History of Haiti
Part 3: From the U.S. Occupation to Today (A.D. 1915 – present)
We know Haiti today as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere,1 a small area of land in the Caribbean frequently plagued by natural and economic disasters. As we seek to pray for and serve this nation, we would be greatly helped by understanding its history—the events, worldviews, and cycles of oppression that have shaped its current condition and culture. This is part three of a three-part series; you may find part one here and part two here.
A History of Haiti, Part 3
From the U.S. Occupation to Today (A.D. 1915 – present)
On July 27, 1915, a riot erupted in the streets of Port-Au-Prince, prompting the U.S. government to intervene in Haiti’s political situation and try to stabilize it. Not wanting to conquer the land, they sought to establish a temporary “system of indirect rule”2, by which they would oversee the creation of a new government.
One of America’s primary goals was to encourage foreign investment into Haiti’s economy. This was intended to stimulate the growth of a middle class, thus providing a foundation for a stable democracy. Consequentially, America pushed changes through Haiti’s legislation that allowed foreigners to purchase land. In 1918, American leaders helped draft an entirely new constitution.
The American occupation was initially welcomed by many Haitians. The upper class saw it as an opportunity to reestablish a stable sense of control, and the lower class saw it as an opportunity to end oppression. However, both were eventually disappointed. The elite were dismayed at the possibility of a strong middle class that could compete for their power. The poverty-stricken found themselves conscripted to build roads—a practice allowed by an old Haitian law called corvée which the U.S. used to speed along construction. A rebellion against the occupation briefly arose, but it was put down by the U.S. Marines in 1920.
By the time the U.S. pulled out of Haiti in the summer of 1934, it had overseen many advances in the sociopolitical structure. The country now had a workable system of roads, new hospitals and schools, and increased access to clean water. Tropical diseases were slowed through increased public services and medical care. However, America was facing increasing international scrutiny and local discontent. With World War I over, there was little reason to justify continuing occupation of the island, even though an evaluation team still feared that the underlying causes of Haiti’s instability remained.3
When America withdrew from the island, security was left to the Garde d’Haiti—a non-political military force created during the occupation to maintain order and enforce the constitution. Because the Garde was not directly on the president’s payroll, it had the ability to prevent political abuses from a dictator.
Sténio Joseph Vincent, the current president of Haiti, would be the first to test the Garde. In 1935, just one year after U.S. occupation ended, he began forcing legislation that expanded his own authority, amending the constitution, and seeking to gain absolute power over the country. Vincent even attempted to bribe commanders in the Garde to back him up in his aims.
Meanwhile, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, the dictator of the Dominican Republic, was also trying to buy off the Haitian Garde. There had long been tension between their two countries, and Trujillo aspired to take all of Hispaniola. He massacred thousands of Haitians at his border, and is suspected to have supported an attempted coup of Vincent. When Vincent learned of it, he expelled any military officer suspected of disloyalty, effectively ending the Garde’s ability to remain politically neutral.
In 1941, Vincent intended to run for an unconstitutional third term in office. The American government made it very clear that they would oppose such an action. Not in a strong enough position to resist, Vincent consented to hand the presidency over to Elie Lescot.
Up until his appointment, Lescot was seen as a qualified and good candidate. However, upon assuming office, he proved to be very similar to Vincent. He named himself the commanderin-chief of the military, suppressed and censored critics, and gave himself increasing authority through forced legislation. It was also discovered in 1943 that he made under-the-table deals with the Dominican dictator Trujillo.
Lescot lost all popular support when his dealings with Trujillo became known. In 1946, when he imprisoned some members of the press, it proved to be the breaking point of the public’s patience. Many went on strike and demonstrated in the street against him. Their discontent paved the way for a Garde-led coup. Lescot was ousted, and the Garde ruled the country by junta until the election of the next president, Dumarsais Estimé.
Estimé was different than previous leaders in many respects. He was a civilian—a former schoolteacher from the ranks of the black majority, rather than a military man from the mulatto elite as most rulers had been. He seemed genuinely concerned with the welfare of his people, and made progress towards better education and representation for the middle and lower class.
However, Estimé’s presidency ended in 1950 amid the same sort of chaos that characterized previous rulers. He had faced continual opposition from the elite class. His establishment of an income tax had turned public opinion against him. Finally, he, too, sought to unconstitutionally extend his term in office. The move caused public unrest and prompted the Garde to reestablish their junta. They exiled Estimé to Jamaica and prepared to hold elections for yet another president.
