90 years later, ghosts of U.S. invasion still haunt Haiti

Edwidge Danticat, July 19, 2005

On July 28, 1915, U.S. forces invaded Haiti, launching an occupation that would last 19 years.
The U.S. invasion came in the wake of President Woodrow Wilson's professed commitment to make the world safe for democracy. However, as soon as the Marines landed in Haiti, Wilson’s administration remapped the country into policeable departments, shut down the press, installed a lame-duck government, rewrote the constitution to give foreigners land-owning rights, took charge of Haiti’s banks and customs and instituted a system of compulsory labor for poor Haitians.

Those who resisted the occupation -- among them a militant peasant-run group called Cacos -- were crushed. In 1919, U.S. Marines in blackface ambushed and killed the Cacos’ fearless leader Charlemagne Peralte, mutilated his corpse and displayed it in a public square for days.

By the end of the occupation, more than 15,000 Haitians had lost their lives. A Haitian gendarmerie was trained to replace the U.S. Marines, then proceeded to form juntas, organize coups and terrorize Haitians for decades. Although U.S. troops were officially withdrawn from Haiti in 1934, the U.S. government maintained economic control of the country until 1947.

Ninety years later, there are many, including some current foreign policy experts, who maintain that Haiti, like recently occupied Iraq, should be declared a failed state. This could make way for another lengthy takeover. After all, some of the conditions that existed in Haiti in 1915 are still present today: rampant insecurity, political uncertainty, proximity to U.S. shores and concern for American interests, no small part of which is the fear of an exodus of boat people headed for Miami.

However, while Haiti tantalized the West at the beginning of the 20th century with an entryway to the Panama Canal and mineral, fruit, coffee and sugar resources, it seems to have little left to currently exploit except the desperation of a people, whose most basic needs have often been neglected by its own leaders.

Few Americans are aware their country once occupied ours, and for such a long time. This is not surprising, for as one Haitian proverb suggests, while those who give the blows can easily forget, the ones who carry the scar have no choice but to remember.

While it takes American leaders and their armed enforcers just a few hours, days, weeks, months, to rewrite another sovereign nation’s history, it takes more than 90 years to overcome the devastations caused by such an operation, to replace the irreplaceable, the dead lost, the spirits quelled, to steer an entire generation out of the shadows of dependency, to meet fellow citizens across carefully constructed divides and become halfway whole again.

The 1915-1934 U.S. occupation is not the only problem Haiti has or has ever faced in the last nine decades. However, it is one more hurdle the country has had to overcome in a long and painful cycle of destruction and reconstruction, self-governance and subjugation.

Ninety years is a long span of time in the life of a woman or a man, but it is a short phase in the life of a country.

Iraq, take heed.

Edwidge Danticat, a native of Haiti, is the author of several novels, including, most recently, “Anacaona, Golden Flower” (Scholastic, April 2005), a young adult novel. She was a 2005 National Books Critics Circle finalist for her novel, “The Dew Breaker.” She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.