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Remembering the US invasion of Haiti—105 years later

US-led forces brutally suppressed a resistance movement, killing 15,000 Haitians

Latin America and the CaribbeanUSA Politics

American troops oversee a marching band within the Haitian Gendarmerie. Image taken from Monograph of Haiti, assembled by United States Marines during the US occupation of that country, 1915-1934. Photo courtesy of Duke University Libraries.

While remembering their past has not prevented history from repeating itself, it is not possible for the descendants of the world’s first successful slave revolt to forget the trauma inflicted on them by their northern neighbours.

105 years ago today, a brutal occupation of Haiti by the United States began. To commemorate an intervention that continues to shape that country, Solidarity Quebec-Haïti is organizing a sit-in in front of the US Consulate on Saint-Catherine Street in Montréal.

On July 28, 1915 the USS Washington, with 900 men and 20 canons, docked in Port-au-Prince. US troops withdrew in 1934 but Washington continued to exert significant control over the country’s finances until 1941, while the Banque de la République d’Haïti remained under US supervision until 1947.

The occupation was not Washington’s first instance of interference in Haiti, but it successfully consolidated its grip on the country. Six months earlier, US Marines marched on the treasury in Port-au-Prince and stole the nation’s entire gold reserve.

At the height of the occupation, some 5,000 Marines were stationed in Haiti, then home to fewer than three million people. US-led forces brutally suppressed a largely peasant resistance movement, killing 15,000 Haitians.

In one of many instances of overt US racism, a top US commander, Colonel Littleton (Tony) Waller, descendent of a prominent family of slaveowners, said, “I know the nigger and how to handle him.”

To suppress the anti-occupation movement the US employed the then-nascent military tactic of aerial bombardment. Most of the fighting ended when rebel leader Charlemagne Peralte was killed, pinned to a door and left on a street to rot for days at the end of 1919. The US military described Peralte as the “supreme bandit of Haiti.”

In a famous mea culpa, an architect of the occupation confessed he was in fact the true “gangster.” Describing himself as a “high class muscle man for Big Business” and a “gangster for capitalism,” Marine Corps General Smedley Butler wrote in an article years later, “I helped make Haiti … a decent place for the National City Bank Boys to collect revenues in.”

Opposition to the occupation was fed by conscription. US authorities captured civilians and compelled them to work on public roadways, buildings and other infrastructure. One reason the Marines wanted new roads was to help them bypass rugged terrain to suppress the resistance.

During the occupation the US established a new military force. Created to crush resistance to the occupation, the National Guard “never fought anyone but Haitians.” For the next 70 years it would be used by Washington and the elite against Haiti’s poor. The country’s current government, led by the widely unpopular Jovenel Moïse, is seeking to revive that force.

In general, the occupation devastated the peasantry. Wealth extracted from the countryside was overwhelmingly channeled to infrastructure in the capital and foreign banks. The occupation spurred migration to Port-au-Prince and out of the country.

The US instigated other major changes to rural areas. In 1918, the occupying force rewrote Haiti’s constitution to allow foreigners to purchase land, a practice which had been outlawed since independence. A number of US-based corporations subsequently took advantage of the changes. The American-controlled North Haytian Sugar Company and the Haytian Pineapple Company both acquired hundreds of acres of land while the Haitian American Development Corporation, the Haytian Corporation of America, and the Haytian Agricultural Corporation each acquired tens of thousands of acres.

Toronto-based Sun Life Assurance Company initiated its operations in Haiti during this period. Canada’s largest bank also benefited from the US occupation. In 1919 the Royal Bank of Canada became the second bank in Haiti. RBC hired former finance minister Louis Borno as a legal advisor, and officials at the Canadian firm subsequently financed his successful presidential bid during the US occupation.

Unfortunately, Solidarity Quebec-Haïti’s sit-in is not only about drawing attention to a dark chapter in Haitian history—Washington still retains significant influence over the country, more than a century after the occuptaion began. In fact, the corrupt, repressive and illegitimate government of Jovenel Moïse would not be in power in Haiti today without US (and Canadian) support.

Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of that rare but growing group of social critics unafraid to confront Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire). He has published nine books.


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