Earlier this week, President Trump allegedly disparaged Haiti, describing it as “sh*thole.” The response has been what you might expect. It’s been a torrent of demands for apologies from the Trump administration and commentary on how “troubling” Donald Trump’s views are.
Upon hearing of such comments supposedly directed at Haitians, a well informed person might be tempted to think “if only this were the worst thing a US president has inflicted upon the Haitian people.”
But, as is typical for the American left and the mainstream media, uttering mean words is the worst thing a politician can do. Actively meddling in another country’s internal affairs and undermining its elections? Well, that’s no big deal — unless you’re Russia, of course.
Indeed, anyone who has any familiarity at all with the history of US-Haiti relations knows that the US has a long, well-established habit of intervening in the island nation — often in a brutal manner.
For more than a century (beginning in 1915) the United States has indulged in various invasion, massacres, coups, and other interventions designed to keep Haiti in the shadow of the United States and appropriately subservient as desired by American statesmen.
In just the last 25 years, the United States has sent American military forces to the island twice — in 1994 and 2004 — and continues to repeatedly undermine Haitian political institutions every time the nation attempts an election.
If Haiti is as awful as Donald Trump (allegedly) says it is, Trump could do some good by directing the state department, CIA, and all other federal institutions to take a hand’s off approach to the island nation. Until then, unfortunately, the United States continues to share the blame for the destruction and corruption of Haitian institutions.
A History of Occupation
As Edwidge Danticat recounts in the NewYorker:
On July 28, 1915, United States Marines landed in Haiti on the orders of President Woodrow Wilson, who feared that European interests might reduce American commercial and political influence in Haiti, and in the region surrounding the Panama Canal. The precipitating event was the assassination of the Haitian President, Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, but U.S. interests in Haiti went back as far as the previous century. (President Andrew Johnson wanted to annex both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Twenty years later, Secretary of State James Blaine unsuccessfully tried to obtain Môle-Saint-Nicolas, a northern Haitian settlement, for a naval base.) By 1915, the Americans were also afraid that an ongoing debt Haiti was forced to pay to France tied the country too closely to its former colonizer; Germany’s growing commercial interests in Haiti were another major concern. So one of the first actions carried out by the U.S. at the start of the occupation was to move Haiti’s financial reserves to the United States and then rewrite its Constitution to give foreigners land-owning rights.
The occupation lasted 19 years, during which 15,000 Haitian were killed by the US’s brutal puppet government.
The physical occupation eventually ended, but the perennial meddling by the US did not, as it quickly became apparent that no Haitian regime would be allowed to exist without an imprimatur from Washington.
By the late 1950s, the US was working closely to strengthen the brutal dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Duvalier specifically courted American largesse on the island in exchange for Duvalier’s professed anti-communism.1
Variations of this policy continued for years with various dictators who enjoyed support from Washington. Any time the Haitian state proved uncooperative, of course, the American state responded with threats and embargoes like the one instituted by George H. W. Bush in 1991. Like all embargoes, the effects have mostly been felt by the ordinary people of Haiti, whose incomes and capital are destroyed as a result of disruptions to trade. If the US has any interest in alleviating Haitian poverty, it has sure had an odd way of showing it.
By the mid 1990s, the US was at it again with direct interventions, and the Clinton Administration sent a military occupation force to Haiti yet again in 1994 with “Operation Uphold Democracy.” This time, the purpose was to install Jean-Bertrand Aristide, as US puppet who also had a habit of the Marines installed Jean-Bertrand Aristide after he was removed via a coup d’etat.
Later, the US would intervene to remove Aristide from power, replacing the constitutional government with an unelected prime minister sent in from Florida. The US also sent the Marines to “restore order.” This demonstrated yet again, that when it comes to being the leader of Haiti, what really matters is support from Washington.
So, who can be surprised that Haitian political institutions are so immune to the needs of ordinary Haitians? After all, political power does not stem from the tolerance and support of the local population. It comes from currying favor with Washington. And Washington is happy to play along. So long as that continues, no stable and responsive political institutions can take root.
Supporters of endless intervention, of course, have their reasons. They’ll argue that the United States must maintain puppet governments there or less friendly regimes might take over. They’ll argue that unless the US forces “stability” on Haiti — something the United States has failed at again and again — then Haitian refugees will flood American shores.
Even if aspects of these claims were true, direct intervention has never been “necessary.”
The United States Navy is ten times the size of the next largest navy — the Royal Navy. There simply is no Haitian “threat.” Moreover, the multi-trillion-dollar federal budget is more than sufficient to pick up thousands of Haitian refugees and return them to Haiti.
Opponents to such a matter-of-fact and common-sense response to Haitian “threats” will claim that “human rights” considerations demand direct intervention rather than simply returning Haitians to the point of origin. This claim, however, doesn’t pass the laugh test since American intervention in Haiti has never been opposed to supporting brutal dictators there, so long as they kowtow to Washington.
In short, US police in Haiti has done nothing to improve political institutions, to lessen human rights disasters, or to improve Haitian standards of living. The 100-year record of the US in Haiti is one of repeated failure. If Trump feels Haiti is a mess, he might consider departing from this long record of failure with a new policy of total non-intervention. At least then, Washington won’t share the blame for making today’s Haiti what it is.