Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
So, last time, we closed the books on the Haitian revolution, which, if you ask me, runs from the bucket on ceremony in August 1791 through to Dessalines speech, justifying his extermination of the whites in April 1804. I think those two events put handy brackets on the revolution. Now, I did push on through last time to the assassination of Dessalines in the fall of 1906, because the reign of Emperor Jacques I feel like a little interregnum between the revolution per se and just the broader history of Haiti. What I want to do today is complete our cycle of episodes on the Haitian revolution by telling you about that broader history of Haiti. And as you may have noticed, that history has kind of ballooned. Your eyes are not deceiving you. This episode really is 1 hour and 40 minutes long, but once I got started, I didn’t want to stop. So here we are.
Now, unfortunately, while I was clearly having no trouble with my lucidity trying to shoehorn in, long discussions about the Haitian flag never panned out. But if you go to http://www.revolutionspodcast.com, I have included a ton of images from Haitian history in chronological order along with this episode, including the various modifications to the flag. When I hit upload to this episode, I am then going to go on break to prepare for our next cycle of episodes and also continue to plug away on my forthcoming book, “The Storm Before the Storm the Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic”, which, I should mention, is coming along quite nicely. Revolutions will then return on June 5, 2016, and I hope to see you all on the other side.
One last thing I’ll mention is that there are going to be a few difficult, obscure names that pop up along the way here, and I’ll probably butcher the pronunciation of at least a few of them, but okay, without further ado, let’s do this thing.
The assassination of Dessalines was masterminded principally by the colored general Alexandre Pétion and his allies down in the south. But up north in Le Cap, the black general Henri Christophe, offered tacit support for the plot. No one mourned the death of Dessalines, and as soon as his body had been torn to pieces, the conspirators moved quickly onto stage two of their plan: convene a constitutional convention to replace Dessalines short lived empire. Representatives from across the country convened in Port-au-Prince at the end of 1804, and a consensus formed around the creation of a republic led by a president and a senate. The only question was how to divvy up power between the executive and legislative branches.
Now, though, Pétion was the driving force behind both the overthrow of Dessalines and the subsequent Constitutional Convention. Christophe had more internal political support, especially in the army, and it seemed highly likely that he would be appointed the first president. With this in mind, Pétion’s allies in the convention strengthened the Senate and limited the powers of the presidency. And once the presidency was reduced to a mere figurehead position, Christophe was indeed duly elected the first president of the Republic of Haiti.
But Christophe wasn’t interested in being merely a figurehead, and setting the tone for the whole rest of Haitian history, he organized his military forces up in the north and sent them marching on Port-au-Prince. In response, Pétion gathered up his own forces to deflect Christophe’s advance, but critically, without cash to pay for his soldiers, Pétion promised land to anyone who would fight for him. But though this looks a lot like the War of Knives, with Christophe acting as Toussaint Louverture and Pétion as André Rigaud, it didn’t actually play out like that. A brief flurry of small scale battles, skirmishes really, led to a stalemate and a divided country. Christophe controlled the northern regions as far south as Saint-Marc, including the interior plains of the West Province. Pétion controlled Port-au-Prince and the entire Southern Peninsula. And this divided state of affairs would persist for the next 13 years. And seen through the lens of traditional racial politics, Christophe represents a black regime, and Pétion represents a colored regime. But the reality, as usual, is a bit murkier than all of that.
So up in the north, President Christophe settled in to continue the basic line that ran from the Louverturian state through to Dessalines’s short lived empire: authoritarian military rule, and an export based plantation economy. As with Toussaint and Dessalines, Christophe also poured a ton of his revenue into national defense, and he built these palatial fortresses that came to symbolize his reign. To build these palaces, Christophe actually resorted to coerced labor, with reports of men and women literally in chains, working under armed guard. But Christophe was not just a strong man, and in terms of political vision, he far exceeded Dessalines and even came to approach old Papa Toussaint himself.
After four years as merely president, Christophe decided to move up in the world. And in 1811, he had himself crowned King Henry I of the Kingdom of Haiti. And then he formed a little feudal aristocracy to support his regime, with dukes and counts and barons, all with coats of arms and family crests, the whole nine yards. This new nobility was drawn from both black and colored military officers. And since plantation economics was the foundation of Christoph’s regime, these guys wound up owning the major plantations. To govern the relationships of his subjects, the king also issued the massive Code Henri – a hyper detailed law book that ran something like 800 pages. And it was in a lot of ways, a return to the old Code Noir issued by Louis XIV. Mostly the poor workers were there to work and as usual, were bound to their plantations, like the serfs that they now basically were. But it also included rights for those workers and requirements that the landholding aristocracy provide for the cultivators and restrict abuses of them. King Henri also reached out to other world leaders seeking political recognition for his regime, but he found no takers, though he did enter into a very fruitful correspondence with the British abolitionists Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce. Clarkson in particular, lobbied for the Haitians in London, and helped King Henri set up schools to educate the next generation of Haitians: the first generation of Haitians who would be born free.
Meanwhile, down in the south, Pétion was himself sworn in as president of the rival Republic of Haiti in March 1807. And for the first time, a new economic system started to replace the old plantation model. Having promised land to the men who fought for him in the brief civil war with Christophe, Pétion had to make good on those promises, which meant breaking up some of the bigger estates. When this started happening, the whole plantation system of the all powerful owner driving powerless cultivators began to break down. Even on larger estates, a system emerged called métayage, where tenant farmers were left to work the land with little oversight, and they would then split the produce 50/50 with the owner. And these days, the principal crop we’re talking about is coffee.
Pétion also introduced another innovation that would soon become a core part of the Haitian political economy. He took the old tax system where agents went round to each plantation to collect 25% of the estate’s produce and replaced it with a new system of customs duties collected in the port cities. These new import-export taxes were far easier to collect and manage, and soon they would become the tax base for all future Haitian governments.
But as some measure of decentralized egalitarianism took root economically, Pétion could not resist the poll to political authoritarianism. It was one thing to make the presidency a figurehead when your arrival is about to become president, quite another when you are now president. So, bit by bit, power moved from the Senate to the president. In 1810, Pétion was reelected, and then in 1816, the de facto autocracy was codified by a new constitution.
But rhetorically, Pétion still promised a government by and for the people. So the presidency and Senate were now joined by a chamber of deputies, who were elected by universal manhood suffrage, which is a pretty big deal. But the chamber had no actual power. The president proposed laws and nominated all the senators, and they in turn, ratified the president’s wishes. Also, the presidency is now for life, and he has the right to nominate his successor.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world was busy not recognizing any of this. For roughly the same reason, neither Britain nor the United States would recognize the Kingdom of Haiti or the Republic of Haiti. It simply set a bad example to treat ex slaves and coloreds as political equals. Now, Britain, of course, had taken the momentous step of outlawing the slave trade in 1807, but to be honest, that was mostly tied to their trade war with Napoleon’s continental system, and slavery continued in all of their colonies for another 30 years. And the Americans were 100% not going to recognize the ex slaves running Haiti. So political recognition would not be coming from either power anytime soon.
But that said, when Napoleon did not force the Spanish to give the Americans Florida, the American embargo on Haiti ended in 1810, and American merchants once again traded with the island. But without diplomatic relations both Haitian and American merchants were living in a weird limbo. But it would be an overstatement to say that after independence, Haiti was just economically cut off from the rest of the world. They really weren’t.
As Britain and the United States dragged their feet over recognition, Napoleonic France refused to even consider the issue until just before the fall of Napoleon. A few of the old big white families had ensconced themselves inside the imperial government, and they were still looking to regain what they had lost. But with a military operation to retake the colony looking like a pipe dream, the old planters were ready to settle for compensation for the land and the property and the human beings that they claimed to have lost.
So, in the twilight of Napoleon’s empire, envoys from France arrived in Haiti in 1814 to talk about a deal. They went first to the Republic of Haiti and met with Pétion, who first made it crystal clear that Haiti was going to forever be free and independent. But he also suggested that in return for political recognition, the Haitians might be willing to offer restitution to the ruined French planters. Encouraged, these envoys then moved on to the Kingdom of Haiti, where they received a very different welcome from King Henri. Suspecting correctly, French duplicity, the king arrested one of the envoys, discovered secret instructions that basically said, try to make allies with the colored so they can help us re-enslave the blacks and Christophe had the envoy executed.
Now, under normal circumstances, this would have been hugely provocative, but, of course, by then, major events had overtaken Europe. Napoleon was defeated and redefined and then sent off to St. Helena to regret ever sending the Leclerc Expedition to Saint Domingue. At the post Napoleonic Congress of Vienna, French and British agents made themselves a little side deal. If France didn’t interfere with British traders in Haiti, the British would not stand in the way of any future attempt by the French to reclaim their colony. But since the restored Bourbons had no desire or ability to retake the colony by force, they resorted to old Ancien Régime methods of flattery and bribery. In 1816, new French envoys arrived bearing presence. Twelve crosses for the Legion of Honor and ten for the order of Saint-Louis, to be divided between President Pétion, King Henri, and their political inner circles. In exchange for these great and distinguished honors, the Haitians would make themselves a French protectorate – internally autonomous, but with France dictating foreign affairs. Both President Pétion and King Henri sent this insulting offer packing. They were not going to sell their souls for a fancy metal.