The presidency was given to a former junta leader, Paul E. Magloire, swinging the balance of power back to the military and elite. Magloire was a strict ruler, but not as bad as past dictators had been. What led to his overthrow was not his harsh tactics, but his economic corruption—he held monopolies in several profitable exports and lived in luxury as his nation suffered. He even misappropriated funds sent for the relief of Hurricane Hazel, which struck during his presidency. At last, in 1956 when Magloire overstayed the end of his term, the Haitian people took to the streets in demonstrations and strikes. Magloire fled the country, and in the year that followed, Haiti came under the brief rule of three different provisional presidents. One stepped down from office. The others had to be deposed by the army.
During this time, a doctor named François Duvalier began emerging as a viable presidential candidate. The military favored him, as he seemed to have no personal agenda driving his ambitions. The people also saw him in a very positive light, and he won a definitive victory in the election of October 1957.
Once in office, however, Duvalier’s true colors began to show. He established a new constitution in 1957 that furthered his own power. Just four years later, he violated that constitution to have himself reelected—with a brazenly stacked vote count of 1.3 million to zero.4 He further declared himself to be president-for-life.
Duvalier had learned to distrust the military, having witnessing the recurring coups of leaders before him. To prevent further takeovers, he founded the Volunteers for National Security (commonly known as tonton makouts). This militia was completely devoted to Duvalier, thus blunting the effectiveness of the non-political military, eventually growing to more than double their strength. This shift of power forced out the old elite class, allowing Duvalier unhindered reign over Haiti.
Though Duvalier employed many of the same tactics used by previous dictators, he was much more successful when it came to gaining the support of the people. His history as a doctor made him very aware of the concerns of common people, and his paternal tone earned him the nickname “Papa Doc”. Additionally, Duvalier ardently adhered to voodoo, incorporating many priests and sorcerers into various tiers of his government. This not only appealed to the religious sensibilities of many Haitians, but also instilled in them fearful respect. Few would dare oppose a man with that kind of spiritual power.
U.S. President John F. Kennedy was troubled by Duvalier’s unchecked corruption. He threatened to withdraw American aid money—a significant portion of Haiti’s national income—if Duvalier did not immediately submit to accountability procedures. Duvalier, not to be brought under anyone else’s authority, promptly refused the terms and renounced the funds himself. The move barely affected the everyday life of most Haitians, since little of the money had ever gotten to them. Duvalier worked the incident to his advantage, portraying himself as bravely standing against foreign oppression. Despite his nationalistic image, however, Duvalier was a brutal man who ruled by terror, cruelly punishing any perceived insubordination. It is estimated that thirty thousand of his own people were killed under his regime.5
In 1971, François Duvalier died and left his position to his nineteen year-old son, Jean-Claude. Nicknamed “Baby Doc,” the younger Duvalier proved no better for the country’s welfare than his father had been. “Baby Doc” was far less of an intimidating figure than his father, and consequentially better-liked by the people. Yet he was also far more careless. In his younger years, he developed the reputation of being a playboy with little interest in politics. He gladly took advantage of government financial monopolies dating back to Estimé, but failed to keep records of any of the money. His misappropriation of funds—as well as empty promises regarding social reform—would prove to undermine his regime.
“Baby Doc” Duvalier faced several serious crises during his tenure. In 1978, African Swine Flu (ASF) was epidemic among Haiti’s pigs. Complying with the requests of American officials who feared that the plague would spread, he culled every pig in the country, to be replaced by animals the U.S. supplied. This angered Haitian farmers, who not only suffered the indignity of losing their personal property, but now had to deal with pigs that required special feed and care—neither of which their previous livestock had needed.
Also during Baby Doc’s regime was the outbreak of AIDS in Haiti in the 1980’s, which not only hurt public health, but also dissuaded tourism. This drained Haiti’s economy and further reduced its public services. Haiti was deteriorating. When Pope John Paul II visited Haiti in 1983, he pronounced publicly, “Something must change here.” Shortly after his statement—and perhaps inspired by it—discontent among the Haitian people reached the boiling point. Many people demonstrated against Duvalier’s mishandling of the government. Even the 15,000 tonton makouts stationed throughout the country were not enough to suppress the outcry.6 Finally, in 1986, Duvalier fled the country and relocated to France.
