Friday, January 12, 2007

Haitian History Part II

The United States’ treatment of Haiti did not improve markedly in the 20th century. From 1915 to 1934, U.S. forces occupied Haiti. Why? Many of a nation’s seemingly inexplicable decisions can be deciphered by one formula: follow the money. Woodrow Wilson ordered the forces to Haiti because he was concerned about how much economic control that Germany and other countries had in Haiti. Germany controlled 80 percent of foreign trade. Perhaps the U.S. was worried about how this foreign influence would affect its interests: a U.S. owned bank, National City Bank (now Citbank) controlled Haiti’s national bank and railroad.

The U.S. did some good stuff while we were in Haiti. Schools, roads, and hospitals were built. But the U.S. imposed presidents, a constitution, and legislation, including a forced labor provision, on Haiti. A rebellion against the occupation was put down by the American military with the resulting death of 13 American soldiers and 3,071 Haitians. The occupation also resulted in a centralization of government and industry from the countryside to Port-au-Prince, destabilizing the socio-economic structure of the country and causing a huge influx of people into the city.

After the U.S. left Haiti, the country went through a series of presidents until Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc) became president in 1957. He appointed himself as President for Life in 1964 and terrorized the citizenry with his personal militia, the notorious Tonton Macoutes. Under Duvalier, Haiti became one of the most repressive regimes in the hemisphere. One estimate is that 30,000 people were killed by Duvalier. The United States was obsessed with Cuba and anti-communism, so we weren’t substantially critical of Papa Doc’s government.

Thank you for your patience as we take this brief tour through Haitian history. We’re almost finished and then we will get to the what-can-we-do-now part of this series.

I encourage everyone, including me, to learn more about Haitian history. There are dozens of books on the subject. Two I would suggest are:

Written in Blood: The Story of the Haitian People 1492-1995 by Michael Heinl
and others. This is the most comprehensive English language account of Haiti’s

The Uses of Haiti by Paul Farmer. Dr. Farmer is a physician who spends much of
his time in Haiti and has introduced ground breaking programs to treat HIV, TB,
and other diseases in the developing world.

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