So the rest of the world continued to not recognize independent Haiti, even after it suddenly unified and then conquered all of Hispaniola in the span of just a few years. In 1818, President Pétion died and was succeeded by his longtime ally, Jean-Pierre Boyer.
Boyer carried on as president of the Republic of Haiti until surprising news came down from the Kingdom of Haiti. In August 1820, King Henri had a stroke, and in his weakened state, opportunistic officers decided to organize a coup to overthrow him. They railed against the micromanaged tyranny of the Code Henri and promised 10,000 unicorns to anyone who joined them overthrow the despotic king. A general insurrection erupted, and Christophe was soon cornered and isolated in his palace. On October 8, 1820, King Henri I shot himself in the heart.
Now, it’s hard to tell what, if any, part Boyer played in this uprising, but one thing we do know is that Boyer took advantage of the situation, advanced north, and reunified the country without firing a shot. That the armed forces of the kingdom of Haiti acquiesced so quickly does kind of scream shenanigans. By 1821, the Kingdom of Haiti was erased from the map, and all Haiti was now the Republic of Haiti.
But Boyer was not done there. In November 1821, the inhabitants of Santo Domingo, who had kicked out the last of the French in 1809 and then subsequently brought back into the Spanish Empire, emulated all the Latin American leaders that we’re going to talk about in our next series, and declared independence from Spain. They asked Boyer for aid and support, and he said, “Yes, I will do it!”, marched over and annexed the entire island. And just like that, Boyer’s Republic of Haiti covered all of Hispaniola.
But there was still this problem that despite the fact that all of Hispaniola was now under his control, no other power recognized Boyer’s government. And for the record, we’re now 20 years removed from Dessalines’s 1804 Declaration of Independence. After taking over Hispaniola, Boyer wrote to the Monroe administration in 1822 asking for recognition, but the letter was not even opened because the American government couldn’t risk the appearance of recognition. Then, in response to the run of Declarations of Independence in Spanish America, that we’re going to talk about in our next series, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams crafted the famous Monroe Doctrine, which made it US. Policy to oppose European interference with independent nations in the Western Hemisphere. But Haiti was pointedly excluded from this formulation because the United States did not recognize their independence. If France wanted to come back, the Monroe Doctrine was not going to stand in their way.
But by the mid-1820s, France had totally abandoned the idea of ever trying to retake the island, and they now focused on trying to squeeze monetary restitution out of the Haitians for lost French property. And in 1825, King Charles X, the old comte d’Artois, decided to settle things once and for all. Another batch of French envoys arrived in Port-au-Prince to offer a deal: political recognition in exchange for cold, hard cash.
Now, the diplomacy of all this had to go through some absurd gymnastic twists. Since France couldn’t recognize Boyer as president of Haiti, because the French did not recognize Boyer as the president of Haiti, Charles X’s lawyers had to dream up a pretty insulting diplomatic formula. The king would issue a royal decree to what they were now calling the French part of Saint Domingue. This decree had three points.
First, the French part of Saint Domingue would be allowed free commerce with the world, but in the future, France would enjoy a 50% discount on terrace. Second, the inhabitants of the French part of Saint Domingue would pay 150,000,000 francs over five installments to compensate French planters for their losses. And third, France would then concede that the current inhabitants of the French part of Saint Domingue enjoyed full and complete independence.
Now, no one has any idea where the 150,000,000 comes from. It was just a really big made up number. It’s not like they were sitting around looking at receipts or anything, but for sure, it included lost slave value, which is pretty damned insulting. I mean, the French lost their slaves because those slaves rose up and overthrew them. Then the French had come back, tried to re-enslave all their slaves, and they got beat again. And now the French don’t even want to risk another military expedition, but they still expect the Haitians to, in effect, pay for the freedom that they had already purchased with their blood.
But Boyer was in a mighty dilemma, because the French had a navy and he did not. And while an actual reinvasion was not likely, the envoys made it very clear that if the Haitians did not accept the deal, it would be economically blockaded, and the Haitians would not be able to break that blockade.
But even still, Boyer gave this royal decree to a small commission of advisers, and they came back and said, you should reject this. It’s an abomination. So Haiti almost called the French bluff. But in a private meeting between Boyer and the lead French envoy, the Haitian president personally agreed to the deal. His hope was that diplomatic recognition would open up the markets of the world to Haitian exports, bring in modern expertise, technology, maybe investment, and that any indemnity that had been paid would be made insignificant by the resulting economic boom. So he said, okay. His compliant Senate duly ratified the agreement, but the public was never told the terms. All Boyer said publicly was that the French came to recognize us. And this triggered a wave of parties across the island. It wasn’t until months later that newspapers arrived from France with all the details, and the general population, at least the literate population, was outraged. Boyer had just agreed to pay for the independence that they had already won.
And the indemnity itself turned out to not even be the worst of it, because obviously, the Haitian government does not have 30 million francs sitting around to make the first payment. It would be due at the end of 1825. So the French envoys very helpfully arranged a loan from French banks to cover the initial installment, a 30 million franc loan over 25 years at 6% interest, with a whopping 20% service fee. From that moment on, Haiti was crushed under this double debt of first the indemnity itself and then servicing the loans to pay for it. And right away, this ate up 30% of the annual budget, and with another 50% going to prop up the military, that left only 20% for everything else. But though the French now sent an official agent to represent them, it would not be until 1838 that full and complete political recognition would be acknowledged, which happened to coincide with Boyer negotiating the remaining 120 franc indemnity down to 60 million. But even still, in 1825, Haiti was now on the map, and every other European power followed the French by sending envoys to represent them. But not the United States. Still not the United States.
Recognition purchased, Boyer then settled into what turned out to be a fairly stable authoritarian regime. I mean, remarkably stable. He would stay in power until 1843. And though it had a few democratic trappings – the chamber of deputies still existed, the Republic of Haiti was a dictatorship. But Boyer focused that dictatorship mostly on the urban areas, and he kind of left rural Haiti to its own devices. The model of sharecropping developed by Pétion had migrated out of the Southern Peninsula when Boyer absorbed the Kingdom of Haiti, and Henri Christophe turned out to be the last leader to keep large estate plantations as the economic norm, at least until the Americans arrived in 1915.
So even the lucrative Northern Plains were slowly divided up among smaller holders. And by now, sugar, the commodity that had once been synonymous with Saint Domingue, had all but disappeared. What sugar was grown was very small scale and for local conversion into molasses or rum. So there are no more piles of white gold sitting on the docks of Le Cap. And as the economy decentralized, models of family ownership began to take root called Lakou. The system was built on extended families collectively owning and controlling land where they grew a mix of export crops, internal market commodities, and then just their own food. Boyer made a feeble attempt to retain some of the old authoritarian labor codes by promulgating a Code Rural in 1826 that severely limited the rights of workers and empowered landowners. But it was nearly impossible to enforce. And Boyer spent no time, capital, or resources trying to enforce it.
And one of the reasons it was so hard to enforce the code was that the urban/rural/cultural divide was mirrored by the army. Like all its predecessors, the Republic of Haiti was administered by the military, but the military apparatus was not as unified or centralized as it might have appeared from the outside. Senior officers ran districts practically as autonomous fiefdoms, with appointments that could last for decades. The national government in Port-au-Prince wasn’t strong enough to rein these guys in, so a balance emerged between the main urban areas and the interior rural districts. The national government, such as it was, focused its limited resources entirely on the urban areas and especially on trying to boost trade, since the government now relied entirely on export import taxes to generate revenue. Boyer encouraged foreign merchants to settle in the principal cities of Le Cap and Port-au-Prince and Les Cayes to help Haitian exports reach the world. Most of these merchants turned out to be Germans, who would then marry a Haitian woman to get around the no foreign ownership clause in the Constitution, and then dug themselves in to act as gatekeepers between Haiti and the world’s economy.
As the years went by, the autocratic nature of Boyer’s government, the humiliating indemnity, the rising power of these foreign German merchants helped erode support for his regime. Opposition grew primarily in a new generation of young, educated professionals in the cities. This new generation had been born free in independent Haiti, and they were frankly tired of listening to old veterans of the revolution justify their petty despotism with appeals to service records now 40 years old. These educated young professionals, most of them drawn from the elite colored families, spoke and read French rather than Creole, and were plugged into current European thinking. They demanded greater democratic access, national self assertion, and a modern economy. The rise of these young liberals culminated in 1842, which just so happened to follow a massive earthquake hitting Le Cap that killed something like half the population of the city. And Boyer blundered politically by not even bothering to visit the destroyed city. Aware that opposition to his rule was rising, Boyer tried to curb the influence of the younger generation, but he failed. The reformist liberals won a majority in the Chamber of Deputies in the election of 1842. And while that Chamber was basically powerless, it still might serve as a platform for further attacks on the Boyer’s regime. So, taking a queue from old Oliver Cromwell, Boyer posted soldiers at the door of the Chamber with a list of names. Only those named strong Boyer allies were to be admitted into the Chamber.
