Year 501 Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Chapter 8: The Tragedy of Haiti Segment 3/9
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Another achievement of Wilson's occupation was a new Constitution, imposed on the hapless country after its National Assembly was dissolved by the Marines for refusing to ratify it. The US-designed Constitution overturned laws preventing foreigners from owning land, thus enabling US corporations to take what they wanted. FDR later took credit for having written the Constitution, falsely it appears, though he did hope to be one of its beneficiaries, intending to use Haiti "for his own personal enrichment," Schmidt notes. Ten years later, in 1927, the State Department conceded that the US had used "rather highhanded methods to get the Constitution adopted by the people of Haiti" (with 99.9 percent approval in a Marine-run plebiscite, under 5 percent of the population participating). But these methods were unavoidable: "It was obvious that if our occupation was to be beneficial to Haiti and further her progress it was necessary that foreign capital should come to Haiti..., [and] Americans could hardly be expected to put their money into plantations and big agricultural enterprises in Haiti if they could not themselves own the land on which their money was to be spent." It was out of a sincere desire to help the poor Haitians that the US forced them to allow US investors to take the country over, the State Department explained, the usual form that benevolence assumes.
Elections were not permitted because it was recognized that anti-American candidates would win, hindering the US programs to help the suffering people. These programs were described as "An Experiment in Pragmatism" by one not untypical intellectual commentator, who observed that "The pragmatists insist that intelligent guidance from without may sometimes accelerate the process of national growth and save much waste." We have already seen some illustrations of that "intelligent guidance" in the case of beneficiaries from Bengal to Brazil and Guatemala. We turn to the Haitian experience in the next chapter.6
The Occupation "consistently suppressed local democratic institutions and denied elementary political liberties," Schmidt writes. "Instead of building from existing democratic institutions which, on paper, were quite impressive and had long incorporated the liberal democratic philosophy and governmental machinery associated with the French Revolution, the United States blatantly overrode them and illegally forced through its own authoritarian, antidemocratic system." "The establishment of foreign-dominated plantation agriculture necessitated destruction of the existing minifundia land-tenure system with its myriad peasant freeholders," who were forced into peonage. The US supported "a minority of collaborators" from the local elite who admired European fascism but lacked the mass appeal of their fascist models. "In effect," Schmidt observes, "the Occupation embodied all the progressive attitudes of contemporary Italian fascism, but was crippled by failures in human relationships" (lack of popular support). The only local leadership it could mobilize was the traditional mulatto elite, its racist contempt for the great mass of the population now heightened by the even harsher attitudes of "ethnic and racial contempt" of the foreigner with the gun and the dollar, who brought "concepts of racial discrimination" not seen since before independence, and the "racist colonial realities" that went along with them.
The Occupation thus reinforced the internal class/race oppression that goes back to the days of French colonialism. One consequence was the rise of the ideology of Noirisme, in response to the racism of the occupiers and their elite collaborators. "Papa Doc" Duvalier would later exploit this backlash when, 20 years after the Marines left, he took the reins with the pretense of handing power to the black majority -- in reality, to himself, his personal killers (the Tontons Macoutes), and the traditional elite, who continued to prosper under his murderous kleptocracy.
"The Occupation worsened the economic crisis by augmenting the peasantry's forced contribution to the maintenance of the State," Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot writes. "It worsened the crisis of power by centralizing the Haitian army and disarming [citizens in] the provinces," "putting in place the structures of military, fiscal, and commercial centralization" that were to yield a "bloody finale" under the Duvalier dynasty.
Through the bloodiest years of the occupation, the media were silent or supportive. The New York Times index has no entries for Haiti for 1917-1918. In a press survey, John Blassingame found "widespread editorial support" for the repeated interventions in Haiti and the Dominican Republic from 1904 to 1919, until major atrocity stories surfaced in 1920, setting off congressional inquiry. Haitians and Dominicans were described as "coons," "mongrels," "unwholesome," "a horde of naked niggers," the Haitians even more "retrograde" than the Dominicans. They needed "energetic Anglo-Saxon influence." "We are simply going in there...to help our black brother put his disorderly house in order," one journal wrote. Furthermore, The US had a right to intervene to protect "our peace and safety" (New York Times).
Times editors lauded the "unselfish and helpful" attitude that the US had always shown, now once again as it responded "in a fatherly way" as Haiti "sought help here." Our "unselfish intervention has been moved almost exclusively by a desire to give the benefits of peace to people tormented by repeated revolutions," with no thought of "preferential advantages, commercial or otherwise," for ourselves. "The people of the island should realize that [the US government] is their best friend." The US sought only to ensure that "the people were cured of the habit of insurrection and taught how to work and live"; they "would have to be reformed, guided and educated," and this "duty was undertaken by the United States." There is a further benefit for our "black brother": "To wean these peoples away from their shot-gun habit of government is to safeguard them against our own exasperation," which might lead to further intervention. "The good-will and unselfish purposes of our own government" are demonstrated by the consequences, the editors wrote in 1922, when they were all too apparent and the Marine atrocities had already aroused a storm of protest.
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6 Ulysses B. Weatherly, "Haiti: an Experiment in Pragmatism," 1926, cited by Schmidt.