In September 1994, the United States was about to invade Haiti.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the country’s first democratically elected president, had been deposed in a military coup three years earlier. Haiti had sunk into chaos. Gangs and paramilitaries terrorized the population by taking hostages, assassinating dissidents and burning crops. International embargoes had strangled the economy and tens of thousands of people were trying to migrate to America.
But just days before the first American troops landed in Haiti, Joseph R. Biden Jr., then a senator on the Foreign Affairs Committee, spoke out against military intervention. He argued that the United States had more urgent crises – including ethnic cleansing in Bosnia – and that Haiti was not particularly important to American interests.
“I think that’s probably not wise,” Biden said of the planned invasion in an interview with TV host Charlie Rose.
He added: “If Haiti – a horrible thing to say – if Haiti sank quietly into the Caribbean or rose 300 feet, it wouldn’t matter much in terms of our interest.
Despite Mr. Biden’s apprehension, the invasion continued and the Haitian military junta surrendered within hours. Mr. Aristide was quickly restored to power and the Clinton administration began deporting thousands of Haitians.
Almost a decade later, Haiti’s constitutional order would collapse again, prompting another US military intervention, more migrants and more deportations. As rebels threatened to invade the capital in 2004, Mr. Aristide resigned under pressure from US officials. A provisional government was formed with American support. The violence and unrest continued.
This cycle of crisis and US intervention in Haiti – punctuated by periods of relative calm but little improvement in the lives of most people – has persisted to this day. Since July, a presidential assassination, an earthquake and a tropical storm have compounded the turmoil.
Mr. Biden, now president, is overseeing yet another intervention in Haiti’s political affairs, one that critics say follows an old Washington playbook: supporting Haitian leaders accused of authoritarian rule, either because they defend American interests, or because American officials fear the instability of a power transition.
Making sense of American policy in Haiti over the decades – motivated at times by economic interests, Cold War strategy, and migration concerns – is essential to understanding Haiti’s political instability, and why it remains the country. poorest in the Western Hemisphere, even after an infusion of more than $ 5 billion in U.S. aid in the past decade alone.
A bloody history of American influence looms, and a century of American efforts to stabilize and develop the country ultimately ended in failure.
The American occupation (1915-34)
The policy of slavery and racial prejudice were key factors in America’s hostility towards Haiti. After the Haitian Revolution, Thomas Jefferson and many members of Congress feared that the newly founded black republic would spread slave revolts in the United States.
For decades, the United States refused to officially recognize Haiti’s independence from France and at times attempted to annex Haitian territory and conduct diplomacy through threats.
It is in this context that Haiti has become increasingly unstable. The country had seven presidents between 1911 and 1915, all of whom were assassinated or removed from office. Haiti was heavily in debt, and Citibank – then the National City Bank of New York – – and other U.S. banks confiscated much of Haiti’s gold reserves during this period with help from the U.S. Marines.
Roger L. Farnham, who managed the assets of the National City Bank in Haiti, then lobbied President Woodrow Wilson for military intervention to stabilize the country and force the Haitian government to pay its debts, convincing the president that France or Germany could invade if America didn’t. .
The military occupation that followed remains one of the darkest chapters of American policy in the Caribbean. The United States installed a puppet regime that rewrote Haiti’s constitution and gave America control of the country’s finances. Forced labor was used for construction and other work to pay off debts. Thousands of people have been killed by the US Marines.
The occupation ended in 1934 under the good neighbor policy of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As the last Marines left Haiti, riots broke out in Port-au-Prince, the capital. Bridges were destroyed, telephone lines were cut, and the new president declared martial law and suspended the constitution. The United States did not completely relinquish control of Haiti’s finances until 1947.
Even after the United States grew weary of Duvalier’s brutality and unstable leadership, President John F. Kennedy opposed a plot to impeach him and demand free elections. When Duvalier died nearly a decade later, the United States supported his son’s estate. By 1986, the United States had spent an estimated $ 900 million to support the Duvalier dynasty as Haiti sank deeper into poverty and corruption.
At crucial moments in Haiti’s democratic era, the United States stepped in to pick winners and losers – fearing political instability and waves of Haitian migration.
After Mr. Aristide was ousted in 1991, the US military relocated him. He resigned in disgrace less than a decade later, but only after U.S. diplomats urged him to do so. According to reports at the time, the administration of George W. Bush had undermined Mr. Aristide’s government in the years leading up to his resignation.
François Pierre-Louis is professor of political science at Queens College in New York who was part of Mr. Aristide’s cabinet and advised former Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis. Haitians are often wary of US involvement in their affairs, he said, but always take signals from US officials seriously because of the country’s long history of influence in Haitian politics.
For example, after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, US and international diplomats pressured Haiti to hold elections that year despite the devastation. The vote was disastrously mismanaged, and international observers and many Haitians considered the results illegitimate.
Responding to allegations of electoral fraud, US diplomats insisted that a candidate in the second round of the presidential election be replaced by a candidate who received fewer votes, at one point threatening to withhold aid to the conflict. Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, confronted then President René Préval about the ballot box of Michel Martelly, the preferred candidate of the United States. Mr. Martelly won this election in a landslide.
A direct line of succession can be drawn from this election to the current crisis in Haiti.
Mr. Martelly endorsed Jovenel Moïse as his successor. Mr. Moses, elected in 2016, ruled by executive order and turned to authoritarian tactics with the tacit approval of the Trump and Biden administrations.
Mr Moïse appointed Ariel Henry as interim prime minister earlier this year. Then on July 7, Mr. Moïse was assassinated.
Mr Henry has been accused of being linked to the assassination plot, and internal political struggles that had died down after international diplomats approved his claim to power have resumed. Mr. Martelly, who had quarreled with Mr. Moïse over commercial interests, is considering another presidential candidacy.
Robert Maguire, a Haitian scholar and retired professor of international affairs at George Washington University, said the instinct in Washington to support members of the Haitian political elite who appeared allied with American interests was old, with a history of failure.
Another approach may be more successful, according to Mr. Maguire and other academics, Democratic lawmakers and a former US envoy for politics in Haiti. They say the United States should support a popular commission of civic leaders, who are making plans for a new interim government in Haiti.
This process, however, could take years.