The First US Occupation of Haiti: 1915-1934

by Leslie Mullin, published in Haiti Solidarity, August 2015

In 1915 the American Marines came to Haiti to collect American loans. Haiti was a land of people without shoes – black people, whose feet walked the dusty roads to market in the early morning, or trod softly on the bare floors of hotels, serving foreign guests. Barefooted ones tending the rice and cane fields under the hot sun, climbing mountain slopes, picking coffee beans, wading through surf to fishing boats in the blue sea. All of the work that kept Haiti alive, paid the interest on American loans, and enriched foreign traders, was done by people without shoes.
– Langston Hughes

The First Black Republic Under Attack

Haiti’s Revolution established the first independent nation in Latin America and the world’s first Black republic. Former slaves defeated Napoleon’s army and liberated France’s most valuable colony. Birthed in the struggle to overthrow slavery, the Haitian people resolved never to surrender their sovereignty to a foreign power, never to return to slavery. The 1915-1934 US Occupation was to re-ignite this resolve.

The United States invaded Haiti on July 28th, 1915 on orders from President Woodrow Wilson. US Marines ruled Haiti for the next 19 years. Military and economic motives for the occupation underlay racist stereotypes of Haitians as ignorant people incapable of governing themselves.

In her book, Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of US Imperialism 1915-1940, historian Mary Renda argues that the 1915 US occupation of Haiti was no sideshow, but one of several important arenas where the identity of the United States as an empire was forged.

On this 100th anniversary, an era that looms large in the historical memory of Haitians is barely recognized in the United States. Yet the 1915-1934 American occupation illuminates a conflict that continues to polarize Haiti: the imposition of United States domination versus continued resistance to foreign intervention by the Haitian people.

For over a century after independence, Haiti faced hostility from foreign powers, especially France and the United States. For daring to overthrow slavery, Haiti was ostracized and forced into repeated compromise to secure foreign trade. In 1825, France demanded that Haiti pay an indemnity to compensate former slave owners for their “colonial losses,” an amount equivalent to $21 billion today. The demand was conveyed by six warships off the Haitian coast, and accompanied by the threat of an economic blockade. Haiti’s peasant population carried the burden of this debt for 122 years. It was finally paid in 1947. The indemnity was a crippling blow to Haiti’s economy. The rural areas were robbed of money needed for development, infrastructure, and education. And Haiti went deeply into debt securing loans at exorbitant interest rates to keep up with the payments.

By 1862, after finally recognizing Haiti’s independence, the US Government was fully in pursuit of control over Haitian finances, labor, ports and resources to benefit American banking and business interests. By 1905, the US replaced France as Haiti’s main trading partner. In 1909, National City Bank of New York secured controlling interest in Haiti’s Banque Nationale. US Marines later seized $500,000 in gold from Banque Nationale and transferred it to National City Bank in New York.

In 1910 an American investor acquired Haiti’s National Railroad with rights to establish banana plantations on either side of the track between Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien. This land had sustained rural farmers and their families for generations. The Haitian Constitution did not even permit foreigners to own land – a safeguard against restoring slavery. The abrupt eviction of peasants from their land to make way for banana plantations prompted fierce resistance. Four years of insurrection followed, involving peasant armies – the Cacos – along with urban elites and members of Parliament who were opposed to foreign domination.

This period of government instability became the pretext for the US occupation. By August 1915, there were 3000 US Marines in Haiti. They seized the customs houses, imposed martial law, instituted press censorship, and outlawed dissent. The US installed a compliant president, imposed a “treaty” that was ratified only by the US Senate, disbanded the legislature, and rewrote the Constitution eliminating the ban against foreign land ownership.

Haiti’s indigenous religion, Vodou – so central to the war for independence – was banned. US Marines – all white, many Southern, replaced local heads of every town and rural district throughout the country. By 1922, the US completely controlled Haitian finances – including the treasury, collected taxes and forced Haiti to repay American loans.

