America’s Sorry History with Haiti

America’s Sorry History with Haiti

 With all the talk of America taking charge of Haiti for a while, it would be prudent for us to take a step back and review the history of our various interventions in Haiti, and the outcomes of those efforts.

For there is another kind of aid that the people of Haiti need that isn’t being talked about. They need us to understand their real history, their culture and their potential.


They need us to stop patronizing them and interfering with their progress so they can realize the freedom they are still seeking two centuries after officially casting off the shackles of slavery. [For more on that era, see’s “Haiti and America’s Historic Debt.”]

If there’s one lesson we’ve had to learn in Haiti over and over, it’s that the solutions to Haiti’s problems can never be imposed from the outside. They must be allowed to grow from within.

And we have to let those solutions flourish, instead of trying to shape them to the liking of our business class, as we have repeatedly attempted to do, with disastrous effect.

The Military Occupation

In 1915, the United States began a nearly 20-year military occupation of Haiti, ostensibly to guarantee the country’s substantial debt repayments to American and other foreign lenders. But historian Hans Schmidt, among others, questioned this motive, as he found that Haiti’s record of repayment had been “exemplary” compared with that of other Latin American countries.

The larger reason for the occupation, according to Schmidt and others, was to keep European financial interests (German and French in particular) from economically colonizing Haiti at a time when America, having recently completed the Panama Canal, was hoping to expand its own sphere of influence in the Caribbean.

And potential investors in Haiti, such as the United Fruit Company (whose name is familiar to anyone who has studied the CIA’s coup in Guatemala), weren’t going to move in unless the US took over the government and brought stability.

To be fair, it’s not like America alone ruined the place. Haiti was a mess when the US forces got there. Of the 11 presidents who had held office in Haiti from 1888 to 1915, only one had apparently died a natural death, and none had served their full term. Seven presidents were killed or overthrown in 1911 alone.

And from 1843 to 1915, Haiti had been through, according to Robert and Nancy Heinl in their book Written in Blood, “at least 102 civil wars, revolutions, insurrections” or as one commentator called it, a series of “bloody operettas.”

Years of various colonization attempts had divided Haiti into an economic and cultural caste system that was in part racially based. The whites and lighter-skinned people often held the money and position; the darker the skin, the lower down the economic totem pole one was likely to be.

Efforts to spread modern technology among the peasant population fell flat, and working all day for someone else’s profit wasn’t much of an incentive for people who had few needs and were accustomed to scarcity.

In addition, many Americans who came to Haiti looked down on the native people, often due to racial prejudice. The Americans typically didn’t recognize the value of the natives’ knowledge, and believed that America knew what was best for Haiti.

One notable exception was Major Smedley Butler, who noted that “The Haitian people are divided into two classes; one class wears shoes and the other does not. The class that wears shoes is about one percent. …

“Ninety-nine percent of the people of Haiti are the most kindly, generous, hospitable, pleasure-loving people I have ever known. They would not hurt anybody [unless incited by the shoe-wearers; then] they are capable of the most horrible atrocities.”

“Those that wore shoes I took as a joke,” Butler added. “Without a sense of humor, you could not live in Haiti among these people, among the shoe class.”

Ignorance and Arrogance

You’d think that if you wanted to help a people become a prospering democracy that the first thing you’d offer them would be an education. But over 10 years into the US occupation, 95 percent of the Haitian population remained illiterate.

The one educational effort the US put forward was the Service Technique, a training program in agricultural and industrial technology. The problem with that, as Schmidt noted, was that the elite “traditionally held that manual labor was demeaning, while the peasants were enmeshed in subsistence farming and were reluctant to risk an already tenuous existence in outlandish experiments that were fundamental to American technological progress.”

In addition, American arrogance even prevented an exchange of ideas that could have benefited American businesses. For example, the Haitians had developed a much more efficient way of farming cotton than the industrial farming methods employed by the Americans. But Americans pushed their own technology instead.

Not surprisingly, the Americans failed to win many converts.

What little profit Haiti did make, financially, was used to pay off American bankers, sometimes in advance of the payment schedule. Funding education and public projects — the very projects the loans had been provided for — were not the priorities.

