of this class. In order to facilitate their control of the whole country, the occupying force also embarked on a project of road building, and to do this they imposed a corvée- a system of forced labor-on the Haitian people. The occupation at the same time initiated a policy of "uplift," in keeping with the racist idea of the "white man's burden" that was so central to British imperialism. They set up a technical school system, and embarked on a project of public works and public health. But these social programs were always secondary to two objectives. First, national development was, as Mary Renda puts it "based on the assumptions and imperatives of international capitalism."

Electricity, plumbing, telephones, paved roads, and bridges...would facilitate the establishment of stability because policing could be more effective with improvements in communication and transportation...(and) they would make possible increased American investment in the Haitian economy.

Second, investment in infrastructure, public education, and health was always subordinate to debt repayment. Successful maintenance of foreign debt repayment was in fact probably the only "positive" achievement of the nineteen-year occupation.

Furthermore, the idea of benevolent development coexisted with vicious racism. Schmidt's history gives us plenty of examples of the attitudes of those who implemented and ran the occupation: Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan infamously said of the Haitian elite "Dear me, think of it! Niggers speaking French." State Department Counselor Robert Lansing believed that "[t]he experience of Liberia and Haiti show that the African race are devoid of any capacity for political organization and lack genius for government. Unquestionably there is in them an inherent tendency to revert to savagery and to cast aside the shackles of civilization which are irksome to their physical nature." And Assistant Secretary of State William Philipps bemoaned "'the failure of an inferior people to maintain the degree of civilization left them by the French." Such attitudes posed practical problems. At one point the president of the Black Tuskegee College (which was often cited as a model for the technical school), Robert Moton, was charged by President Hoover to visit Haiti and advise the administrators. However, as the visiting team members were Black, they were not allowed passage to Haiti on U.S. Navy ships.

The American occupying army was met with hostility and resistance. The majority of Haitians were against the occupation and their opposition took many forms. Within the elite there emerged new movements known variously as "Indigenist," "Haitianist," or "Africanist," forerunners of the negritude movement, that rejected the influence of European culture and looked for a new identity based in Haiti's Black, African origins. New cultural movements investigated and celebrated Haitian folklore-the religion and language of the peasantry. Among Haitian novelists and poets there arose a new style of socially engaged literature-"la litterature engagée." Politically, Marxist internationalism became more influential and in 1934 writer Jacques Roumain founded the Haitian Communist Party. Left intellectuals were oriented around newspapers critical of the occupation; their editors and writers were frequently arrested and imprisoned by the American authorities, who maintained ruthless censorship throughout their rule. But the political reaction to the occupation that would become dominant was based around nationalism and patriotism, which paved the way for the noirisme or Black nationalism, manipulated by dictator François Duvalier.

From armed resistance to mass rebellion

The occupation confronted powerful resistance from the peasantry, who organized into rebel armies known as cacos. According to mythology they were named after a fiery red bird, and this is why they wore patches of red material to identify themselves. From the initial invasion, cacos fought the marines. Like their marroon ancestors, they used conch shells to communicate, and gathered in the mountains to plot against the hated invaders. The occupying army followed a policy of "vigorous pursuit and decimation," and used all the latest in weaponry against the hoes, sticks, and stones of the Haitian peasants. In a single battle at Fort Rivière, 200 cacos were killed; there were no American casualties. Butler talked of his men hunting the cacos like pigs (he was awarded a medal by President Roosevelt for this). By the fall of 1915, the first caco resistance was crushed. But after the imposition of forced labor, the cacos came back in even greater numbers and the scattered resistance turned into full-scale revolt. The corvée was officially terminated, but the rebellion was not able to end the occupation. Rebel leader Charlemagne Peralte organized a provisional government in the north and thousands of Haitians fought alongside him-some estimates suggest as many as 15,000 at the height of resistance-but the American government and military maintained the myth throughout that opposition was restricted to an elite minority.

Again the Americans used all their superior weaponry to destroy the opposition. In the first case of recorded air-ground combat, the marines surrounded groups of cacos and dropped bombs on them. The Marine Corps officially registered more than 1,800 Haitian fatalities in 1919. Among them was Charlemagne Peralte. Two marines, disguised as Haitians and tipped off by an informer, went to his camp and shot him. The triumphant marines tied his dead body to a door and displayed it in an attempt to intimidate the population, but the Haitians saw a resemblance to Jesus on the crucifix, and Peralte became a popular martyr. The rebellion was nonetheless crushed, and until 1929 the occupation met little organized resistance.

After fifteen years there had been no democratization or shift toward self-determination, and the occupation remained monolithically authoritarian. The occupation had, in fact, become an embarrassment to the American government since the end of the First World War, but they were unable to extricate themselves. Only the massive military presence kept the client government in place; without it the country would have replaced the U.S.-imposed regime with something of their own choosing. By the late 1920s, opposition was mounting at home: The Nation published an issue on the case for Haitian independence, and prominent Americans, especially African Americans, made links with the Haitian opposition. Stories of atrocities committed by marines at the highest levels against Haitian civilians were made public, fueling opposition in the United States.