Chief among the legacies of the occupation is the creation of the Haitian Gendarmes. Marines disarmed the former regionally structured Haitian Army and replaced it with a new army under US command. The sole purpose of the Haitian Gendarmes – later known as Forces Armees d’Haiti (FADH) – was to keep Haitians in line. Its’ centralized structure would be wielded by future dictators to control the Haitian state. Thus, the US Marine occupation paved the way for the ruthless Duvalier dictatorships that were to follow.

Opposition Emerges Within the United States

In the years following World War I, African Americans emerged as the first major critics of the occupation from within the United States. The occupation coincided with the Great Migration, an era marked by immense social and cultural change among African Americans. Historian Brenda Gayle Plummer explains:

“The timing of the occupation was especially significant. The Bloody Summers of 1918 and 1919, the agitation for a federal anti-lynching bill, and the rise of militant nationalism put racial matters at the forefront. Black Americans perceived the Haitians as related to themselves, and increasingly admired the Haitian tradition of resistance to servitude and fierce independence.”

In 1920, James Weldon Johnson, Field Secretary of the NAACP, returned from Haiti with alarming reports of US Marine conduct towards Haitians, published in a four-part series in The Nation entitled “Self-Determining Haiti:”

“Brutalities and atrocities on the part of American Marines have occurred with sufficient frequency to be the cause of deep resentment and terror. Marines talk freely of what they ‘did’ to some Haitians in the outlying districts. Familiar methods of torture to make captives reveal what they often do not know are nonchalantly discussed. Just before I left Port-au-Prince an American Marine had caught a Haitian boy stealing sugar off the wharf and instead of arresting him he battered his brains out with the butt of his rifle. I learned from the lips of American Marines themselves of a number of cases of rape of Haitian women by Marines. I often sat at tables in the hotels and cafes in company with Marine officers and they talked before me without restraint. I remember the description of a ‘caco’ hunt by one of them; he told how they finally came upon a crowd of natives engaged in the popular pastime of cock-fighting and how they ‘let them have it’ with machine guns and rifle fire.“

The following passage from Johnson’s report describes the corvee system by which US Marines reintroduced slavery to Haiti, forcing rural peasants to build roads. The imposition of the corvee galvanized renewed peasant resistance leading to widespread rebellion against the occupation:

“The building of the road from Port-au-Prince to Cape Haitian is a monumental piece of work, but it is doubtful whether the Occupation had in mind the building of a great highway for the benefit of Haiti… the manner of building this road was one of the most brutal blunders made by the American Occupation in Haiti. It was built by forced labor. Haitian men were seized on the country roads and taken off their farms and put to work. They were kept in compounds at night and not allowed to go home. They were maltreated, beaten and terrorized. In fact, they were in the same category with the convicts in the Negro chain gangs that are used to build roads in many of our southern states. It was largely out of the methods of building this road that there arose the need for ‘pacification.’ “

Resistance to Foreign Occupation

The great Haitian hero of this period was Charlemagne Peralte. Formerly a Haitian Army commander, Peralte mobilized and led an armed guerrilla force of thousands of peasants in Haiti’s Central Plateau. Peralte had been dismissed from the Haitian Army when he refused to surrender his weapons and flag to US Marines who took over his district, Leogane. In 1917, he was court-martialed and sentenced to five years hard labor for aiding the rebels. For the same charge, his brother Saul was sentenced to death and executed by order of US Marines.

In September 1918, Peralte escaped, returned to Hinche and began recruiting a guerilla movement. He issued a formal declaration of war against the United States in a letter to the French Minister that bore one hundred signatures:

“For four years, cruel and unjust Yankees brought ruin and hopelessness to our territory. Now, during the peace conference and before the whole world, the civilized nations took an oath to respect the rights and sovereignty of small nations. We demand the liberation of our territory and all the advantages given to free and independent states by international law. Therefore, please take into consideration that ten months of fighting has been in pursuit of this aim and that our victories give us the right to ask for your recognition. We are prepared to sacrifice everything to liberate Haiti, and establish here the principles affirmed by President Wilson himself: the rights and sovereignty of small nations. Please note, honored Consul, that American troops, following their own laws, don’t have any right to fight against us.”