But this only emboldened the liberal opposition. Now gathering down in Les Cayes, the young activists held meetings to denounce Boyer in the authoritarian constitution of 1816, and they started to plot a real revolt. In January 1843, an insurrection erupted from Les Cayes, led by a pair of cousins, a senior military officer named Charles Rivière Hérard and his intellectual civilian cousin, Hérard Dumesle. And these are, for example, the obscure names that I’m probably butchering.
With a group of armed supporters, these guys all marched over to Jérémie and found themselves welcomed not just by the town, but by the military garrison. Boyer sent troops to contain the uprising, but they, too, defected to the rebels when they arrived. And back in Port-au-Prince, Boyer himself was harassed by a mob of angry women who heckled him if he ever showed his face in public. After 25 years in power, it took maybe two months of armed insurrection to oust Boyer, and he abdicated the presidency in March of 1843. In what would become a time honored tradition for Haitian presidents, Boyer boarded a boat to Kingston, Jamaica. From there, he moved on to Paris, where he died in exile in 1850. He was the last of the men who had sat at the table to celebrate the ceasefire with Leclerc in the spring of 1802, and it was time for a new generation to take over.
The revolution of 1843 could have marked a huge point of departure for Haiti. The displacement of the aging revolutionary generation by young men born free. Democracy replacing dictatorship. Civilian rule replacing military rule. But it was not to be. I mean, it started out great. The revolutionary liberals held a constitutional convention in Port-au-Prince that was open to the public, and there crafted a very liberal constitution which guaranteed the right to political assembly, trial by jury, and direct election of senators, and for the first time, direct election of the president, who would be selected by an electoral college style system of delegates. They also maintain the ban on foreign ownership of property, which they still viewed as essential to maintaining national sovereignty. But voting was also going to be limited to property owners and professionals, which seemed good and right to these young urban liberals, but effectively cut out the vast majority of the population from political participation. The new constitution was finished by the end of the year, and in December 1843, Charles Rivière Hérard became president of a regenerated Republic of Haiti. But things quickly went awry.
With the convulsions rocking the French side of Hispaniola, the Spanish side of the island spied an opportunity, and in February 1844, they rebelled against 20 years of Haitian rule. So shortly after his inauguration, President Hérard had to march east to try to keep control of the whole island. But his ensuing campaign was a complete failure. He was unable to get a hold of the situation and was forced into retreat. Santo Domingo declared independence in May 1844, and while they would be ruled by many regimes and multiple countries over the next 150 years, they would never again be ruled by the Haitians.
While he was off on this campaign, the President left his cousin Hérard Dumesle in charge of Port-au-Prince, and it quickly became clear to everyone that the Hérards were discovering the efficacy of authoritarian rule. I mean, it is easier to just crush your enemies rather than negotiate with them. So by the time the president returned from his embarrassing campaigns in Santo Domingo, both cousins were wildly unpopular, both with liberal idealists and the establishment military, who resented the attempt by all these young civilians to push the old military aside.
And then they got really whacked in the side of the head. A peasant uprising began as soon as the new constitution was promulgated in December 1843. The liberal revolutionaries had enjoyed support from the rural peasants when they overthrew Boyer, but now those peasants found themselves all but cut out of the deal. So a prominent black farmer down on the Southern Peninsula named Louis-Jean-Jacques Acaau started gathering an army of angry rural workers. He denounced the old colored elites and said, “We need to push those guys off the island and divvy up all the land for ourselves.” And there’s a story here, that during one of these speeches, black members of the audience started eyeing a light skin colored worker in their midst. But Acaau said, “No, if he’s a poor, illiterate worker who speaks Creole and he’s black like us, and if any rich, educated, French speaking black is down in the city, he’s a mulatto.”
So this again fits with a lot of what we’ve seen. Skin color is very important to Haitian politics, but it’s always augmented by social and class distinctions.
By the spring of 1844, Acaau’s army was on the move. These armed peasants were dubbed the Piquets, after the long sharpened pickets that they carried in battle. Allegedly, they were all dipped in poison. The Piquets followed almost the same line that the liberal revolutionaries had, marching from the plains around Les Cayes towards Port-au-Prince. And while they marched, a completely separate military insurrection then began in the north, and the short lived Hérard government became, well, the short lived Hérard government. Rivière Hérard abdicated the presidency in May 1844, and shortly thereafter, both he and his cousin got on the boat to Kingston. Because the motto for all ambitious Haitian leaders is: Today Port-au-Prince, tomorrow Kingston.
A more conservative group of old Boyer ministers and military officers came together after the expulsion of the Hérards to try to regain power. But recognizing that poor black hatred of the colored elites was a thing. They tried to mollify that hatred by digging up an old black veteran of the revolution, whose name I won’t trouble you with, to be president. After this guy served the year as mere figurehead, he died and was replaced with a near clone, a guy named Jean-Louis Pierrot, who had once been a prince in King Henri’s nobility. Now, Pierrot did exercise some initiative, and he promoted Acaau to a senior post in the military and gave the peasant leader political power back in his home region surrounding Les Cayes. But this ticked off the colored puppet masters, who then staged a little uprising outside Port-au-Prince in 1846, forcing Pierrot to abdicate in favor of another old black general whose name I also won’t trouble you with. After the overthrow of his benefactor, Acaau went back into revolt. But this time, the military was far more unified. The latest uprising failed, and Acaau committed suicide.
After the death of Acaau, the clique of military commanders and old Boyer loyalists thought that they now had a firm grip on things. They inaugurated a new constitution in 1846 that essentially revived Pétion’s authoritarian constitution, with, for example, the Senate appointing the president again. And then in 1847, the colored elite dominated Senate went round and found another old black general named Faustin Soulouque to serve as president. But here, things went off the rails. Soulouque seemed like kind of an amiable dullard, but he also happened to be the head of the elite Presidential Guard. And when he became president in early 1847, Soulouque cut the strings of the puppet masters. With the help of the loyal Presidential Guard, the new president deployed the authoritarian powers granted to him by the constitution and purged the Senate of the very men who had just elevated him. Then, in the spring of 1848, he straight up executed a cohort of elite colored leaders identified as powerful threats to his rule. Having effectively neutralized the coloreds, in August 1949, President Soulouque had himself declared Emperor Faustin I of Haiti and then proceeded to create a Christoph style nobility to help him rule the country, draping his new empire in a blend of African and European imagery. And most famously, or perhaps most infamously, Emperor Faustin embraced Voodoo, the religion of the rural blacks that had always been looked down on by the more urbane colored elite. Soulouque was supposed to have been a pliable old man, and instead, he ruled Haiti with an iron fist for the next decade.
But despite his imperial pretensions, Emperor Faustin failed in his one major foreign policy objective to retake Santo Domingo, which was now calling itself the Dominican Republic. He launched a string of military campaigns against old Santo Domingo, but by now, the Haitian military was basically good at maintaining domestic power, but very bad at actually fighting a war. They were not very well trained or equipped, and they got beat every time they marched east. After a decade in the political wilderness, the light skinned coloreds finally organized enough resistance to make a move against Emperor Faustin. They rallied behind General Fabre Geffrard, who staged a coup in 1859 and exiled Emperor Faustin to, you guessed it, Kingston, Jamaica. Geffrard then dismantled the imperial apparatus and returned Haiti to a Pétion-Boyer style republic run by the educated urban coloreds, pointedly making a major push to outlaw Voodoo completely, which he saw as backwards and an obstacle to Haiti being taken seriously by the rest of the world.
But Geffrard’s move back towards this vision of modern respectability had nothing to do with the United States finally deciding to extend political recognition to independent Haiti, which they finally did do during Geffrard’s presidency. Because just after Geffrard sees power, the United States entered into a murder suicide pact with itself and launched the Civil War in 1861. With all the southern delegates having quit the Union, there was no one left in Congress to oppose recognition of Haiti. And so in 1862, the abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner induced Lincoln’s state department to go ahead and recognize the Republic of Haiti on June 5 1862, just about 58 years after the French had withdrawn and the Haitians first declared independence. Haiti was now recognized by everyone.
Back in the now truly recognized Republic of Haiti, President Geffrard continued Emperor Faustin’s policy of trying to bring the Dominican Republic back under Haitian control, but he, too, was unsuccessful. In 1861, a group of old Spanish loyalists seized power and voted themselves back into the Spanish empire. But this turned out to be super short lived, and in 1865, a rival faction seized power and once again declared themselves the independent Dominican Republic. Not that Haiti was in much of a position to take advantage of all this. Geffrard spent most of his presidency fending off various coups and insurrections launched by regional commanders.
In 1865, one of these insurrections actually got some traction. Led by an officer in the north, a major named Sylvain Salnav, the insurrection was bad enough that Geffrard had to talk the Royal Navy into helping him quash it. The British sailed a couple of ships along the coast and lobbed some cannonballs at Salnav’s position. Salnav responded then by openly appealing to the United States for help, even going so far as to offer them the great naval port of Môle-Saint-Nicolas in exchange for their aid. But the United States rejected the offer, something they would not have done just a few years later. But Salnav won his war with Geffrard anyway. And after eight years in power, President Geffrard got on the boat to Kingston in 1867. Salnav, though, he never made it to Kingston. Two years later, opponents of his new regime shelled the presidential palace, lighting up a stockpile of gunpowder, blowing the place all to hell and killing Salnav in the process.
