Tuesday marks the 100th anniversary of the commencement of the U.S. Occupation of Haiti. On July 28, 1915, U.S. Marines landed on the shores of Haiti, occupying the country for 19 years.
Several college campuses, professional associations, social movements, and political parties are marking the occasion with a series of reflections and demonstrations. Several have argued that the U.S. has never stopped occupying Haiti, even as military boots left in 1934.
Some activists are using the word "humanitarian occupation" to describe the current situation, denouncing the loss of sovereignty, as U.N. troops have been patrolling the country for over 11 years. The phrase "humanitarian occupation" may seem distasteful and even ungrateful to some considering the generosity of the response to the January 12, 2010 earthquake, however there are several parallels between the contemporary aid regime and the U.S. Marine administration.
First and foremost, foreign troops are on the ground, controlling the country; the military regimes operated with complete immunity and impunity. Second, a new constitution was installed, centralizing power in the executive. Third, both occupations involved Haiti's gold resources.
The U.S. Marines invaded Haiti ostensibly to restore order, disrupted by the kako, an armed peasant resistance. From 1910 to the 1915 invasion of the U.S. Marines, Haiti had seven presidents, marked with violent clashes between two factions of Haiti's ruling elites. The exploits of the occupying forces were well documented, including by soldiers themselves.
Faustin Wirkus declared himself to be the "White King of La Gonave." Many troops were from Jim Crow South, and they took their racism and white supremacy with them. This racism colored how they saw elements of Haitian culture and folklore, and in turn how the rest of the world was to see Haiti. "Voodoo" and "zombies" were popularized by Hollywood, as the film industry was just taking off, announced by explicitly white supremacist Birth of a Nation. Haiti continued to play "boogieman," exotified and exceptionalized.
This story is well-documented. Apparently less understood is the current military occupation. On February 29, 2004, a multinational force led by the U.S. came to quell dissent following a U.S.-backed regime change. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide declared he was "kidnapped" aboard a U.S. military plane, to be dumped in the Central African Republic, which has had its share of violent coups and repressions. Less overtly imperialistic, under a U.N. banner, MINUSTAH, the International United Nations Mission for the Stabilization of Haiti, took over on June 1, authorized by U.N. resolution 1542.
The polyglot that peaked at over 13,000 troops from 54 countries is led by Brazil , which has been pressing for a permanent seat on the Security Council. Simultaneously, Brazil had made much of its success in pacifying the most dangerous of its favelas, shantytowns, including in Rio.
The U.S. backed this proposal by France; Washington insiders confirmed my suspicions that the failures of the mission would be seen as proof that only a powerful, established imperialist country such as the U.S. could lead a mission and thus deserve a permanent seat. People in Haiti also saw MINUSTAH as serving U.S. interests, as Haitian NGO worker Yvette Desrosiers declared: "the Americans hide their face, they send Brazilians, Argentines... he's hidden but he's the one in command!" The mandate has been renewed every year, despite the fact that Haiti has much lower rates of violent crimes (8.2 per 100,000 people) than many of its Caribbean neighbors such as Jamaica that does not have a U.N. mission (54.9), or Brazil, heading up the U.N. mission (26.4).
Why would its mandate be renewed, following the 2006 elections that brought René Préval and his ruling Lespwa party to power? Colleagues in Haiti pointed out that the keyword "stabilization" refers to keeping the leaders in office and quelling dissent.
In 2008, the country erupted in protest against the high cost of living; the so-called "political class" seized this opportunity to force the Prime Minister to resign. In 2009, activists mended fences over their conflict over Aristide to call for an increase in the minimum wage, from 70 gourdes a day ($1.75) to 200 ($5). Both houses of Parliament voted unanimously to approve it. In a report for which he spent only days in the country to write, Oxford economist Paul Collier outlined a strategy of tourism, export mango production, and subcontracted apparel factories and suggested Bill Clinton as U.N. Special Envoy.
Clinton and newly-named U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Préval in support of the Collier Report. Bill Clinton publicly questioned the minimum wage increase as undercutting Haiti's "comparative advantage," and WikiLeaked documents outlined intense pressure to keep wages low. Préval rejected the 200 gourdes increase, unconstitutionally writing in a figure of 125 gourdes (a little over $3) for workers in overseas apparel factories. Street-level demonstrations increased their intensity, and U.N. troops responded with increasing force. Certain areas of Port-au-Prince perennially smelled like tear gas at the time, more so than any period since the 2004 ouster of Aristide. MINUSTAH played a central role in suppressing dissent, taking a lead role instead of supporting the police, as their mandate dictates.
The U.N. also lost 92 troops, including its leader, Hédi Annabi, when the earthquake leveled their headquarters at the Hotel Christopher.
Some argued that it was fortunate to have over 11,000 troops on the ground to assist in logistical support in the earthquake response. Indeed, many large U.S. NGOs employed them to "keep order" during distributions. The troops engaged in only minimal logistics in rebuilding.
The quality of their construction work was called into question following an outbreak of cholera in October, barely nine months after the earthquake. Infected U.N. troops stationed outside of Mirebalais spread their fecal matter in leaky sewage from the base, which ran into Haiti's major river. Within days, the outbreak spread to the entire country. In addition to this epidemiological evidence, genetic evidence pinpointed the troops from Nepal as the source. Despite this overwhelming scientific evidence, the U.N. claimed immunity for this outbreak that has killed over 8500 people in four years and continues to kill. Lawyers from the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and the Bureau des Avocats Intérnationaux sued the U.N. on behalf of the victims and their families. However, in January 2015, days before the fifth anniversary of the quake, a judge confirmed the U.N.'s immunity. This was the most egregious invocation of their immunity, but it was also confirmed following several cases of sexual abuse brought against U.N. troops.
In addition to the impunity, the occupations of 1915 and 2015 share a second parallel, amendments to Haiti's constitution.
I would like to thank Alex Dupuy and Ellie Happel for their critiques and advice.
Mark Schuller is Associate Professor of Anthropology and NGO Leadership and Development at Northern Illinois University and affiliate at the Faculté d'Ethnologie, l'Université d'État d'Haïti. He is the author or co-editor of six books, including forthcoming Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti. Schuller is co-director / co-producer of documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy, and active in several solidarity efforts.