Humanitarian Occupation of Haiti: 100 Years and Counting

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Tuesday, July 28, marked the 100th anniversary of the commencement of the U.S. Occupation of Haiti. Mark Schuller (Associate Professor of Anthropology and NGO Leadership and Development at Northern Illinois University) writes: “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.” [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Here are excerpts with a link to the full article below.

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!” [. . .]

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. [. . .]

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

For full articles see Schuller in NACLA Report on the Americas https://nacla.org/news/2015/07/28/humanitarian-occupation-haiti and in Counterpunch, in http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/07/28/humanitarian-occupation-of-haiti-100-years-and-counting

See excellent related articles here:

“The Long Legacy of Occupation in Haiti” by Edwidge Danticat, The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/haiti-us-occupation-hundred-year-anniversary

“One Hundred Years of American Occupation in Haiti” by David Kroeker Maus, Antillean Media Group, http://www.antillean.org/american-occupation-in-haiti-100

“US Interests in Haiti’s Natural Resources Led to Invasion” by Margaret Mitchell Armand (Boston Haitian Reporter) http://www.bostonhaitian.com/2015/us-interests-haiti%E2%80%99s-natural-resources-led-invasion

“Haiti Marks 100th Anniversary of U.S. Occupation” by Jacqueline Charles for Miami Herald. See http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/haiti/article29093698.html

“The US Occupation of Haiti Continues to This Day” by Jonathan Leaning; http://www.grassrootsonline.org/news/articles/us-occupation-haiti-continues-day

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