Now, following the death of Salnav is one of the most mind blowing things to ever happen in the history of Haitian politics: the Senate elected a general named Nissage Saget president in 1869. President Saget served out his full term and retired peacefully in 1874. Mind blowing, I know.
After that, it was back to the funhouse. By the second half of the 19th century, though, there was a degree of unity amongst some of these political factions. Now, for sure, the overriding principle was military officers using regional power bases to pounce on Port-au-Prince , take it, and then later get pounced on and exit stage left to Kingston. But two broad political worldviews did start to organize themselves, and both in fairly explicit racial terms. On the one hand, there was the Nationalist Party. These guys were primarily blacks, and they drew their support from the rural workers. The nationalists were avowedly populist and ran in opposition to the colored elites of the cities. Opposing them was the Liberal Party, who were drawn from those colored elites. They were centered in the cities, they were professional and educated and spoke French and were cosmopolitan. Their motto was literally “Government by the most competent”. They believe the vast majority of the population, which was now about 700,000, was simply unfit to participate in government. But one of the biggest things that these guys fought over was, how do we position ourselves as a very small, weak country in a world of giant predators?
Now, even as late as the 1870s, Haiti continued to have very strong cultural and economic ties to France. Now, the German merchants, of course, continued to play an outsized role in Haitian economics, but fully 50% of Haitian imports still came from France. All the elites spoke French and took their intellectual and cultural cues from the French, to say nothing of the fact that a huge chunk of Haitian tax revenue was shipped back to Paris every year. And if you can believe it, the burden of debt only got worse after the 1825 indemnity was finally paid off. To make the last payment, the Haitian government contracted a huge loan from the French in 1875. And then in 1876, they took out an even bigger loan just to handle the servicing on the loan from 1875. So the last indemnity payment was finally made in 1883. But by then, the Haitian debt had nearly tripled. And those were just the big long term loans. With so much of the government’s tax revenue going to pay off the long term debts, various Haitian governments had to contract short term debt just to pay annual expenses. The international banking community, they loved this. They just kicked back and collected high interest rates and fees that the Haitians, to their credit, no pun intended, assiduously, paid back, even if it left them almost nothing to spend in Haiti itself.
But to protect their various investments, the European bankers were not just going to sit back and hope for the best. And at various points in the late 19th century, the Germans, French and Americans all floated gunships in and around Haiti to intimidate the Haitians into making sure they paid their debts. And then, in 1880, the French essentially seized control of Haiti’s national finances when they incorporated the National Bank of Haiti. This bank would serve as the depository of tax receipts. It would print all Haitian currency and issue all personal and commercial loans. And this bank was wholly owned and operated by the French. If I’ve read my sources right, Haiti’s currency wasn’t even printed in Haiti. It was printed in France and then shipped across the Atlantic.
The guy who orchestrated the creation of the bank was a modernizing black nationalist named Lysius Salomon. Salomon was a member of the very small black elite in Haiti, as opposed to the colored elite. And he had been a minister under Emperor Faustin and was then exiled after the collapse of the empire in 1859. But rather than taking the boat to Kingston and just sitting there, Salomon spent his exile in London and Paris. And when he came home 20 years later, he was full of ideas. Salomon seized the government in 1879 in the midst of factional street fighting in Port-au-Prince, and then ruled from 1879 to 1888. During his reign, he focused on trying to bring Haiti up to modern standards, and he embarked on a bunch of reforms. He focused on improving education and public administration and the internal infrastructure of the country. And it was under his auspices that the National Bank of Haiti was established to stabilize and he hoped to protect Haiti’s finances.
But the establishment of the National Bank of Haiti in many ways marks the end of French predominance. They would continue to run the bank, but by now, the United States of America was looming very large in the Western Hemisphere. The Americans had been refusing to get too involved in Caribbean affairs after the Civil War, declining as we saw Salnav’s offer to hand over Môle-Saint-Nicolas. And then they followed this up by declining the Dominican Republic’s offer in 1869 to just be annexed into the United States in exchange for financial relief. As late as the 1880s, the Americans were still rejecting offers to get too directly involved in Haiti. In 1883, Salomon tried to entice American investment and concessions by offering the American Navy either Môle-Saint-Nicolas or Tortuga. Take your pick. But the Americans again declined.
But American reticence to get actively involved in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere was fast disappearing by the end of the 1880s. In 1888, a revolt toppled President Salomon. Though being the man of the world that he was, Salomon headed for Paris rather than Kingston to spend his exile, though he did die just a few months later. A new government briefly held power. But then they were overthrown by another general who had gone into revolt named Florvil Hyppolite. And it was the arrival of Hyppolite that marks the beginning of a more aggressive American posture towards Haiti, because General Hyppolite’s revolt was armed and supplied by the Americans, to whom he had made a number of promises.
This more active participation in Haiti was a part of a much wider American reinterpretation of the Monroe Doctrine. Now, the Monroe Doctrine was essentially defensive in nature, right? The United States would stand between Europe and the Americas. Well, new internationalist minded Secretary of State James Blaine entered office in 1889 and brought with him the Big Brother policy, which sought to bring the nations of the Western Hemisphere together under the auspices of American political and business leadership. This shift from passive to active leadership would then culminate with the Roosevelt Corollary in 1904, which we’ll talk about here in a minute.
Now, mostly, this new click of internationalist minded Americans were hot to pry Cuba and Puerto Rico away from Spain. But in Haiti, this shift in focus meant the United States was now ready to say yes to repeated Haitian offers to take Môle-Saint-Nicolas. Except now the Hyppolite government didn’t want to do it. The Americans claim that Hyppolite had specifically promised the port in return for aid in his revolt and that he was now reneging on the deal. But the new Haitian foreign Minister, Antenor Firmin, who also happens to be one of the greatest intellectual and political forces in the history of the Caribbean (but let’s not get sidetracked), denied the promise had ever been made. To negotiate for the Americans, President Benjamin Harrison and Secretary of State Blaine decided to send Frederick Douglass, who also happens to be one of the greatest intellectual and political forces in the history of the United States (but let’s not get sidetracked on that either). Off and on from 1889 to 1891, Douglass and Fearman tried to work out a deal that would be acceptable to both sides. But American business interests soon became disenchanted with Douglass’s willingness to see the Haitian side of things. And they pressured the Harrison administration to send somebody tougher. So the Americans pushed Douglass aside and sent an admiral in the US Navy to take over. But the harder line just made the Haitians more resistant. So the admiral played what he thought would be his trump card: he steamed four gunships into the harbor of Port-au-Prince and basically said, “Give us Môle-Saint-Nicolas or I start firing”. But incredibly, Firmin came back and said, “No, do your worst.” Firmin had numerous contacts in the American business and political community, and he had it on very good authority that the ships were there to look tough but not fire, and that it was safe to call the bluff. So he called the bluff, and after lingering for a few days, the admiral finally pulled out in a huff in April 1891.
Now, through all of these years, the tension between rural Haiti and urban Haiti and the political center of Port-au-Prince and the various regional districts continued. And every national government fought off various coups and insurrections from all sides, usually until one of them finally succeeded and the process would repeat. And it was during the reign of President Salomon, but a semipermanent name was attached to the various rural rebels who would rise up in support of some local leader. They were called the Cacos. I hope I am pronouncing that right, C-A-C-O.
The Cacos were a type of fighter rather than an ideological or political force per se. An ambitious military officer serving in some particular district would raise the local Cacos to fight for him, always, always promising 10,000 unicorns if he won. But of course, if he did win, he would leave the royal Caco fighters behind and forget all about the promises he had made. And it was while riding a horse on his way to deal with one of these uprisings, that President Hyppolite had a heart attack and died in 1896. He was succeeded by his secretary of war, who survived long enough to actually reach the end of his constitutional term limit in 1902. This guy tried to stay in power, but he was forced out of office by other ambitious leaders who wanted the job.
But not unlike 1843, the resulting political crisis of 1902 brought with it a cohort of young reformist liberals who wanted their hero, Antenor Firmin, to be president. In the wake of the president’s resignation in 1902, a movement started up to take appointment of the president away from the Senate and make it an actual democratically elected office. And this movement got enough traction that a convention was called in Port-au-Prince to decide how to proceed. And this convention decided on an American style electoral type election system, open to men who met certain economic requirements. But a senior clique of military officers who wanted no part of the intellectual civilian Firmin instead organized themselves behind the positively ancient general named Pierre Nord Alexis. Alexis was 82 years old. He had been born way back in 1820 and just so happened to be the illegitimate grandson of Henri Christophe. Street fighting soon broke out between soldiers and the young liberals, and when the election was finally held in June 1902, the military deployed itself in force all around the polling stations to maintain order. With the election clearly being stolen out from under them, Firmin’s partisans armed and fought back. But Firmin was not a general, and his partisans were not soldiers. Not helping the cause was the fact that both the Americans and Germans supported Alexis, who was prepared to make the kind of international concessions Firmin had refused just a few years earlier.
