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Supervisor Elham AbolFateh
Editor in Chief Mohamed Wadie

Haiti: victim of US interventionism


Thu 18 Apr 2024 | 12:52 PM
File photo
File photo
Beijing-based commentator on international affairs

Haiti is in a sorry state. It is undergoing a socioeconomic and political crisis marked by riots, protests, hunger and rampant criminal activities. Between January and late March, over 1,500 Haitians were killed and 35,000 displaced by gang violence. All elected officials have gone. 

Few could associate Haiti with what it used to be: one of the most lucrative French colonies, the first modern state in the world to ban slavery, the first free black republic in the world, the first independent state in the Caribbean and the second independent state in the Western Hemisphere after the US. 

Haiti could have been a success story were it not for the intervention of its powerful neighbor, the US. 

Military occupation

In the early 20th century, Haiti was right at the nexus of American interests in the Caribbean. Anxious about the growing German influence over Haiti, the US took a preemptive strike. In 1915, US Marines were sent to the island nation, ostensibly to restore law and order after Haiti's new president was killed by a mob. That was the beginning of a 19-year American occupation.

The occupation was brutal. US forces oversaw widespread human rights abuses, suppressing dissent and killing civilians. One egregious act was the resurrection of "corvée," a forced labor system in which people were taken from their homes and farms, at gunpoint if necessary, to build roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects. By some estimates, 15,000 Haitians were killed during the occupation.

Through the military occupation and two more major military interventions after its withdrawal in 1934, the US installed puppet governments under the likes of the Duvaliers and tightened its grip over the country. Criticism of dictatorship and government corruption was simply shrugged off. 

Great heist 

With military control came economic exploitation and pillage.

According to US State Department archives and mainstream American media reports, the US removed half a million dollars in gold from the Haitian Bank in December 1914 for "safekeeping" in a Wall Street bank vault. It controlled Haiti's government coffers and held the purse strings right up until 1947, siphoning away 40 percent of Haiti's national income. 

As a result, Haiti was forced to take out high-interest loans from American banks. According to The New York Times, the National City Bank, the predecessor of Citigroup, managed to own Haiti's national bank through an affiliate and secured big margins from loans granted to Haiti. 

Under US duress, Haitian lawmakers passed a new constitution in 1917 that allowed foreign ownership of land in Haiti. American businessmen rushed to buy land in Haiti. They made fat profits, while paying local workers only one-tenth of the average worker's salary in Cuba. 

The American occupation further stunted local development. Haiti was almost bankrupt at the end of the 1940s, and its people suffered decades of poverty, living on a diet "close to starvation level," concluded by a UN report in 1949, two years after the US finally let go of its financial reins on Haiti.

Irreparable damage

The US intervention has left deep scars on Haiti. 

First, the lack of a social contract between the ruling elite and the masses has proved a recipe for perennial instability. American intervention in Haiti's political life fueled public distrust in their leaders, who were only too busy feathering their own nests. 

Second, Haiti's ability for homegrown development has been crippled. The country failed to build wealth or any modern industry. Its agriculture was crushed by heavily subsidized food aid from the US. Many Haitians had to give up farming and move to the slums. 

Third, prolonged turmoil and the lack of job opportunities have led to an exodus of much-needed human resources. Today, around one-third of the island's GDP comes from remittances. The drain of manpower perpetuates the state of destitution.

Not again

In 2021, Daniel Foote, then American special envoy to Haiti, resigned after just two months in office. In his bluntly honest resignation letter, he raised concerns about US support for the unelected Ariel Henry as Haiti's leader. "What our Haitian friends really want, and need, is the opportunity to chart their own course, without international puppeteering and favored candidates but with genuine support for that course," he said.

His resignation did not bring about any policy change. With the full-throated support from the Biden administration, Ariel Henry assumed office over bitter opposition from the Haitian people. Another cycle of instability started. 

Haiti has long been portrayed as a hopeless country needing constant rescuing. But make no mistake, too many of Haiti's woes are not of its own making. Now that a transitional governing council has been installed on a pledge of respecting the "perspective and needs" of the Haitian people, it is time Haiti's almighty neighbor got off its high horse and let the Haitians choose their own course.