Haitian laborers were paid pennies an hour to work 12-hour days. Raising wages was discouraged for fear it might cause capital to seek a more favorable climate.

In 1925 and 1926, in an attempt to make the country more attractive to farming interests such as United Fruit, the Marines took aerial photographs of the land in the hopes of creating a cadastral survey showing actual boundaries of property.

But the photographs were destroyed in a fire, and American officials for the large part refused to pressure the masses into selling their tiny, title-less but generations-held property to American businesses.

When the market crash in 1929 rippled around the world, Haiti’s productive coffee farms lost their markets, and the people returned to subsistence-level farming. Students began striking to protest the American occupation, and soon others joined in a general strike.

An early attempt at “shock and awe” failed as miserably in Haiti as it did in Iraq. The Marines dropped bombs in a harbor where a particularly aggressive group of protesting Haitians had gathered. But instead of cowing them, the demonstration seemed to instigate them further. The Marines had to fire on the group to disperse them.

Ultimately, the depression turned the tide of opinion in Haiti against its American occupiers, increasingly seen as oppressors.

By 1932, tensions had come to a head, and President Hoover began taking steps to end the occupation. President Roosevelt completed the action in 1934.

Evaluating the Effort

What did the United States leave the Haitians with in return for the occupation? The US did bring them some years of relative stability, law and order. The US built some hospitals and rural health clinics as well as some roads and bridges and airstrips.

But for all that, as a contemporary observer noted, “the Haitian people are, today, little better fitted for self-government than they were in 1915.”

US military forces also killed thousands of Haitians in efforts to achieve security.

The aforementioned Major Butler became quite outspoken about the role he’d been forced to play. “I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912…

“Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents."

Did the US learn from this failed attempt at nation building? No. The US just kept intervening, with repeatedly disastrous results.

Cut to 1957. Whatever modernization was achieved from the US occupation was already a distant memory. Bridges and roads had fallen into disrepair. The same drive that in 1934 took two hours to complete by 1957 took nine hours by jeep (in good weather) due to unpaved potholes and the island’s “wrinkled paper” topology.

And that was just one road.

Imagine a country without a telephone system, with failing bridges, ports with crumbling docks, patients lying ill on the floor of dirty hospitals, political institutions in shambles or even nonexistent. Imagine what you’re seeing now, post-earthquake, as the everyday state of things.

‘President for Life’

Enter François Duvalier, a Haitian man of medicine who became known as “Papa Doc.” He was an educated man, not a soldier. He was a black man who wore suits and ties. He looked like the kind of conservative figure American business interests could support.

But Duvalier was also an adept of Voodoo. He studied Machiavelli. He mastered his country’s history, and learned what hadn’t worked for his predecessors, and took steps to avoid their mistakes.

Despite the New York Times’ initial portrait of him as “mild-mannered doctor,” Duvalier, upon winning the presidency in 1957, became a ruthless, corrupt dictator.

Duvalier knew he needed to gain control over the military, since most of the previous coups against Haitian leaders had come from that source. He built his own private strike force, the Tonton Macoutes, and got rid of opposition leaders in the military.

He brought back the death penalty, which had been abolished for years. Private radio transmitters were confiscated. Journalists were followed, harassed, and in some cases beaten into silence. He quickly turned Haiti into a police state, ruling by terror and brute force.

In 1958, Duvalier hired a US consulting firm to review his government and offer suggestions for improving its efficiency. And then he ignored their advice. He had already learned that the easiest way to get money from the US was simply to raise the threat of communists in his country.

In 1961, Duvalier ran a slate of candidates for top government positions under his own name, and when they were “elected” (by 1.3 million people out of 1 million eligible voters), baldly claimed that he himself had been re-elected to a second term, as his name had been at the top of the ballot.

Second terms were expressly forbidden by the Haitian constitution. But since Duvalier held the military in tow, no one dared press that point. The US, however, refused to recognize the legitimacy of his claim, and President Kennedy promptly recalled the American ambassador in Port-au-Prince.