Resistance spread over much of the country which gave rise to brutal repression. The American campaign against Caco resistance became a war of extermination. Not since slavery had a foreign power exercised such ruthless violence in Haiti. Marines couched their campaign in racist terms, dehumanizing Haitians as mere targets as they “hunted Cacos.” They referred to Caco guerrillas as “bandits.” Prisoners were routinely executed. Villages suspected of harboring Caco were burned; suspected sympathizers shot. Caco villages with families, children and livestock were bombed in aerial assaults that of their very nature were indiscriminate. Ground troops followed the bombings, killing survivors.

Like Sandino, Zapata and Pancho Villa, Charlemagne Peralte led a nationalist peasant army resisting foreign domination. He was a formidable opponent who was able to establish a provisional government in northern Haiti. The Marines decided that the best way to crush the Cacos was to eliminate him. James Weldon Johnson would later denounce the savage murder of Charlemagne Peralte:

“If anyone doubts that ‘caco’ hunting is the sport of American Marines in Haiti, let him learn the facts about the death of Charlemagne. Charlemagne Peralte was a Haitian of education and culture and of great influence in his district…The America of the Revolution, indeed the America of the Civil War, would have regarded Charlemagne not as a criminal but a patriot. He met his death not in open fight, not in an attempt at his capture, but through a dastard deed. While standing over his campfire, he was shot in cold blood by an American Marine officer who stood concealed by the darkness, and who had reached the camp through bribery and trickery. This deed, which was nothing short of assassination, has been heralded as an example of American heroism.”

Charlemagne’s body was taken by train to Cap Haitien where he was put on public display like a trophy, unclothed, strapped to a board, the flag of Haiti circling his head. Photographs of this image were dropped from airplanes over areas where Cacos were active. The intent was to demoralize the guerillas, but the image became a symbol of martyrdom, immortalized in Haitian artist Philome Obin’s painting, “The Crucifixion of Charlemagne Peralte For Freedom.

The Caco rebellion continued for another year with renewed leadership, but when Benoit Batraville was killed, resistance subsided.

The US presidential election campaign of 1920 provided an opening for critics of the occupation, as reports of indiscriminate killings of Haitians reached the United States. James Weldon Johnson argued, “The United States has failed in Haiti. It should get out as well and as quickly as it can and restore to the Haitian people their independence and sovereignty.” In 1925, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) assembled an interracial delegation to investigate the occupation that included Addie Hunton, president of the International Council of Women of the Darker Races and Emily Green Balch, former WILPF president. The delegation’s report found “the problem in Haiti to consist not in individual instances of misused power, but in the fundamental fact of the armed occupation of a country.”

In Haiti, the final chapter of the occupation opened with the strikes and riots of 1929. Student strikes against increased tuition fees became a rallying point for popular discontent. On December 4th, a general uprising started with customs employees in Port-au-Prince. Thousands of peasants converged on American outposts to denounce the occupation authorities.

Marine troop reinforcements were sent to key cities. Martial law and the curfew were rigidly enforced; opposition news was suppressed. Disaster struck on December 6th when 1500 unarmed peasants confronted 20 Marines in the southern town of Le Cayes to protest the imposition of new taxes and demand the release of prisoners. In response, the Marines opened fire, killing at least 24 Haitians and wounding 51 more.

News of the 1929 uprising and the Le Cayes massacre attracted worldwide attention and made the occupation untenable. In 1934, the United States withdrew from Haiti formally transferring authority to the Haitian Gendarmes. Fifteen thousand Haitians had been killed; 50,000 peasants lost their land. US business was thoroughly entrenched in Haiti.