In one famous incident, a small warship run by one of Firmin’s supporters called the Crête-à-Pierrot, (That name ring a bell? Good!), was identified by Alexis to the Germans as a pirate vessel, and the German navy attacked the ship. Totally overmatched, rather than be taken alive, the captain of the Crête-à-Pierrot blew it up, which is kind of a nice metaphor for the whole tradition of liberal reform in Haiti. Alexis became president, and Firmin was driven into exile, though he went to St. Thomas rather than Kingston, and there he died in 1911.
Now, by the time that General Alexis became President Alexis, the whole Western Hemisphere was already wrestling with the fact that a hyperactive aristocratic cowboy polymath wielding the biggest stick in the world had just moved into the White House. Because on September 14, 1901, William McKinley had died and Theodore Roosevelt became president of the United States. Roosevelt, as I’m sure you know, was an enthusiastic booster of American imperialism and had already helped trigger the Spanish American war that transferred the last bits of the Spanish empire into American hands. In 1904, Roosevelt codified a new approach to Pan American politics when a financial and political crisis erupted in the Dominican Republic. The Dominicans were about to default to like the whole world, and the French, Germans, Italians and Dutch were all individually one missed payment away from invading and occupying the country to guarantee Dominican repayment of debt. Roosevelt said “No, that would be a violation of the Monroe Doctrine. But here’s what we’re going to do. The United States will invade and occupy the country, and we will guarantee Dominican repayment of debt.” Whereupon the marines invaded and occupied the Dominican Republic. To guarantee repayment of the Dominican debt, the marines took over supervision of their custom houses and all banking operations. This new approach to Pan American politics is called the Roosevelt Corollary. The position that the US will not just defend the Western Hemisphere against European powers, but that it reserves the right to actively intervene in any country in the Western Hemisphere if civilization seems to depend on it.
The Roosevelt Corollary gives a formal definition to a whole new era of Pan American politics. By the time the corollary was issued in 1904, the Americans had already annexed Puerto Rico and occupied Cuba. And though Cuba would not be annexed, it would be occupied by the Marines three separate times between 1898 and 1922 and would then remain under close American supervision, really until Castro comes along. In 1903, Roosevelt broke Panama away from Columbia to bring the world’s dream of a central American canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to fruition. And as we just saw, the Dominican Republic had its finances managed by the United States starting in 1904. And that would be followed by an even deeper American military occupation that would last from 1916 to 1924. Nicaragua was occupied from 1912 to 1933. And while Honduras was never formally occupied, it was subjected to repeated marine incursions between 1903 and 1925. Most of this was done in support of American businesses, most especially the fruit companies like United Fruit and Standard Fruit. And it was from this era that the term Banana Republic emerged. Coined by the writer O. Henry to describe the various Latin American governments who were all but subsidiaries of the American fruit companies, with the US Marines acting as company security.
But of interest to us here at the Revolution’s podcast are two military interventions in particular. One of them we won’t get to for a little while. But just know that in 1915, that is right smack dab in the middle of the Mexican revolution, the Americans invaded and occupied Veracruz. And there is a very good case to be made that this was the decisive turning point in the Mexican revolution. But we’ll have plenty of time to talk all about the guns of Veracruz when we get to the Mexican revolution, whenever we get to the Mexican revolution. But we are still today trying to wrap up the Haitian revolution. So we need to talk about the US occupation of Haiti, which ran from 1915 to 1934 and about which we are never told anything.
Now, the positively ancient President Alexis managed to get even more positively ancient and he managed to stay in power for six more years. But in December 1908, approaching now his 90th birthday, Alexis was put on the boat to Kingston. Following his departure, the Republic of Haiti entered a political death spiral, that would be helped along by American business and political interests eager to use the Roosevelt Corollary to make a fortune in Haiti.
In 1909, two US banks purchased a controlling interest in the National Bank of Haiti from the French, symbolically completing the transfer of foreign hegemony from the French to the Americans. Now, by the turn of the century, nearly three quarters of Haitian imports were now coming from the US rather than from France. And their loans also increasingly came from US banks. Debt servicing on those loans was now taking a staggering toll. By the 1890s, about 25% of the annual budget was being allotted to debt servicing. By 1898, that number was up to 50% and by 1915 it was fully 80%. That is 80% of Haiti’s tax revenue was immediately being handed off to its international creditors, which now meant the United States. What the Americans wanted to do was use Haiti’s outstanding debt as leverage to break the century old prohibition on foreign ownership.
But the Haitians remained fiercely proud of their independence and believed that prohibiting foreign ownership of their country was the centerpiece of that independence. And this was not some vague theory. The Haitians were watching the threat of foreign encroachment unfold before their very eyes. In 1910, the Haitian government wanted to complete a long stalled project to build a railroad linking Port-au-Prince to Le Cap. To get the job done, they granted very generous leasing terms to an American industrialist named James McDonald. McDonald’s company got a 50 year lease to a swath of land 12 miles wide, straddling the proposed rail line, where he would have near total autonomy to do whatever he wanted. McDonald planned to use this land to build a huge network of banana plantations. But this swath of land was not uninhabited wilderness. It was populated by communities and families who had lived there for generations. To clear the land, McDonald and the Haitian government began a program of forced dispossession. And since most of the families did not have clear title to the land, they had just been living there for 100 years, all of this was on the legal up and up. The dispossession, though, triggered resistance, revolts, and attacks on the project. McDonald, though, eventually gave up and handed the railroad off to the National Bank of Haiti, which was now, as we know, owned and operated by the United States.
Meanwhile, the Haitian national government itself was just failing. Between 1911 and 1915, seven different men served as president. Every one of them was quickly overthrown by a rival leader and then wound up either dead or on the boat to Kingston. And through each one of them, the Americans continued to pressure for more concessions and hinting darkly that it might be time to hand over control of the custom houses to responsible agents of the American government. And in fact, it was that pressure that helped destabilize each successive regime. Any president looking like he was about to give in to the Americans would be overthrown by populist insurgents. And any president who looked like he was about to stand up to the Americans quickly found rivals receiving American support.
In the midst of all this, a marine unit disembarked in Port-au-Prince in December 1914, walked into the National Bank of Haiti and removed $500,000 worth of gold deemed by American creditors to be no longer safe in Haitian hands. But since the bank was owned by Americans, this is not technically theft, right? Right. So the Americans then twisted the knife. The National Bank of Haiti would withhold all cash and loans from the Haitian government until they made the very sensible decision to open the country up to direct US investment. The last straw finally broke in July of 1915. On July 27, 1915, the last preoccupation president of Haiti, Jean Guillaume Sam, tried to clamp down on domestic opposition to his just months old rule, by executing 167 political enemies and Port-au-Prince. Every one of those executed victims came from a prominent Haitian family, and the streets erupted in rage. Sam fled to the French embassy for protection, but a gang pushed their way in, beat him unconscious, and then threw his limp body into the streets, where he was torn to pieces by the mob.
The administration of Woodrow Wilson, who was now president of the United States and a great defender of democracy, the little guy and the right to national self determination, took the grisly murder of President Sam as the pretext the Americans needed to move in. On July 28, 1915, that is one day later, in case you’re wondering if these guys were just sitting around waiting for a pretext to invade, an American warship steamed into Port-au-Prince and offloaded a company of marines. The marines faced no resistance from the population, but no jolly welcome parties either. After securing Port-au-Prince, the marines went round and occupied each coastal city in turn, targeting especially the seizure and occupation of the customs houses. Between the National Bank of Haiti and the customs houses, the United States now controlled the finances of Haiti. The admiral in charge of the occupation then dug up a compliant puppet to serve as Haiti’s new president and dictated a convention that would technically be signed as a treaty between two sovereign powers, but which put Haiti under American administration. This administration would be run by a receiver general and a financial counselor who basically had unlimited authority to do whatever they wanted. Through a mix of carrots and sticks, the US induced the Haitian Senate to ratify the convention in November 1915.
Now, most of the Haitian army recognized that they were no match for the United States Marines and did not attempt to resist. But the commander down in Léogâne, a guy named Charlemagne Péralte, blocked the Marines’ approach to his city, and he refused to stand down. But this was, for now, just a gesture of protest. When he was fired for insubordination, Péralte quietly went home. For now. Out in the rural areas, though, the irregular Cacos resisted the American invasion, and a brief flurry of guerrilla attacks met the Marines as they started to move inland. The first wave of resistance ended in November, though, just as the convention was being signed.
As I mentioned last week, one of the old forts built by Dessalines up in the northern mountains finally got some use, as a band of about 200 Cacos occupied it. But a small marine detachment led by Major Smedley Butler infiltrated the fort and took it without losing a single man.
Now, unfortunately, I don’t have time to wander off on a tangent about Smedley Butler, but if you’re bored one day, google Smedley Butler. S-M-E-D-L-E-Y. Butler. B-U-T-L-E-R. You can narrow the search by including such terms as ‘war is a racket’ and ‘gangster for capitalism’. And when you’re done, you can move on to ‘business plot’. Have fun.
