A Reluctant Case Against Intervening in Haiti

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The greatest English-language novel about Haiti is The Comedians by Graham Greene. Set during the Cold War, it explores life under the regime of Francois Duvalier, widely known as Papa Doc, who ruled Haiti as dictator from 1957 to 1971. Greene portrays the small Caribbean nation as in the grips of a totalitarianism informed by the superstitious. Papa Doc spreads rumors that he practices voodoo in order to keep his people in line, while his sunglasses-clad secret police are known as the Tonton Macoute, or “bogeymen.”

It’s worth noting that Greene didn’t view Duvalier’s Haiti as some postwar aberration, but rather more fatalistically, as “a small slice of everyday taken at random.” Still, he acknowledged that the regime owed its survival to outside forces. Duvalier throughout most of his reign was begrudgingly propped up by the Americans, who were keen to prevent Haiti from falling to communism. (“There will be no Cuba and no Bay of Pigs here,” one of Greene’s characters says.) Likewise did Duvalier curry favor with Washington, contrasting himself with the hated Fidel Castro as a hedge against his enemies.

Today, Haiti is free from Papa Doc’s rule, but it remains unstable, ill-governed, and deeply impoverished. So it was that when Haitian president Jovenal Moise was abruptly assassinated earlier this month, the island’s already shaky political scene was plunged into uncertainty. The situation became so bad that Haitian authorities requested a deployment of American troops in order to help maintain security.

What’s known about the assassination right now has all the leerings of a lesser Tom Clancy yarn: Floridian collaborators and Colombian hitmen infiltrating Haiti by way of the Dominican Republic, a hemispheric whodunit. For those who are familiar with Haiti, it may also seem like deja vu. American mercenaries were likewise involved in an elaborate failed coup against Duvalier in 1958, a plot that greatly strengthened the dictator’s hand. Yet if the putsch seems recognizable, then so too should the call for an American intervention. The fact is this, though: The United States has been wielding a very heavy hand in Haiti for decades and it hasn’t done much good.

Long before Haiti’s worst president, Duvalier, rose to power, our worst president, Woodrow Wilson, was nurturing imperial ambitions in the Caribbean. After the—you guessed it—assassination of a Haitian leader in 1915, Wilson sent 330 Marines to Port-au-Prince supposedly in the name of preserving the peace. The real reason they were there was geostrategic: German influence over Haiti at the time was strong and Wilson feared that Berlin might attempt to establish its own outpost at the expense of American security and business interests. Wilson then proceeded to force Haiti to sign the Haitian-American Treaty of 1915, which essentially reduced it to a protectorate, ceding to the U.S. total control over its finances and imposing martial law. He further coerced Haiti into appointing a pro-American president and later dissolved its legislature.

The Marines didn’t leave until 1934, following a string of uprisings and the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy. Yet American meddling in Haiti would continue, throughout the Papa Doc years and afterward. Following Duvalier’s death in 1971, his equally brutal 19-year-old son, known as Baby Doc, took over. After he was ousted in a popular uprising, the Reagan administration furnished him with a plane and helped him escape to France.

The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 saw Haiti blockaded in an attempt to restore the democratically elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had been deposed by the military. This ultimately proved successful, though another Clintonian effort was far more devastating. The administration strong-armed Port-au-Prince into dropping tariffs on subsidized American rice. This rendered Haiti’s own rice farmers unable to compete with the cheaper imports and decimated the country’s agriculture, eliciting an admission of error from Clinton in the somewhat tardy year of 2010.

Even today, America’s breath can be felt on the Haitian neck. Whereas once Haiti was a victim of our chess-playing imperialism, today it’s a victim of our do-gooding humanitarianism. The honeycomb of aid groups and NGOs active on the ground in Haiti has arguably grown more powerful than the government itself. And while sometimes well-intentioned, these organizations have produced unintended economic consequences, bred resentment, and pocketed money intended for the Haitian people. The contractors ostensibly working to rebuild the nation are little better. An AP study found that of every $100 of reconstruction contracts awarded by Washington to Haiti following the horrendous earthquake there in 2010, $98.40 ended up back in the hands of American companies.

It’s a shame because you’d need a heart of stone not to sympathize. Haiti is both the oldest black republic on earth and the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Hurricanes and tropical storms are frequent. The 2010 earthquake is estimated to have killed between 220,000 and 300,000 people. In Port-au-Prince, governments struggle to provide basic services amid an impoverished tax base. In the U.S., senescent crackpots like Pat Robertson blame the largely Catholic country for its own sufferings, accusing it of having made a deal with the devil.

This despite the fact that Haiti played a key role in the formation of America. The country’s slave revolution in 1791 eventually freed it from the French yoke and convinced Napoleon to divest his American holdings, selling Louisiana to Thomas Jefferson at a fire-sale rate. So when Haiti asks for boots on the ground, it’s tempting to provide. Yet our track record on that desperate island ought to speak for itself. A century of American meddling has neither stabilized nor enriched Haiti. Additionally, the assassinated Moise was deeply polarizing, beloved by some Haitians for standing up to corrupt elites and detested by others for hollowing out their government. It would do us no good to take sides in this culture war, to appear to side with what remains of his regime.

So far, President Biden has proven reluctant to send troops to Haiti. Loath though this conservative might be to admit it, he’s gotten that much right.

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