When Duvalier had first come to power under the Eisenhower administration, the US had given him aid money to help get him off to a good start. But after the sham of an election in 1961 and additional atrocities that followed, President Kennedy slammed the brakes on American aid and by August 1962 began closing out operations.

The 70-person AID mission was reduced to eight people, who remained to administer a malaria-prevention program and to supervise the distribution of surplus food. US military assistance programs were cancelled.

(Duvalier later celebrated when President Kennedy was assassinated, and sent an emissary to gather some air from Kennedy’s grave site, among other items, so he could attempt, through Voodoo, to capture Kennedy’s “soul” and harness it for his own purposes.)

In 1962, Duvalier’s Foreign Minister threatened to block an Organization of American States (OAS) vote unless the US gave him aid money. An angry Dean Rusk agreed, causing desk officers to joke that Dean’s expense account for the day read, “Breakfast: $2.25. Lunch with Haitian Foreign Minister: $2,800,000.00.”

American Backing

On his way to power, Duvalier had quietly suggested to some that he had American backing.

Indeed, Clemard Joseph Charles, an American with a variety of financial ties, became “banker and bagman” for Duvalier, paying off military officers to support Duvalier’s ascent to power. Charles was the president of the Banque Commerciale d’Haiti.

According to various witnesses interviewed by the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) in the late 1970s, Charles received funding from businessmen in Texas and had numerous CIA ties. Charles’ work included finding ways to join American capital with Haitian development projects. He also managed to obtain two American fighter jets for Duvalier.

In May of 1963, Sam Kail, an army intelligence officer working closely with the CIA’s Miami station, thought Duvalier might be of use to the CIA in their efforts to remove Castro from power.

(Oddly enough, Walt Elder, CIA Director John McCone’s assistant, told the Church Committee that the CIA was arming rebels in the hopes that they would overthrow Duvalier. A CIA document notes Duvalier had become intractable and that overthrowing him would help the CIA’s image, which was regarded in Latin America as primarily propping up repressive regimes.)

Kail asked Dorothe Matlack, who served as the Assistant Director of the Office of Intelligence in the Army as well as a liaison to the CIA, if she would see Clemard Charles in Washington, D.C., during Charles’ upcoming trip.

Matlack invited Charles to speak with her and CIA officer Tony Czaikowski, whom she introduced to Charles as a Georgetown professor. Charles, for his part, brought George de Mohrenschildt and de Mohrenschildt’s wife to the meeting.

George de Mohrenschildt was a White Russian who had befriended that “communist” Lee Harvey Oswald at the request of J. Walter Moore, a CIA officer in Dallas.

According to Edward J. Epstein, who interviewed de Mohrenschildt, Moore asked de Mohrenschildt to meet with Oswald, as Oswald had just returned from Minsk and Moore knew de Mohrenschildt had grown up in that area.

De Mohrenschildt responded that, while he knew there could be no strict quid pro quo, he’d appreciate some help from the US Embassy to aid in an oil exploration deal he was trying to accomplish with Duvalier.

Matlack told the HSCA that Charles seemed “frantic and frightened” as he urged Matlack to get the US Marines to overthrow Duvalier. (Czaikowski suggested in his notes of this meeting that a cousin of Charles might eventually succeed Duvalier. Elsewhere, Charles and de Mohrenschildt suggested Charles himself as a potential candidate. In 1967, Duvalier imprisoned Charles.)

Matlack was unnerved by the way de Mohrenschildt seemed to “dominate” Charles. Matlack wondered what the true nature of their relationship was, and didn’t believe the explanation they gave her — that they were developing a jute business together in Haiti.

“I knew the Texan wasn’t there to sell hemp,” Matlack told the HSCA.

Matlack was so disturbed by de Mohrenschildt’s behavior that she notified the FBI liaison, about it. And she wasn’t the only one disturbed by de Mohrenschildt’s behavior.

Another witness told the HSCA that de Mohrenschildt used to follow people in his car, that he appeared to have “some intelligence connections,” and that a mutual acquaintance who swam in intelligence circles said some $200,000 had been deposited in de Mohrenschildt’s Haitian bank account (though not the one at Charles’ bank) shortly after the Kennedy assassination.