After taking control of Haiti, the Marines then wanted to build a network of modern roads to make their occupation more efficient, but amazingly could not find Haitian peasants who wanted to do the work. So the occupation authorities dusted off a law that had been on the book since 1864 that legalized corvette labor. Remember corvette labor from the very beginning of the French revolution? We talked about it way back in Episode 3.2. It was one of the most hated of all the feudal obligations, where local lords could compel peasants to work on public projects without pay or compensation. Apparently, not realizing that this law had never actually been used, the Marines just started conscripting Haitians to build roads for free under armed guard. So the Haitians were not just being paranoid when they said that the arrival of any foreign power would lead directly to re-enslavement.
Mostly what the Americans wanted, though, was to end the ban on foreign ownership. But they found that even their willing collaborators in the Haitian government did not want to give up this all important clause. The puppet president tried to outflank opposition in the Senate by calling for a new election in early 1917, only to find the election brought in even more opposition. The new Senate refused to even consider lifting the ban. So Major Smedley Butler led a unit of marines into the legislature and dispersed them at gunpoint. Viva democracy!
With the legislature dissolved, the Americans then proposed a new approach. Experts in Washington would draft a new constitution for Haiti and submit it as a public referendum. This new constitution would obviously drop the ban on foreign ownership, but it would also indemnify the Marines and any Haitian collaborators from criminal prosecution. And it also put all domestic power in the hands of the president, who would have the sole power to call for new legislative elections. The subsequent referendum vote was a complete farce. OK, check this out. For starters, the election was run by armed American Marines. Then, to deal with the fact that most of the population was illiterate, a white card dropped into the ballot box would be a yes vote and a black card would be a no vote. But you see, only the white cards were put out on the table. To be picked up, you had to ask for the black card from the armed Marine who kept them in a little box under the table. So just shy of a hundred thousand people voted on the new constitution, which was about 5% of a population that now numbered about 2 million. The final tally: 98,294 yes to 769 no. Viva democracy!
Now, while this was all unfolding politically, the Americans were also totally reorganizing the Haitian military. The essence of it was to keep the rank and file soldiers in place, but replace all the officers with US Marines. This reorganized force was called the Gendarmerie, which is just a French name for an armed police force. The creation of this Gendarmerie, though, was important, not just as a tool to maintain the occupation, but it also fundamentally undid the old balance between Port-au-Prince in the outer districts and the rural urban split. Essentially, the Gendarmerie commanders took their orders from the central occupation authorities in Port-au-Prince without connection to or reliance on the local population they monitored. When the occupation ended, this centralized police state structure remained intact, with Haitian officers simply stepping back in to replace the departing Marines. This new military police model would, for the first time, make nationwide tyranny a real possibility.
But the creation of the Gendarmerie created as many problems as it solved. Those displaced Haitian officers obviously weren’t happy about any of this. And in October 1917, Charlemagne Péralte, the man who had been fired for standing his ground in Léogâne, was arrested on suspicion of fomenting revolt. Then, in September 1918, Péralte escaped from prison and did go into open revolt. Organizing the dissident Haitian officers and various Caco fighters in the north, Péralte started a true insurrectionary uprising, finding tons of new recruits amongst the totally ticked off corvette laborers. And as these things always go, the American Marines had no good way to tell insurgent combatant from peasant non combatant. And so their counter insurgency tactics became reckless and indiscriminate. Summary executions would often follow flimsy accusations. Entire villages would be burned on suspicion of aiding the rebels. The Americans also introduced the latest in military technology, using planes to drop bombs on suspected rebel hideouts, which were often just rural villages. This obviously created the same vicious cycle that the Leclerc Expedition ran into, where yesterday’s civilian becomes tomorrow’s insurgent after today’s atrocity. And the thing is, it’s not like every Haitian supported the insurgency. The rebel units usually acquired supplies by raiding and stealing from peaceful communities, strong-arming the population into supplying them. But most of those rural communities wound up hating the Americans more because of all this recklessly, indiscriminate repression.
Unable to defeat the insurgency, the Americans decided to cut the head off the snake. Two Marines and a local Haitian collaborator conspired to draw Péralte into a trap. They staged a fake battle where the collaborator was allowed to beat the Marines. Impressed, Péralte brought this guy into his inner circle. The collaborator then tipped off the two Marines about the location of Péralte’s house. The Marines snuck in one night and shot the rebel general dead. For this, they each received the Medal of Honor. Péralte’s body was then famously photographed, and copies of the pictures were dropped from planes all over Haiti to prove that the rebel chief was, in fact, dead. The active insurgency carried on for another year, but finally burned out in 1920.
The Americans occupied Haiti for the next decade. And given the state of American racial politics at the time, it should come as no surprise that many of the leaders of the occupation were crazy racist. And they wrote back home that the Haitians weren’t even children, like American negroes, the Haitians were little better than animals. The Americans tried to reintroduce large plantation economics, and up in the north, large scale sugar operations again, but the Haitians weren’t really having it. The occupation authorities concluded that this was because the population was too backward to understand modern farming techniques. But mostly we’re just back to bleep, you bleep hole. I’m not going to do it.
So all in all, it’s safe to say that the occupation of Haiti was wildly unpopular in Haiti. And during the occupation, tens of thousands of Haitians migrated out of the country, usually either across the island to the Dominican Republic or across the water to Cuba, only to find the US Marines were there too, and the only work to be done was on large scale industrial plantations. There was just no escaping it.
But all of this was becoming unpopular in the United States, too. In the wake of World War I, the interventionist-minded Roosevelt Corollary was giving way to a more isolationist sentiment in the United States. And in the 1920 election, part of the successful Republican platform was ending all these Caribbean occupations. Republican presidential candidate Warren Harding specifically cited the moral horror that was the rape of Haiti. So the final occupation in Cuba came to an end in 1922. The occupation of the Dominican Republic ended in 1924. The last incursion into Honduras also came in 1924. And by the end of the 1920s, American public opinion had turned decisively against international occupations. When Franklin Roosevelt was swept into office in 1932, he brought with him a rebuke of his famous cousin’s corollary that he called the good neighbor policy, which is just as friendly as it sounds. The occupation of Nicaragua then ended in 1932, and then finally, in 1934, the United States pulled out of Haiti.
But by the time Franklin Roosevelt came to power, though, the occupation in Haiti was already winding down. An anti-American demonstration in Les Cayes in December 1929 got out of hand, and the Marines wound up firing on a crowd, killing a dozen or more people. After this, the Americans clearly lost their taste for the occupation, and in 1930, the first elections in 15 years were held. And this time, the Marines were ordered to stay in their barracks. But though anti-occupation leaders naturally swept these elections, they did lay the groundwork for the continuation of American business in the country, even after the American Marines pulled out, offering, for example, a monopoly on banana export to standard fruit. The constitution written by the Americans was replaced in 1932 by a new constitution that returned Haiti to its standard form of president, Senate, and chamber of deputies. But critically, the ban on foreign ownership was not brought back. So even as the last of the Marines pulled out in 1934, American business interests stayed behind.
But unfortunately, the aftermath of all these American occupations led to an era of ruthless dictatorships throughout the Caribbean. This was the era that saw the rise of, among others, Batista in Cuba, Somoza in Nicaragua, and then over in the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, who came to power in 1930 and would stay in power until he was assassinated in 1961. Trujillo was particularly ruthless, and he developed a tightly controlled military dictatorship that employed modern methods of fascist propaganda to create a cult of personality that would soon be emulated in Haiti’s own coming dictatorial nightmare run by Papa Doc Duvalier.
Trujillo’s atrocities intersected with the history of Haiti directly in 1937. After reaching a seemingly innocuous treaty with the Haitians, firmly establishing the border between the two countries, Trujillo went home and said that he intended to purge all Haitians who had happened to have migrated to his side of the island. But this was not about forcing them to return home. Trujillo sent his armed forces up into the borderlands. They closed the border and then proceeded to systematically massacre every Haitian they found. In English, this is called the Parsley massacre. Now, the number remains hotly disputed to this day, but anywhere from 1000 to 10,000 people were killed in just a few days over October 1937.
Now, this particular massacre though, was more or less swept under the rug. And like a good neighbor, the United States helped broker a small restitution payment by Trujillo to the Haitians, where nobody really admitted what had just happened. And unfortunately, in a few years, the Haitians would have their own far greater horrors to contend with.
Now, though, the United States had pulled out of Haiti, the two presidents who ran the country from 1930 to 1946 were both drawn from the colored elite, and they maintained strong ties to the United States. During World War II, Haiti declared war on the Axis and tried to make itself an indispensable source of rubber for the Allies. But the plan to turn Haiti into a rubber factory failed both economically and socially. Like the McDonald railroad contract, forced dispossession of the world poor to make way for rubber plantations caused unrest and havoc. And once the war ended, the market for rubber dried up anyway. Then, in the summer of 1946, another little revolutionary upswing took hold. Student-led demonstrations ousted the US backed government and brought a black leader into power for the first time since before the US occupation. This guy’s name was Dumarsais Estimé. But unlike previous revolutionary youth movements, these new guys were not fired up by classical liberalism, but rather left wing communist ideology. They were part of a wider pan American rise of leftist opposition to the capitalist imperialism of the United States that was turning all their governments into stooges of the damn Yankee bankers.
