Updated: Jan 22, 2021
Over the past two hundred years, the United States has played an important role in the economic and political activity of Haiti, its close neighbor to the south. The United States’ refusal to recognize Haiti as a country for sixty years, trade policies, military occupations, and role in Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s removal from Haiti are little known by Americans, but significant for the development, or rather, lack of development in Haiti. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, and has economic and health statistics comparable to those in Sub-Saharan Africa. A major factor in analyzing the state of Haiti today is its relationship with the United States both now and throughout history.
Haitian Independence, American Silence
Haiti declared its independence from France on January 1st, 1804. From 1791 to 1804, the slaves of Haiti, then known as the French colony Saint-Domingue, fought off their French slave owners. France fought to hold on to Haiti, as it was their wealthiest colony, exporting sugar, indigo, and coffee. In 1804, under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, they succeeded in throwing off their colonial power. The Haitian Revolution marked a significant event in history. Haiti became the first modern state to abolish slavery, the first state in the world to be formed from a successful revolt of the lower classes (in this case slaves), and the second republic in the Western Hemisphere, only twenty-eight years behind the United States (Reinhardt 247).
Despite this landmark event, the United States did little to respond to the Haitian Revolution. In fact, its silence is very telling: it was frightened because the Haitian Revolution threatened its economic interests. Southern plantation owners, fearful of revolts from their own slaves, worked to prevent their slaves from learning of the Haitian Revolution. They also pressured the United States government to refuse to recognize Haitian independence, which it did until 1862, after Southern states seceded from the Union.
Some argue that beyond economic motives, Americans did not acknowledge the Haitian Revolution because they simply could not understand it. The concept of slaves overthrowing their French masters and ruling themselves in a nation was not only threatening, it was unthinkable, “ a revolution by Blacks was something that could not be” (Reinhardt 250).
While the United States refused to diplomatically recognize Haiti, it continued trade relations with the new nation. Prior to the revolution, the United States was a large trade partner with Haiti, second only to its colonial power, France. Throughout the 19th century, the United States continued to import Haitian agricultural products and export its own goods to Haiti, with unfavorable trade policies for Haitians. In fact, by the mid-19th century the United States exported more goods to Haiti than to any other country in Latin America (Farmer 51). During the 19th century, its first century as a nation, Haiti was heavily burdened and its development stuck; it was forced to repay France in order to receive diplomatic recognition, and was diplomatically isolated from all other major powers (see Plummer 1992).
The Haitian Revolution was a significant event in the history of the Caribbean, Western Hemisphere, and world. It was the first to be based on the freedom of ALL of its population. However, Haitian Independence was not recognized by the United States for almost 60 years, to the detriment of the country, and is still left out of popular knowledge of the time period. The revolution in Saint-Domingue now known as Haiti, occurred around the same time as the American and French revolutions. Yet, it is rarely accorded a similar status, that is, of being a foundational event of world history.
The most impactful thing that Biden can do as the newly elected president is to legitimize her place in history. What she has suffered, what she has survived and what she has over thrown. I know it's been a long time but it is never too late to get it right. Legitimacy from the U.S. and France has been something like that of a child vying for the love of father and mother.
The Americas cared chiefly because of the country's proximity to the Panama Canal and Central America. Haiti also controls the Windward Passage, a narrow body of water that could be easily closed, disrupting maritime traffic.
And colonized France was pissed at the perceived stain in their storybooks. In exchange for diplomatic recognition in 1825 Haiti agreed to FR F 150 million in restitution costs for lands (more4 correctly commerce) lost in Haiti due to the Haitian revolts. (later reduced to FR F 90 million in 1838, comparable to US$21 billion as of 2010, repaid in full by 1947) an agreement enforced by 12 French warships armed with 528 cannons. An act that was morally, economically, and legally unassailable. Haiti lost those lands as a cost they were willing to pay for possibility of their freedom with no guarantee that they could successfully defend that freedom.
And so goes the story of Haiti's long legacy of debt. From her very first steps she has been illegitimate and indebted when she should have been celebrated and honored but, she was well before her time. We as a people and as a society were not ready for her. We could not understand her so we abused and neglected her.
Looking back, perhaps Pétion would have taken a different approach. If he knew that he would not get the love he wanted from France for Haiti or the aid he needed from the' New World' in the Americas.. Perhaps he would have considered Haiti's history before the first foreign foot. When the gentle, strong & kind Taino who inhabited this paradise that is Ayiti . Far enough back to remember that U.S. is not father nor is France mother. That this was a colonized revolutionaries idea of a neo-family which has come at a great cost to Haitians. France taught Haiti how to extort illegally just as children learn from parents. Haiti's parentage comes from the earth itself and the indigenous Taino. But, the writers of history are those in power, as is clear in the case of the historiography of the Haitian Revolution (Trouillot 29). So we continue to elbow our place within the concept of power as the world has taught us to do. There is power in recognition. There is no denying that but we can thrive without it furthermore there is power in independence. Haiti's independence was well before the world was ready for it and in this 'ahead of our time spirit' we should continue. Let us unlearn the behaviors of extortion in all it's angles and facets and let us carry on 'ahead of our time'.
The most impactful thing that Biden can do for Haiti as the newly elected president is to legitimize her place in history. What she has suffered, what she has survived and what she has over thrown.
Military Occupation, 1915-1934
In 1915, the United States Marine Corps invaded Haiti, and remained in the country for almost twenty years. Nominally there to keep peace within the country (there had been six presidents and untold violence during the prior five years), the military played an important role in re-shaping the country’s government and in forming their national army. That national army is infamous today for its undemocratic coups and violations of human rights.