Meanwhile, the economic recession caused the coffee market, already hit by a bad crop in 1928, to collapse, removing the one source of income for most Haitians. At the same time, the occupying government increased taxes and once more "postponed" elections, at a time when the client president, Louis Borno, was widely hated. "These factors exacerbated the latent hatred of the occupation inspired by American racial condescension and boorish military dictation."

The result was a mass rebellion against the occupation. It started with a series of student strikes against the technical school established by the occupying regime. In late October 1929, students walked out to protest changes in how scholarships were awarded. A British reporter in the Manchester Guardian wrote, "resentment against the American occupation has long been smoldering and needed only some minor dispute to cause it to burst into flame." This was the spark.

Sympathy strikes spread across private and public schools all over the country. The authorities attempted to pacify protesters by announcing that President Borno would not return to power at the end of his term, but at the same time the regime appealed for more marines. In December, the rebellion became generalized, with a strike by workers at the customs houses in Port-au-Prince-the heart of the country's wealth. The strikes led to general mass protests on the streets, where marine patrols were stoned. The Americans imposed a curfew and military law, shut down the opposition press, dispatched marines across the nation, fired government workers who had gone on strike, and arrested protesters. On December 6, 1,500 peasants protested against taxes and arrests of protesters in Cayes. Marine airplanes dropped bombs on the harbor, which only enraged the Haitians more. Around 1,500 peasants armed with stones, machetes, and clubs, confronted twenty marines armed with automatic weapons. The marines opened fire into the crowd, killing two dozen and injuring more than fifty Haitians. The U.S. Navy awarded the Navy Cross to the commander of the detachment for "commendable courage and forbearance."

The official response, carried by the "embeds" of the time, Associated and United Press reporters who were also marine officers, maintained that opposition was restricted to a minority, "a few elite politicians." An American colonel said that the strikes and protests were the work of an "international red conspiracy" and "dishonest, paid agitators." But as news reached the world, public opinion turned strongly against the occupation. One American congressman remarked, while criticizing the U.S. marines for "playing pirates" in Haiti: "Our smugness irritates the world and does not blind it. The White House often fools the country, but seldom fools the world." The Communist Party played a major role in publicizing the truth of the occupation. They sent out, for example, a press release about the Cayes massacre to African American newspapers across the U.S. and worked with the Anti-Imperialist League to organize conferences and generate and distribute literature about imperialism in Haiti.

The criticism coming from across the world, including Latin America and at home, was very embarrassing to the Hoover administration, which had been boasting about their "good neighbor" policy towards Latin America. As protests escalated, the U.S. government sent in a task force, "the Forbes Commission," to evaluate the occupation. They were met by 6,000 protesters with placards denouncing the occupation. The commission's report, predictably, mostly praised the occupation, but, recognizing the scale of the problem, also recommended that Colonel John H. Russell, Haiti's appointed high commissioner, be removed, and preparations be made for American withdrawal. President Borno was to be replaced by an interim government and elections were scheduled for November 1930. Ominously, the report concluded of Haitians' future that, "their best hope is for a benevolent despot to arise, who like Porfirio Diaz in Mexico, will guide them." As historian Schmidt points out, Diaz was benevolent only to American interests.

In Haiti, the rebellion continued to escalate after the commission left. Protesters burned down homes of marine colonels in what High Commissioner Russell referred to as an attempt to "create a reign of terror among the Americans." There was a general strike in Cap Haitien. Longshoremen, coffee sorters, logwood workers, agricultural laborers, public works, and sanitary department employees all walked out, undaunted by the punishments meted out against previous striking workers.

The elections soundly defeated the American-supported candidate and selected the Haitian nationalist Sténio Vincent. The U.S. was forced to withdraw ahead of schedule and troops finally left in 1934. Before leaving, however, the U.S. government made a deal with Vincent, bypassing the more principled Haitian legislature, in the Executive Accord of August 1933. In exchange for withdrawal of troops and a loan, the U.S. government would maintain supervision of Haitian finances until all outstanding American bonds expired in 1952.

What was the outcome of the occupation's vaunted policy of "uplift?" After nineteen years, 95 percent of Haitians remained illiterate-the same as before the invasion. Despite an explicit goal of diversifying and therefore stabilizing the Haitian economy, Haiti was even more dependent on a single crop, coffee. While sisal, a plant fiber used for making rope, and banana production had started to develop, both were controlled by American companies. The terms of trade had been shifted overwhelmingly in favor of U.S. interests. The occupation also intensified the inherently unjust system of raising money through taxes and customs duties from the Haitian peasantry.

The U.S. left a highly centralized state apparatus in Port-au-Prince and a large U.S.-trained military well practiced in repressing domestic rebellions. The gendarmerie of Haiti was to become the Duvalier dictatorship's chief weapon; just as the constabularies developed during the U.S. occupation of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua were central to the Batista, Trujillo, and Somoza dictatorships. All the practices of absolutism perfected by the Duvalier regime were actually introduced by the occupation: Martial law and military tribunals for civilians; intimidation and imprisonment of journalists; dissolution of the legislature; indiscriminate killing of peasants; civilian administrative roles filled by soldiers; censorship of culture. The negative role of the U.S. in Haiti throughout the twentieth century was more than simply a legacy, however. U.S. power continued to hover over Haiti, aiding its dictators and intervening more directly whenever necessary.

First published in the International Socialist Review.

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