But this new left leaning black government of Estimé ran into the double problem of the country being too broke to deliver on any of its social promises, and the all powerful United States hunkering down for the Cold War and thus not having any interest in helping out a bunch of radical leftists in Haiti. Attacked from the right for being too far to the left and from the left for being too far to the right, Estimé soon lost favor and abdicated in 1950, giving way to a general named Paul Magloire, who immediately reversed course and secured favorable treatment from the US by running a stridently anti-communist regime. When Magloire then tried to extend his term of office beyond its constitutional limit in 1956, his opponents united to drive him out of office.
Now, after this, it looked like the presidency was either going to go to Louis Déjoie, representing the wealthy colored elite, or a massively popular leftist labor leader and former math teacher named Daniel Fignolé. But instead, luck, cunning, and violence brought in dark horse candidate François Duvalier to power. François Duvalier was a medical doctor by training and a member of a black nationalist intellectual movement that had emerged during and after the US occupation. His main claim to fame before becoming president was the leading role he had played in a UN relief effort to wipe out a particular tropical skin disease, which earned him international acclaim and lots of support in the rural areas where he had worked, hence his nickname, Papa Doc Duvalier. But Duvalier was not a nice guy, and he had zero political scruples. He saw an opportunity to seize the presidency in the chaotic 1957 election, and he took it. But he didn’t do it with speeches and promises. Instead, he organized these anonymous armed gangs called the Masks, because they wore masks to intimidate, assault, and kill Duvalier’s opponents. After left wing Daniel Fignolé was exiled from the country by his rightwing opponents in the military, Duvalier shoved his way in and with the help of his masked thugs, won the election in September 1957. After his inauguration, Duvalier wasted no time cloaking himself in a mystical cult of personality that soon had him claiming to be the living personification of Haiti and stoking rumors that he might actually have Voodoo power.
But Duvalier didn’t have any Voodoo power. He just had a brand of political terrorism that made him one of the most infamous dictators in history. Once in power, he reorganized the government to make it purely authoritarian and then reorganized the Masks, turning them into a private police force that was officially called the National Security Volunteers, but which everyone else called the Tonton Macoute, after a particularly scary Voodoo monster who devoured children. During Duvalier’s reign, the Tonton Macoute embarked on a campaign of deliberately random terror. Abducting, killing, raping, vandalizing, all without warning and often for no real reason. Duvalier also secured for himself the power to suspend civil rights any time he declared a state of siege, which he would randomly declare whenever he wanted. In 1961, Duvalier then staged a referendum to extend his presidential term to 1967, using the trick that the Marines had once used. You had to tell the armed Tonton Macoute which ballot you wanted, the yes ballot or the no ballot, and nobody asked for the no ballot.
Now, ironically, the Kennedy administration was so incensed by this that they cut off aid and withdrew the American ambassador, even though this was literally from the manual of the US occupation, not 40 years old. But Duvalier got back into American good graces by embracing an anti-communist front, and anyone even remotely left wing were prime targets for the Tonton Macoute. But all this terror did not fully clamp down on opposition, and the usual round of rural insurrections broke out during Duvalier’s reign and plagued him as much as they had plagued any Haitian president. Believing that the Dominicans were aiding these rebels, Duvalier burned a huge line along the border and ordered his men to kill anyone who stepped foot in the no man’s land. Then another insurrection, led by American educated and trained guerrillas, started down in the south in 1963, but was quickly crushed.
The following year, Duvalier then held another public referendum, this time to make him president for life. And for this election, he dispensed with all democratic pretensions. Only one preprinted yes ballot was issued. Your job as a voter was to pick it up and drop it in the ballot box. From a population now numbering about 3.8 million, Duvalier claimed in this way 2.8 million yes votes. Though, a few thousand defaced ballots with the word no scribbled on it did show up.
Now, life for everyday Haitians during the Duvalier era was very difficult. The rural population struggled from long neglect and unsustainable environmental degradation. As the population grew, the interior mountains just stayed put, forcing people to clear steeper and steeper grades of land or overtax what little land they had, leaving the soil severely depleted. But the really big problem now was deforestation.
Deforestation had been a threat for a long time, especially as the easy cash to be made from exporting firewood had made logging an easy business to get into. I didn’t mention this, but on Dessalines’s final tour of the south, right before he was assassinated, he was actually cracking down on the illegal exportation of firewood. But even as late as the American occupation, probably two thirds of Haiti’s natural forests were still intact. But after World War II, everything hit critical mass. Hurricane Hazel came through in 1954 and dealt a debilitating blow to the forest, and it was kind of all downhill from there. And by this point, it wasn’t even primarily because of overexportation, because Haiti’s chief source of fuel was and remains, charcoal. So as the population grew and grew and grew, more trees had to be cut down. And if you Google a map of Haiti right now, today, you can literally see the problem. Something like 98% of the indigenous forests have now been wiped out, leading to mass soil erosion, mineral depletion, and regular unstoppable flooding.
So during the Duvalier era, the hard pressed rural population had to either move to the cities in search of work contributing to the mass overcrowding of Port-au-Prince, or seasonally migrate over to the Dominican Republic factory farms. But to get there, they had to buy a work permit from the government, and then the Dominican plantation owners had to match that fee. This all created a huge slush fund for Duvalier, who was now basically leasing his people to the Dominican Republic.
Meanwhile, the urban centers were now kept under close watch for any seditious activity, leading almost every educated professional to find an opportune moment to pack up and leave the country. Something like four fifths of the educated professionals and their families abandoned Haiti during the Duvalier era. And this is not good if you’re trying to maintain some kind of stable and functioning economy. And this is to say nothing of the now tens of thousands of rural and urban poor who also fled the country, becoming the so-called boat people that Americans saw on the evening news a lot in the 1970s and 1980s. And what is now called the Haitian diaspora, by the time Baby Doc Duvalier was overthrown in 1986, roughly 1 million Haitians had left the country. And while I’m here doing some numbers, I should also mention that it’s reckoned that somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 people were either killed or just vanished by the Tonton Macoute during Duvalier’s reign.
By 1971, Papa Doc Duvalier’s health was failing, and so he held yet another referendum on the right of his 19 year old son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, to succeed him as president for life. I don’t even think that there were ballots for this one. It was just unanimous approval. Then just a few months later, in April 1971, Papa Doc Duvalier died – a useless piece of garbage if ever there was one. He brought with him nothing but murder and terror. He did nothing for his people but wreck an already poor country even more than it had already been wrecked. His son, soon dubbed Baby Doc Duvalier, was not much better, though the worst heat of the terror seemed to have been replaced by a low, constant flame of repressive political tactics. Though the Tonton Macoute were as omnipresent and horrible as ever. Their ranks had swollen to include 300,000, and they were eating up two thirds of the annual national budget.
Baby Doc Duvalier, though, was little more than a pampered playboy, who had been just seven years old when his father had seized power and had grown up a prince, living fat on the profits from the government’s, that is the Duvalier family’s, monopoly on tobacco exports. But the Duvalier family anti-communism kept them inoculated from US pressures to reform, and American business interests moved into Port-au-Prince, using cheap labor to manufacture all kinds of consumer products for American consumption, including, and I did not know this, every single baseball used in Major League Baseball between 1977 and 1990. Rawlings had a factory in Port-au-Prince when they became the official baseball supplier in 1977, and that factory would remain there for 13 years before relocating to Costa Rica in 1990, citing political instability. And I can’t really say that I blame them.
So Baby Doc finally came under some pressure to ease up on the tyranny when notorious do-gooder Jimmy Carter was elected president. In the late 1970s were a little tiny flowering of openness that was violently shut again in 1981 when President Reagan replaced Carter. And once again, the Duvalier family anti-communism took precedence in American foreign policy calculations.
But eventually, the toll of nearly 30 years of brutal dictatorship finally brought the Duvaliers down. A swine flu epidemic in the early 1980s was countered by the mass slaughter of every pig in the country, which turned out to be one of those the-cure-is-worse-than-the-disease things. And by then, the AIDS epidemic was beginning to take hold, and nobody knew what it was or how to stop it. Protests and demonstrations in the mid-1980s finally peaked in 1986, leading to violent reprisals by the Tonton Macoute. But this time, the reprisals opened the floodgates of public rage instead of shutting it all down. Overwhelmed, Baby Doc Duvalier tried to hang on, but everyone in the country now wanted him gone. Even the Reagan administration told him, “Yeah, it’s time for you to go”. The US air Force was kind enough to fly him off to exile in Paris, though, where he would soon lose all his ill gotten wealth to a bitter divorce proceedings and then live in modest exile for the next 25 years, fending off periodic attempts by the French to get rid of him. He would, for some reason, then return to Haiti in 2011, whereupon Duvalier was arrested for corruption, and he was still waiting to be brought to trial when he died of a heart attack in October 2014. Good riddance.
