Thursday, January 28, 2010

Haiti III: Road to Occupation

The night of July 26, 1915, a rebel army surrounded Port-au-Prince. The advanced guard crept up to the National Palace where a firefight woke Guillaume Sam in the pre-dawn hours. With his palace troops, those who hadn’t already defected to the other side, outmanned and pinned down, the Haitian ruler made a mad dash for the adjoining French Legation. He took a bullet in the leg, and then found his key would not turn in the rusted gate. Sam then somehow managed to scale the ten-foot high wall.

To this point the story reads like any other Haitian coup d’etat, but from hereon Sam ceased with convention. He did not request that the French minister arrange a steamship for him and his family, whom he had momentarily abandoned on his scramble to the legation, to sail for Jamaica. Nor was he escorted to the port through a mob gathered to heckle but do him no harm as he made his escape into exile.

That was the scene that had awaited Sam’s predecessor just 4 months before, and dozens of others who had come to seize power over a war torn century of independence. Yet Guillaume had devised plans to stay in power. When he led his peasant army into the capital earlier that March, he rounded up 168 hostages from the best families in Haiti. These men and boys would be his bargaining chip when his day of reckoning came.  

He sent a message from the legation to his chief of police General Charles-Oscar Etienne, explaining that he had abandoned the palace. He ended the note with the ambiguous direction, “Faites ce que votre conscience vous dictera-- do what your conscience dictates.”

Etienne, known as “Le Terrible,” listened to his conscience, then ordered his men to the jail. With rifles and machetes they shot and hacked and smashed through the crowded cells. Their work was brutal and efficient. After feigning the call of a rescue party, Etienne’s henchmen sussed out the last survivors from the mass of limbs, disemboweled bodies and crushed skulls until the last groans yielded to the sound of blood sluicing into the drains. The slaughter claimed one hundred and sixty eight fathers and sons from the Haitian elite.

The state of shock in the crowd that gathered around the prison for news soon turned to outrage. Edmond Polynice did not wait for the crowd to make up its mind. Once the gentleman confirmed that all three of his ransomed sons were dead, he sought the whereabouts of General Etienne and followed his retreat to the Dominican legation. Amazingly, or so the legend goes, Etienne came to the door as requested, at which point Polynice shot him in the chest three times, a bullet for each of his dead sons.

From his upstairs window Sam would have seen the well-dressed mob that gathered outside the French compound the next morning. Had he looked far enough out into the bay before hiding in the bathroom he might have seen the four smokestacks of the USS Washington as it steamed towards the capital.

This would not be the Americans first naval intervention in Haiti. For decades American policy was frozen by the schism between slave and free states in the Union, though from the late 1840’s on, U.S. warships began what became a near continuous presence in Haitian waters. In 102 previous civil wars spanning those seven decades, American forces in most instances had kept their distance from the shore.

In the five years leading up to the July 1915 coup, Haiti took on more strategic interest in the view of the US State Department. With the help of U.S. officials asserting the Monroe Doctrine, in 1910 National City Bank was able gain an interest in the national bank of Haiti on terms more favorable than those of longer established German and French competitors.

Historians who filter American foreign policy in the Caribbean through the lens of economic imperialism will tell you that the Marines landed in 1915 to protect the interests of City Bank. Yet Dollar Diplomacy does not seem a sufficient explanation for intervention. Total US investments in Haiti circa 1915 amounted to 4 million dollars out of the 1.7 billion invested throughout Latin America. When a head of City Bank petitioned Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan in 1913, he had to explain to Bryan that Haiti was a nation in the Caribbean. Bryan came away from the meeting impressed.

“Dear me,” he said. “Think of it! Ni…rs speaking French.”

To suggest that the US intervened solely on the bank's behalf is to ignore the larger geo-political picture at the time.

For decades German warships had been protecting her commercial interests on the island, while German merchants sheltered and sometimes financed various rebel factions. On several occasions the Kaiser’s navy collected debts for her citizens by bearing guns upon the national palace. To further the humiliation, imperial commanders would often impose demands beyond the immediate repayment of debts.  Terms once stipulated a 21-gun salute to the double eagle run up the flag pole at the palace, and on another occasion, two ransomed ships left by the departing Germans had their Haitian flags laid on the decks and smeared with shit.

If they didn’t exactly believe in the role of soft power, the Germans were bent on a naval build up to rival the other Atlantic powers in the arms race that preceded World War I. In order to project naval forces in the age of steam, coaling stations scattered throughout the world were a necessity. American wariness over German designs on a coaling station in Haiti only intensified with the outbreak of war in 1914.

The Wilson administration had even more on its plate than petitioning bankers and the threat of a German a foothold in the Mare Nostrum of the American Caribbean. The Panama Canal had just opened  its locks for business in 1914, and Haitian waters fronted the primary Caribbean passage to Panama. So Haiti, through no cause of her own, had vaulted in strategic importance in the year leading up to 1915.

Guillaume Sam would exit the legation the same way he entered. On the morning of July 28, his lifeless body was thrown over the wall. Sam’s torso was dragged through the streets, with his head, feet, hands, and various other parts carried about on poles. This was the scene in Port-au-Prince, rich and poor for a moment joined in universal rage, as the marines from the USS Washington landed launches and set out to secure the various legations in the city.

But what then? After several days there was still no clear objective for U.S. forces onshore.  Secretary of State Robert Lansing asked his boss for orders and in short order, Wilson delivered:

1. We must send to Port-au-Prince a force sufficient to absolutely control the city…[and] the country immediately about it…
2. We must let the present Haitian Congress know that we will protect it but that we will not recognize any action on its part that does not put men in charge of affairs whom we can trust to handle and put an end to revolution.
3.We must give all who now have authority there or who desire to have it…to understand that we shall take steps to prevent the payment of debts contracted to finance revolutions.

No 14 points these, but reflective of the high minded principles that Wilson used in framing his foreign policy. If Wilson really did believe the US could bring tenable democracy to Haiti, it underscores his cabinet's continued ignorance of the country.

The objective of the 19 years of American occupation, beyond the maintenance of civil order, was never clear. Perhaps the best legacy of this era was the dozens of memoirs and amateur histories written by the occupiers who dramatized the Haitian people and their Vodoo religion for popular consumption.

That story is for another time.

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