The late 1980’s were full of political turmoil for Haiti as its people struggled to establish a viable democracy. In November 1987, the first attempt at a new election ended when dozens of voters were killed by tonton makouts in the capital. In the elections of January 1988, Leslie Manigat was declared the victor, but under strong suspicion of voter fraud. He was ousted by Lieutenant General Henri Namphy in June, who was himself overthrown by Lieutenant General Prosper Avril in November. Avril’s regime never stabilized, and he resigned under both national and international pressure in 1990.
Haiti’s interim government sought help from the international community in organizing the next election. The Council of Freely-Elected Heads of Government, as well as the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), lent their oversight.7 Thus, in December of 1990, Haiti held the first truly democratic election of their history. In these pivotal elections, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest who was well-known for his genuine concern for the poor, was elected with 67.5% of the vote.8
In 1991, military forces led by Raoul Cédras conducted a coup, ousting Aristide. The move was condemned by the Organization of American States (OAS), which agreed to enforce strict trade embargos against Haiti to pressure the regime to step down. In September of 1994, these measures were ultimately successful. Twenty thousand U.S. troops were peacefully deployed to Haiti to ensure security, and in October, Aristide returned. Under U.S. protection, he disbanded the Haitian army and instated a police force in its place.
Aristide finished out his constitutional 5-year term, and peacefully transferred power to newly elected President René Préval in 1996. Préval, formerly Aristide’s prime minister, was a strong proponent of economic reform. As a trained agronomist, he also made strides to improve Haiti’s agricultural situation. Even so, by the end of his term, his government became bogged down under competing political factions. He disbanded parliament and was slow to appoint an election council, prompting opponents to raise concerns that he was establishing a new dictatorship. Nonetheless, he did in fact hold elections on schedule in 2000, where Aristide was fairly elected to a second term.
Aristide’s second term began in 2001, but ended in 2004 when he stepped down from office and left the country. Haiti was in political uproar at the time, with the economy in ruins. Some say the president resigned of his own accord due to the unrest, while others—including Aristide himself—say that he was forced out of office by the U.S. military. The ensuing instability made it difficult for the interim government to hold new elections, but finally, in 2006, Préval was reelected.
President Préval was in the midst of his second term when the devastating earthquake of January 2010 rocked Haiti. Though Préval survived, a large number of top governmental officials did not. The Presidential Palace was destroyed, among many other crucial offices. He soon came under criticism by many, but especially by his political opposition, as not doing enough for his constituents. Many people were confused and upset by the earthquake, and countless numbers had slipped through the cracks of the ruined Haitian infrastructure. Haiti’s political stability—what little remained of it—became of grave concern amongst this rising discontent.
Because of how near the disaster was to the upcoming elections, Préval extended his term in office for three months past its planned termination. While a few protested this move, Préval was largely supported in this decision by both the local and international community. An interim government was too big of a risk to Haiti’s stability, and the nation was not yet able to hold safe and efficient elections.
When the elections did come in late 2010, Michel Martelly became the new president of Haiti. Today, he is the person overseeing the nation as it continues its struggle for stability.
Despite Haiti’s tumultuous past and present crisis, there is still hope. In partnership with Holy Spirit from the place of prayer and worship, coupled with works of justice, we will contend for widespread breakthrough and true revival in Haiti!
2 David Nicholls, From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour and National Independence in Haiti (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 146
3 Robert M. Spector, W. Cameron Forbes and the Commission to Haiti (Lanham: University Press of America Inc. 1985). 137-138
4 Anne Greene, “Haiti: Historical Setting”, Richard A. Haggerty, ed., Haiti: A Country Study (Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 2001) http://memory.loc.gov/frd/cs/httoc.html (Accessed on May 18, 2011)
5 Anne Greene, “Haiti: Historical Setting”, Richard A. Haggerty, ed., Haiti: A Country Study (Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 2001) http://memory.loc.gov/frd/cs/httoc.html (Accessed on May 18, 2011)
6 “Haiti.” (2011). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/251961/Haiti (Accessed June 6, 2011)
7 National Democratic Institute. Haiti: Report on the 1990 General Elections in Haiti, Dec 16, 1990 (National Democratic Institute for International Affairs,1991). 6. Accessed on www.ndi.org/node/13866 on June 10, 2011.
8 “Key Dates”, the Embassy of Haiti Home Page. Online document. Accessed May 28, 2011. http://www.haiti.org/images/stories/pdf/key_dates.pdf.