The Current US Occupation

“The US occupation of 1915 and the US occupation of 2004 are two sides of the same coin”

Haitian human rights activist Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine, July 28, 2007

In 2004, the United States imposed another military occupation on Haiti with support from United Nations troops, MINUSTAH. The 2004 occupation followed a brutal US-backed coup against the democratically elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The coup forced Aristide into exile and killed or imprisoned thousands of activists and supporters of Haiti’s contemporary grassroots movement, Lavalas.

Lavalas – meaning “the flood” – is the popular movement that emerged from the struggle to oust the Duvalier dictatorship which succeeded in establishing Haiti’s first democratic government under President Aristide. Haiti’s popular movement has a very different agenda for Haiti than does the United States, one that prioritizes Haiti’s people over foreign profit. Just as the US attacked the Caco movement, the United States has used every means to destroy Lavalas – economic blockade, the 2004 coup, armed assaults against communities of resistance like Cite Soleil, imprisonment and exile of Lavalas leaders, exclusion from elections.

Controlling the narrative is an essential feature of the current US occupation. The American public has been so thoroughly won to regard Haiti as subordinate to the United States that even the name Haiti has become just a prefix, “Haiti – the-poorest-country-in-the-western-hemisphere.” This dismissive label hides the main reason for Haiti’s poverty – the economic model forced upon Haiti by foreign powers to generate foreign profits. Haiti’s poor majority call it “the death plan.”

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former democratically elected president and powerful spokesman for Haiti’s poor, subverts this western narrative by linking Haiti’s name to her people’s rich history of struggle for freedom. He proposes its African roots in two Swahili words – Hai meaning Not and Tii meaning Obey. Joined together, the word “Haitii” speaks to the resistance of Haiti’s people – “Haitii, Do Not Obey.” Aristide asserts that, “for centuries the peoples’ strength has been to resist…resistance comes by nature to Haitians.” This is the Haiti whose struggle for justice and freedom threatens US empire. This Haiti represents one of the great popular movements for democracy in the world today, Lavalas.

SOURCES:

Aristide, Jean-Bertrand. Haiti-Haitii? Philosophical Reflections for Mental Decolonization. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2011.
Aristide, Mildred. Child Domestic Service in Haiti and Its Historical Underpinnings. Bibliotheque Nationale d’Haiti, Mars 2003.
Dubois, Laurent. Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2012.
Hughes, Langston. I Wonder as I Wander. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.
Johnson, James Weldon. “Self-Determining Haiti,” Nation, Aug 28-Sept 25, 1920.
Logan, Rayford. “James Weldon Johnson and Haiti,” Phylon (1960-) Vol. 32, No. 4 (4th Qtr., 1971), pp. 396-402
Podor, Justin. Haiti’s New Dictatorship: The coup, the earthquake and the UN occupation. London: Pluto Press, 2012.
Renda, Mary. Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of US Imperialism 1915-1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Ridgeway, James (ed). The Haiti Files: Decoding the Crisis. Washington DC: Essential Books, 1994.
Sprague, Jeb. Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012.
Stotsky, Irwin. Silencing the Guns in Haiti. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

ON-LINE

Chery, Dady. “Charlemagne Peralte: Haitian Hero, ‘Supreme Bandit’ of First US Occupation – Part II” accessed at <http://www.dadychery.org/2012/05/18/charlemagne-peralte-haitian-hero-supreme-bandit-part-ii/>
Plummer, Brenda Gayle. “The Afro – American Response to the Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934,” Phylon (1960-) 43, no. 2 (June 1, 1982): 131. Quoted in “James Weldon Johnson, the NAACP, and the Occupation of Haiti.” From LRI, A Blog Dedicated to Haitian History accessed at <https://larevueindigene.wordpress.com/2015/02/03/james-weldon-johnson-the-naacp-and-the-occupation-of-haiti/>