The military occupation also provided an opportunity for the United States to strengthen its economic ties with the country. Since the late 19th century and early 20th century, the United States attempted to revitalize mercantilism in the Caribbean, with a large focus on Haiti (Plummer 12). This trade had devastating effects on Haiti, as Haiti models how “foreign trade… can foster socioeconomic decline” (Plummer 40).
Political Turmoil in the 1990s and early 2000s
In December 1990, Haiti completed its first democratic elections, after violence surrounding prior elections caused them to be aborted. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest with tremendous support from the black poor of the country, was elected with 67% of the vote, and took office on February 7th 1991. On September 29th 1991, the Haitian military removed him from office and forced him to sign a resignation. He spent the next three years in exile, returning in 1994 and serving out his term until February 1996 (see Farmer 2006). During the time of his exile, the country was in chaos, and its next political elections were not approved by international election commissions. The U.S. military occupied Haiti from 1994-1997 in order to “establish peace” and “restore democracy” (see Ballard 1998).
In 2000, Aristide won another presidential election, garnering over 92% of the votes. The next several years saw violence and political agitation in Haiti. On February 28th, 2004, Aristide was taken from the country by the Haitian and American militaries and flown to South Africa, where he is still in exile (see Farmer 2006).
The United States’ role in both the coups against Aristide have been disputed. Aristide, among others (ex. Farmer 2006), claim the United States was directly involved in his forced removal from the country in 2004. The Haitian military and the Haitian National Intelligence Service, set up and funded by the CIA in the 1980s, were both key players in the coups against Aristide.
Haiti holds many records: the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and the first nation of former slaves, for example. Another is the highest per-capita rate of NGOs than any other nation. Haiti is desperately poor and has horrible health statistics, so in some ways it makes sense that many non-Haitians, especially Americans given its proximity, work in NGOs in the country. The benefits and harms of the large numbers of foreign NGOs within the country are examined in scholarly literature (see Schuller 2007, for example). One of the major drawbacks to the work of NGOs within the country is the vast majority of them work outside of the government, and most are not even registered with the government. By bypassing the state, NGOs weaken it; American money, both from the federal government and from individuals, flows to NGOs and not, in general, the Haitian government, making it even harder for the state to function.
An additional form of foreign aid has been food aid given by the federal government to Haiti. This food aid, heavily subsidized by the U.S. federal government so that it benefits American farmers, has flooded the Haitian markets, driving prices down. This, along with environmental degradation, has forced many Haitian farmers to give up their farms and move to Port-au-Prince and its surrounding slums.
The Future of U.S.-Haitian Relations
A recent publication by the Brookings Institution with recommendations for the Obama administration on its policy towards Latin America stressed that the United States should be involved in facilitating elections and strengthening Parliament and political parties in Haiti (The Obama Administration and the Americas 107). Because of the recent devastating earthquake, priorities have certainly shifted from strengthening political institutions to providing for immediate physical needs and building up infrastructure. With recent discussion in the Senate about Haiti becoming “some sort of receivorship” (Senator Dodd) or “something far more draconian” (Senator Corker), it is clear that Haiti and the United States will continue to be politically and economically tied (MacFarquahar 1).
Note: These sources provided background information for this paper, and though not all are directly cited, all are important scholarship and primary source in understanding the topic.
Ballard, John R. Upholding Democracy: The United States Military Campaign in Haiti, 1994- 1997. London: Praeger, 1998. || A description of the military campaign in Haiti in the mid-90s from the view of the U.S. military.
Farmer, Paul. The Uses of Haiti. Maine: Common Courage Press, 2006. || A stinging condemnation of U.S. policy towards Haiti from a physician-anthropologist who has worked in the country for thirty years; provides a self-proclaimed Haitian version of the relationship between the two countries.
Greene Balch, Emily, editor. Occupied Haiti. New York: The Writers Publishing Company, 1927. || A report of the conditions under the U.S. occupation of Haiti.
MacFarquahar, Neil. “Haiti is Again a Canvas for Approaches to Aid.” The New York Times.30 Jan. 2010. || A current article about foreign aid to post-earthquake Haiti, incorporating dicussions at the United Nations and U.S. Congress.
McCrocklin, James H. Garde’Haiti: Twenty Years of Organization and Training by the United States Marine Corps. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute, 1956 || An original Marine Corps document describing the United States’ military’s formative role in the development of the now infamous Haitian National Army.
Montague, Ludwell Lee. Haiti and the United States, 1714-1938. Durham, NC, Duke U. Press, 1940. || A comprehensive history of United States-Haitian relations through the occupation.
Plummer, Brenda Gayle. Haiti and the United States: The Psychological Moment. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1992. || Examines the intertwining history of the two countries and the impact of the U.S. on Haiti’s poor development outcomes.
—. Haiti and the Great Powers, 1902-1915. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. || Examines the trade relations between Haiti and the United States, and other foreign powers, during the turn of the 19th century.
Reinhardt, Thomas. “200 Years of Forgetting: Hushing up the Haitian Revolution.” Journal of Black Studies 35 (2005): 246-261. || An article examining the historiography of the Haitian Revolution in the United States.
Schmidt, Hans. The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers U Press, 1971. || A stinging condemnation at the occupation using Marine Corps documents. Schuller, Mark. Invasion or Infusion? Understanding the Role of NGOs in Contemporary Haiti. The Journal of Haitian Studies, Vol. 13 No. 2 2007. || An important article examining the influence of NGOs on Haitian cultural, political, and economic autonomy.
The Obama Administration and the Americas. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2009. || Recommendations for the Obama Administration on their policy towards Latin America, including Haiti.
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. || A historiography of the Haitian Revolution, using the silencing of this event along with the attempts by German neo-Nazis to cover up the Holocaust, as a gateway into examining the processes by which the powerful produce history.