Humanitarian Occupation in Haiti

A century after the U.S. military invasion of Haiti in 1915, a U.N. "stabilization mission" continues to compromise the nation's political and economic sovereignty.

Mark Schuller
07/28/2015

Marines during the U.S. the occupation of Haiti, which began a century ago in July 1915.  (USMC Archives / Creative Commons)

This 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. 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. While the phrase “humanitarian occupation” may seem distasteful and even ungrateful to some considering the generosity of the response to the January 12, 2010 earthquake,  there are several parallels between the contemporary aid regime and the U.S. Marine administration.

The U.S. Marines invaded Haiti a century ago ostensibly to restore an order disrupted by an armed peasant resistance known as the kako and violent inter-elite turmoil. Between 1910 and the 1915 invasion of the U.S. Marines, Haiti had 7 presidents. The exploits of the occupying forces were well documented. Many U.S. troops came from Jim Crow South, and they brought their white supremacy with them. Racism colored how they saw elements of Haitian culture and folklore, and in turn how the rest of the world came to view Haiti.

Apparently less understood is the current military occupation, but like the U.S. invasion of 1915 it has compromised Haitian sovereignty and provided impunity for foreign forces. 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. 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. Nonetheless, many in Haiti 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 force’s 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, which 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 emphasize that the keyword “stabilization” refers to keeping agreeable leaders in office and quelling dissent. In 2009, activists reconciled 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. However, 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. He 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, and  Bill Clinton publicly questioned the minimum wage increase as undercutting Haiti’s “comparative advantage”  (WikiLeaked documents outline the extent of  pressure applied to keep wages low). In the end, Préval rejected the 200 gourdes increase, unconstitutionally writing in a figure of 125 gourdes (a little over $3) for workers in overseas apparel factories. When street-level demonstrations increased their intensity in response,  U.N. troops responded with escalating force--taking a lead role instead of supporting the police, as their mandate dictates.

Some argued that it was fortunate to have over 11,000 soldiers on the ground to assist in logistical support in the earthquake response. However, the troops provided only minimal logistics in rebuilding. Moreover, 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  troops from Nepal as the source. Despite  overwhelming scientific evidence, the U.N. claimed immunity for an outbreak that has killed over 8,500 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. While this represents the most egregious invocation of their immunity,  it was also confirmed following several cases of sexual abuse brought against U.N. troops.

A Haitian proverb declares konstitisyon se papye, bayonèt se fè: “a constitution is made of paper, a bayonet of iron.” In other words, the pen is not mightier than the sword. In reality during occupations, the pen is pushed by the sword. During the 1915 U.S. Marines Occupation, Franklin Delano Roosevelt bragged to have personally written the Haitian constitution--formally adopted in 1918--which opened up land for foreign ownership, and formalized the linguistic  hegemony of the ruling classes by naming French as the only official language. Paving the way for U.S. agribusiness interests such as United Fruit to buy up tracts of land, the 1918 constitution  allowed foreign investors and  local merchants to monopolize foreign trade while expropriating thousands of peasant farmers. But it also triggered a massive kako rebellion.  In response, marines placed the mutilated body of Charlemagne Péralte, who they identified as the resistance movement’s intellectual author, on display in a public square--a warning to others.

Constitutional changes were also introduced during the contemporary occupation. In addition to advocating the rejection of the minimum wage increase, Bill Clinton and the U.N. are also credited for introducing constitutional reforms. Haiti’s 1987 constitution was the culmination of what Fritz Deshommes called a re-founding of the nation. Passed with over 90%  of the vote on March 29, 1987, the constitution guaranteed liberal political rights, like freedom of press, religion, and assembly, as well as social rights, such as education and housing. In addition, the constitution elevated Haitian Creole as an official language alongside French. In a country reeling from 29 years of the Duvalier dictatorship and wary of centralized executive power, the office of Prime Minister, to be ratified by Parliament, was established. Power was also shared in the Territorial Collectivities, including 570 communal sections.

However, since the start of the occupation some of these provisions have been reversed by controversial new amendments passed under opaque circumstances.  In April 2010, parliament had voted to dissolve itself to make way for the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC), co-chaired by Bill Clinton. When Parliament came back in session in 2011, the first task laid out for them was ratification of amendments to the constitution. President Michel Martelly, the winner from the second round of an election with  record low voter turnout of 22%--less than half the previous 2006 elections--pushed for the ratification. He was joined by several foreign agencies, apparently keen on naming the Permanent Electoral Council in a top-down, rushed process that advantaged the current government. Amidst all of this confusion, it was not clear what the final version of the amendments was, and only the French version was published.