So that brings us up more or less to contemporary Haiti, where the history is almost too recent to objectively analyze, though one guy does stand out as the dominant personality, and that’s Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Aristide was born and raised during the Duvalier era, went to seminary and was ordained a priest in 1982 and he brought with him to the pulpit liberation theology, which actively promoted social justice and a defense of the poor against the exploitation of rich and powerful elites. So naturally, Aristide quickly ran into trouble with the Duvalier regime and was forced into a three year exile that he spent mostly in Montreal. But with anti-Duvalier sentiment spreading, Aristide returned to Haiti in 1985 and gave a famous mass during Easter week that helped galvanize the opposition.
But when Baby Doc was finally driven into exile in 1986, power first passed into the hands of a provisional council of government composed of three civilians and three military leaders who oversaw the first supposedly free election since the Duvaliers had come to power. But what followed then was a quick run of coups and counter coups. The guy elected president in January 1988 got into it with the head of the army about who really controlled the officer corps, and the head of the army proved his point by deposing the new president in a coup. Meanwhile, in the background of all this, the old Duvalier loyalists and senior leaders of the Tonton Macoute were still just hanging around and eyeing their own return to power. In July, a land reform movement started up in the north that was opposed by one of the huge landowners in the region. The military government endorsed this guy’s right to keep all of his land and do with it as he saw fit, and with this blessing in hand, use paramilitary forces, mostly old Tonton Maccoute, to attack the land reform activists on July 23, 1988, killing at least 140 and probably more than that.
As this was unfolding, Aristide was busy dodging multiple assassination attempts and continuing to rail against the old tyrannical powers that still seem to rule Haiti, even though the Duvaliers were now gone. And he wasn’t wrong. On September 11, 1988, Aristide was set to give mass to 1000 parishioners in the poor Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Saint-Jean when a group of about 100 old Tonton Macoute pushed their way in and opened fire with machine guns. When the crowd broke up in panic, these guys then let fly with the machetes. And while Aristide himself escaped, at least a dozen people were killed and close to 100 injured, and the church burned to the ground. And then the perpetrators of all this, called now the Saint-Jean massacre, were allowed to go on TV and not just defend what they had done, but promise even more blood if Aristide ever gave another mass.
In response to this, a group of young non commissioned officers staged a coup of their own on September 29, 1988. They said it was to bring honor back to Haiti, but then they handed power off to General Prosper Avril. The irony here is that Avril was himself an old inner circle member of the Duvalier regime. He was, in fact, their principal agent for foreign affairs, and when he came to power, he did not restore the honor of Haiti so much as bring back the Duvaliers, without the Duvaliers. He ruled for three years, and in that time pretty brazenly executed and tortured his political opponents into submission. By 1990, Avril ran out of steam, and he was tossed out after a wave of street protests in Port-au-Prince. An interim government then oversaw the first really free and open election in Haitian history. And in late 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide won in a walk with 67% of the vote. But since this is Haiti, there are no happy endings.
Aristide embarked on a program of widespread reform that, among other things, tried to investigate all the atrocities committed by the Tonton Macoute and then shut down the massive amount of cocaine being funneled through the country from Colombia with the help and protection of senior Haitian military and political leaders. And since we’re now basically in current events rather than history, it’s hard to, for example, assess how deeply the CIA was involved in the Haitian cocaine trade. But for sure, after the fall of Baby Doc Duvallier, the CIA helped organize, train, and partially fund a new intelligence service for Haiti called the SIN. This new intelligence service was trained for work and counternarcotics, but then all those same guys turn up on a list of all the chief narcotics traffickers in Haiti, including the chief of the Port-au-Prince police force.
Many of these principal players then got together in September 1991 and staged a coup that drove Aristide out of the country. The presumption being that he was probably about to crack down on their activities. These guys then set up a little military regime that was not recognized by the rest of the world. And the Americans responded by embargoing Haiti, which had the rotten side effect of throwing tens of thousands of Port-au-Prince factory workers out on the streets. Rawlings had already packed up and left the year before.
In 1994, President Clinton then secured a UN resolution to support ‘Operation: Uphold Democracy’ to put the democratically elected Aristide back in power. The US armed forces started mustering to go in. And a little three man commission of ex-President Jimmy Carter, ex-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell, and Senator Sam Nunn talked the little narco military regime into giving up rather than face the full brunt of a US invasion. With this regime headed into exile, the United States once again sent its military forces in to occupy Haiti, this time restoring Aristide to power. The following year, the restored Aristide then took the huge step, and I’m not really sure how he managed to pull this off, of just straight up disbanding the Haitian army, converting its disbanded pieces into a domestic police force on the one hand, and a coast guard on the other. The army that had been so instrumental in dictating the course of Haitian history and not always, like for the better, was now no more. It’s still no more. Haiti right now, today does not have an army. So, happy ending for Haiti, right?
Aristide was succeeded in 1996 by a longtime ally named René Préval, who had himself been a part of the Haitian diaspora during the Duvalier era. And though he and Aristide had a falling out over Préval’s willingness to privatize various government services in an attempt on the one hand, to improve the economy, and on the other, to satisfy Haiti’s international creditors. But their falling out wasn’t so bad because in the year 2000, Aristide’s new political party won the election, and power was successfully transferred from Préval to Aristide, which, as you may have noticed, like never happens in the history of Haitian politics.
Now, there were some irregularities in the 2000 election, but nothing that came close to the stuff that we’ve already talked about here today. It was during his second term as president that Aristide then started beating the drum that the French really ought to pay Haiti back for the indemnity that had so crippled the country back in the 19th century. Aristide put the bill at $21 billion. And this may come as a shock, but France isn’t interested in paying it back.
But as had happened with his first term in office, Aristide did not make it through his second term. In 2004, a prominent gang leader was assassinated, and his family blamed Aristide, so they changed the name of their gang from the Cannibal Army to the National Revolutionary Front and organized all of Aristide’s enemies against him. These guys seized Gonaïves and then Le Cap, and then as their forces marched south, heavy pressure was brought to bear on Aristide to resign before a bloodbath commenced. So Aristide signed a vague letter of resignation and got on an American plane that flew him off to the Central African Republic, and eventually he would settle into exile in South Africa.
But he soon began claiming that he had done none of this willingly, that he had been basically kidnapped by the Americans who wanted him out of the way. And the Americans said, “No, that is a lie. You got on the plane willingly and you know it.” I have literally no position on this. I’m just telling you that this is what the two sides are saying.
So now we’re practically right on top of events. In 2006, a kind of/mostly/pretty good election brought René Préval back to power. And so he’s the guy who got to deal with the string of disasters that we’re going to wrap all of this up with. In 2008, world grain prices shot through the roof, and there were food riots in Port-au-Prince. And then this was followed by the really, really big blow. On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7 earthquake hit about 16 miles west of Port-au-Prince. The overcrowded metro area of the capital now numbered some 2 million. And most of these people were living in structures that could not hope to stand up to repeated wacks with a baseball bat, let alone a magnitude 7 earthquake. And this is to say nothing of the long neglected infrastructure of Haiti, which was just destroyed. Roads, bridges, hospitals, phone lines, water, sanitation – everything was just wiped out. From the poorest, shanty towns to the presidential palace, the destruction in Haiti was vast and deadly. And since the infrastructure was wiped out, it was also nearly impossible for anyone to help anyone else. The final death toll was put at a low of 50,000, with a high of 300,000, and at least 1.5 million people displaced. The country is still not even close to recovering from this disaster, which was then exacerbated by a cholera outbreak. Which we’ve just recently found out is very likely linked to unsanitary conditions at a UN aid station near one of the principal watersheds during the recovery efforts. And since I just read about that a couple of days ago, that seems like a pretty good moment to end the history of Haiti.
So today, Haiti is, as everyone is contractually obligated to point out when talking about Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. They got there through a mix of the world screwing them over a lot, their own political and economic mistakes and then environmental catastrophes caused both by God and their own hands. But they will never not be the country that was born from the only successful slave uprising in the history of the world. But they had been created by a group of men and women who would not be slaves anymore, who beat back every major world power who tried to come in and tell them how it was going to be. The history of Haiti is not pretty and Haiti is not in great shape right now. But I’m proud to know them, proud to know their history and proud to have shared it here with you over the course of this series. And I hope that from now on, whenever you encounter news about Haiti, you feel a better connection to the country and understand them a little better, because they deserve to be more to us than just the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. They were once the avengers of the New World.
Now I’ll end this all by turning the clock back all the way to 1815. President Alexandre Pétion was told that a freedom fighter from the Spanish Main had failed in his most recent attempt to win independence from the Spanish empire and that he and his companions had landed in Les Cayes on Christmas Eve 1815. Pétion gladly welcomed this dashing 32 year old colonial aristocrat to Port-au-Prince, and over repeated meetings, the two men became friends. They shared a Republican vision for the Americas that would one day see them all free of European tyranny. To help the would-be liberator of Spanish America return home to continue the fight, Pétion gave him and his companions seven fully crude ships, 1000 guns and 30,000 pounds of gunpowder. It would not be enough to win, but it would be enough to continue the fight. And of course, you’ve known since I started telling you this story that dashing freedom fighter down on his luck was Simón Bolívar, who did indeed return home and continue the fight, thanks to timely aid from the Republic of Haiti. And when the Revolutions podcast returns on June 5, I am going to tell you all about it.
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