The money was later paid out, but the acquaintance wasn’t sure to whom.

George McMillan, who wrote a book that claimed James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King (a finding a jury did not uphold in a civil trial in 1999), and who was married to Priscilla Johnson McMillan (who wrote a book about Oswald and whose CIA file listed her as a “witting collaborator”), wrote in the Washington Post that he had once stayed with de Mohrenschildt and his wife in Haiti at their home in Port-au-Prince.

McMillan noted the de Mohrenschildt’s lived, “not insignificantly, I suppose, within the compound where Papa Doc Duvalier then lived. We had to pass through heavily guarded gates as we came and went.”

Why was de Mohrenschildt so close to Duvalier? Was he keeping tabs on the dictator for the CIA? Or was he keeping tabs on the CIA for Duvalier? Whatever the truth, this 1964 State Department document sadly sums up America’s priorities at the time when it came to Haiti:

“United States interests range from the need to protect American citizens and property interests to ensuring that Haiti votes on the merit of questions of importance to the United States and the free world in international organizations and forums. The United States also has an abiding interest in the social and economic welfare of the Haitian people.” [Emphasis added.]

In June 1964, Duvalier rewrote his country’s constitution so that it included a provision by which he could be named “President for Life,” and then had his hand-picked legislators “vote” to make him so. He now officially met anyone’s definition of a dictator, in full bloom.

Throughout both Duvaliers’ rule – “Papa Doc” and his son who was called “Baby Doc” – the US sent selected Haitian officials to the infamous School of the Americas, where they were trained in torture techniques and other methods of oppression. The graduates were then returned to the Haitian military and civilian police forces, giving Americans increasing control over the military during the Duvaliers’ regimes.

“Papa Doc” Duvalier’s shrewd manipulations continued even after his death. He had made provisions for his son to rule in the event of his passing. Observers didn’t think the son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, had the grit to run the country.

But the son managed to hold the presidency for 15 years after his father’s death before a coalition of forces that included the US ousted him due to the cumulative horrors perpetrated under the family’s rule and the disastrous economic mess they had created.

In 1981, Hurricane Allen ripped up the Haitian countryside as well as the usually untouched Port-au-Prince at a time when the Haitians were already in economic despair. Unable to vote in any meaningful way at home, many Haitians started voting with their feet, and left Haiti en masse to seek refuge in America.

No Haitians Allowed

But unlike the Cubans who fled their homeland, Haitians were not welcomed in the US with open arms.

The new administration under Ronald Reagan claimed there was no racial bias, that the Cubans were political refugees whereas the Haitians were merely economic refugees. (It probably helped that the Cubans were fleeing a leftist government, while the Haitians were fleeing a right-wing one.)

When bevies of volunteer lawyers rushed to defend the incoming poor from Haiti, the Reagan administration, with Jean-Claude’s acquiescence, stationed a US Coast Guard ship off the coast to head off refugees before they got to US shores.

As part of this agreement, US aid money to Haiti increased. In addition, a former World Bank official named Marc Bazin, whom the US favored, was installed as the new finance minister.

But conditions in Haiti continued to worsen. Arable land was declining due to dramatic deforestation. Diseases still ravaged the island, including now AIDS. Literacy rates continued to be obscenely low, and corruption was as rampant as ever. And as usual, to control the populace, violence was too often employed.

By 1986, the citizens were in full revolt. Fearing widespread bloodshed, and urged out by the United States, Jean-Claude departed the country. Anything and anyone related to the Duvaliers and other oppressors became a subject of attack.

The Duvaliers sent Papa Doc’s coffin to France so the masses couldn’t get to it. Streets were renamed back to their original Haitian names. A statue of Columbus was toppled.

While Jean-Claude denied that the US forced him out, he accepted a flight on a US cargo plane to leave the country for France. (France had only offered him temporary asylum, but no other country would take him.)

Another series of revolving door leaders would temporarily preside over the country.


Lisa Pease is a historian and writer.