Despite this uncertainty, some sectors apparently considered the constitutional amendments’ adoption  a fait accompli. When President Martelly faced a growing opposition that succeeded in forcing out Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe in December 2014, it was a surprise to many university professors, NGO staff, and activists that the constitutional amendments had apparently been accepted. Conveniently, one of the changes included that the President name a Prime Minister without requiring a full Parliamentary ratification. Instead, the new constitution allows for only the leaders of both houses to agree--two individuals who had the most stake in the prolongation of their mandate following the deal reached with Martelly. Further confusing the situation, the terms of the lower house as well as a third of the Senate were set to expire January 12, the fifth anniversary of the earthquake, meaning that both houses would be below quorum. As Parliament teetered toward collapse, President Martelly’s hand grew stronger, and the international pressure to “negotiate” to avoid a “political crisis” grew. In effect, international agencies like the European Union, the U.S., the U.N., and the World Bank were lining up to support Martelly. These actors concerned with “democracy” said nothing when Martelly replaced all but a handful of the country’s mayors. They indicated that they would continue to support the government of Haiti even though he would have to rule by decree. This same state of affairs, ruling by decree, was cited by many of these same international agencies in 1999 as the reason they suspended assistance to Haiti. What could account for foreign agencies’ change of heart?

Whereas companies like the United Fruit Company benefitted most from the 1915 U.S. invasion, multinational mining interests are attempting to exploit Haiti’s compromised sovereignty during the current occupation.  While the UNDP had financed a study in the 1970s, mining activities increased exponentially after the earthquake. On May 11, 2012, reports of mining contracts were unearthed in the press. With an estimated value of $20 billion, this represents a significant wealth. However, given Haiti’s infrastructure, especially after the earthquake, there is insufficient in-country capacity and even technical expertise to evaluate contracts. Significantly, the “exploitation” contracts were granted without Parliamentary approval. However, Parliament responded, issuing a resolution calling for a moratorium on mining in Haiti, citing the questionable legality of the Conventions as one of their main concerns. Shortly thereafter, the Martelly administration successfully recruited the World Bank to support its effort to restructure its mining laws and obtained support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to manage mining contracts and create a national cadaster.

Communities and civil society organizations have organized to promote their interests and defend their rights. At issue is local communities’ participation and approval, given the loss of agricultural land and therefore peasant livelihood, not to mention the significant environmental damage mining causes. Indeed, the contracts made no provisions for environmental review or protections. Finally, the contracts expropriated the vast majority of the profits out of the country. The civic campaign helped ensure that mining activity was put on hold in Haiti as the government rewrites the law. The political situation in 2015, without a parliament and with President Martelly ruling by decree, could allow for resumption of mining. This – in addition to other development strategies such as high-end tourism that benefit foreign interests at the expense of local communities – is the main motivation colleagues attribute to the so-called “international community’s” support for the ongoing occupation. Indeed, companies openly cited MINUSTAH’s presence as attracting foreign investment.

In 1915, U.S. Empire was in its ascendency; during the Spanish-American war  the U.S. seized control of Panama, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. The so-called “Dollar Diplomacy” gave way to the more erudite “mission civilatrice” of Wilson, whose delay into what he called “the war to end all war” allowed U.S. might to be cloaked in obligation. Now, U.S. Empire is showing signs of faltering. The U.S. financial debt to China and Saudi Arabia thwarts principled human rights justifications, the European Union and Japan provide counterweights to the hegemony of the U.S. dollar, the majority of Latin American nations elected leftist governments who set up cooperative institutions challenging the U.S., and Bush’s failed 2003 invasion of Iraq was done without the U.N.’s blessing. In this context of imperial setbacks, Haiti provided a stage for readjustment. Haiti in 2004 re-united France and the U.S. over the ouster of Aristide. The right-wing Heritage Foundation published a position paper a day after the earthquake about the latter being an opportunity for the U.S. to reassert dominance in the region eroded by the U.N. troops, Cuban medical assistance, and Venezuelan institutions like Petro Caribe.

Today, the 1915 U.S. Occupation is denounced for being explicitly imperialistic. At the time, however, it enjoyed tacit support and occasionally active participation from segments of the U.S. population. President Hoover invited the Tuskegee Institute to participate in an exchange, helping to set up Damien, the School of Agronomy. And troops built a network of roads leading from provincial towns to the capital, which facilitated capital accumulation and centralization in Port-au-Prince. So-called “fair” assessments of the 1915 Occupation note these contributions. However these are almost always an afterthought in the collective social memory, in direct contrast to the ways in which the contemporary humanitarian occupation is being framed by many. While the humanitarian effort has been critiqued in even mainstream accounts for its lack of coordination, failures in delivery, and shortcomings – notably in a June 3 exposé of the Red Cross – the discussion usually leaves intact foreigners’ good intentions.

What accounts for the difference in the understanding of the 1915 Marines Occupation and the contemporary humanitarian occupation? It must first be said that there are obviously differences of opinion, then and now. In the interim, sensibilities have changed; the “white man’s burden” and open expressions of white supremacy are – at least rhetorically – relegated to the fringe right. Justifications for intervention must now be done on universal, ‘humanitarian’ grounds, although French anthropologist Michel Agier has called humanitarianism the “left hand of empire.” What is necessary is a critical history of the present, clear enough to pierce the fog of ideology. Such a position requires moral courage, to be willing to suffer consequences for defending present-day kako, such as Charlemagne Péralte or even Dessalines.


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 (2009), and active in several solidarity efforts. 

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