You don’t need to be an expert on Haiti to understand that it has struggled mightily in its two centuries of sovereign existence, weakened repeatedly by natural and man-made disasters alike. Accordingly, a comprehensive World Bank report published last year highlights those weaknesses and prescribes economic and political solutions to address them. The report, “Haiti: Toward a New Narrative,” points to the lack of a “social contract between the [Haitian] state and its citizens” and the need for a “pro-poor fiscal regime” as central to Haiti’s future. While Haiti does indeed require accountable leadership and a more robust economy, it has been weakened substantially by the international community’s involvement over the last hundred years. It is this narrative that the World Bank report obscures, the one that the non-Haiti expert likely needs in order to properly understand Haiti’s current condition. This piece will highlight the international community’s detrimental political involvement; in the next, its deleterious economic interventions.
First, though the World Bank report’s authors decry Haiti’s persistent political instability, they fail to address the international community’s occasional promotion of it. In 1804, Haiti declared its independence from France, and in doing so became the world’s first independent black republic and only the second in the western hemisphere after the U.S. to win its freedom from European colonial control. Yet the 1824 Franco-Haitian Agreement declared that France would continue to recognize Haiti’s independence only if Haiti paid a sizable fee, thereby ensuring indefinite debt and instability for years to come. Though France remained a dominant presence, German financial activity in Haiti throughout the 19th century became the primary concern of the U.S., which had identified Haiti as a logical stop on its military and economic expansionist quest due to its geography and numerous natural resources.
U.S. fear of German influence in Haiti came to a head between 1911 and 1915, when seven Haitian presidents were assassinated or deposed and the possibility of direct German control of the nation loomed large. To preempt German invasion, President Woodrow Wilson deployed U.S. Marines to the island and pushed forward the adoption of Haitian-American Treaty, which assigned control of Haiti’s domestic politics to the U.S. government. During the 19-year occupation that ensued, the U.S. under Wilson forced the election of pro-American President Phillipe Sudre Dartiguenave to ensure protection of financial interests and continued resistance to German entreaties; attempted to push through a new constitution that would allow foreign ownership of Haitian land; and demanded that President Dartiguenave dissolve his legislature when it refused to ratify the U.S.-sponsored constitution.
Though U.S. Marines had departed the island by the end of 1934, significant and irreparable damage had already been done. Numbers vary, but some estimate that as many as 2,250 protesting Haitians were killed by U.S troops during the 19-year occupation. Moreover, the exclusionary practices of Wilson’s administrators in Haiti had prevented Haitians from holding political office and gaining sound government or management experience, and thus the occupation’s abrupt termination left in its wake a gaping power vacuum that many sought to fill. This tumultuous period left behind it a legacy of wanton political violence cemented by the Duvalier tandem dictatorship, which lasted well into the second half of the 20th century.
By the early 1990s, however, the Haitian state was finally gaining sufficient democratic momentum and breaking from its despotic past. Yet the World Bank report also cites the 2004 overthrow of second-time President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who became Haiti’s first ever democratically elected President a decade earlier only to be deposed in a despotic coup shortly thereafter, as a source of major insecurity. The circumstances of his second departure, however, remain hotly debated. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell claimed that Aristide, recognizing that rebel factions were closing in on the capital and fearing for his wife’s life and for his own, requested removal from Port-au-Prince by U.S. Special Forces, who complied and flew him out of the city sometime late at night on 28 February 2004. Aristide, on the other hand, asserts that U.S. soldiers evacuated him forcibly and against his will at a time when rebel forces were in reality nowhere close to the capital city. The latter account is supported both by Peter Hallward, author of Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment, and Randall Robinson, author of An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, from Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President, who provides the most thorough account of the days leading up to Aristide’s removal from Haiti and subsequent flight on an unmarked jet to the Central African Republic. Robinson and Hallward also detail America’s potential motivations for ridding Haiti of Aristide; first and foremost, Aristide was a socialist who sought to remove power from Haiti’s business elite, a group with considerable financial ties to major U.S. garment industries with factories in Haiti. The group of wealthy Haitian men was known as the G184 and would remain a vigorously anti-Aristide presence in Haiti for years to come.
It could even be argued that the international force deployed to stabilize Haiti in the aftermath of Aristide’s questionable departure has instead contributed further to Haitian instability. The report credits the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) for introducing “comparative stability” to the country, yet human rights groups have charged MINUSTAH with the deaths of dozens of civilians caught in its crossfire, and its allegations are supported by documentary footage taken in Port-au-Prince’s impoverished Cité Soleil neighborhood. And although these reports remain disputed, MINUSTAH’s role in introducing cholera to Haiti only months after it was rocked by the devastating 2010 earthquake is not. The disease, inadvertently imported by Nepalese peacekeepers not adequately screened before deploying to the country’s Central Plateau, has killed almost 10,000 Haitians, and a recent credible report conducted by Doctors Without Borders and publicized by the New York Times claims that the true death toll could be substantially higher than the official count suggests.
Image: “United States Marines on patrol in 1915 during the occupation of Haiti” (Credit: Marine Corps Legacy Museum, Harrison, AR/Wikimedia Commons)