Haiti: A Case History

by , March 04, 2004

There’s no new column this Friday because of a wonderful event in San Francisco: the opening (or, rather, re-opening) of the movie version of We, The Living, Ayn Rand’s first novel. This is quite simply the greatest movie ever made. Period. Somehow, some way, the stylized world-as-it-might’ve-been and should have been that Rand created, that enthralled me as a teenager – and still does – managed to get translated onto the screen, and took the form of this film.

We all need intellectual and emotional fuel, and I’m no exception. We, The Living is my fuel, so pardon me while I recharge my batteries. I’ll be back on Monday.



How many times has the U.S. “restored order” in the “republic” of Haiti? I would say none, since there never was any order to restore: only brief pauses punctuating the normal flow of chaos. The country has always been ungovernable, and will continue to be in the foreseeable future. So what, pray tell, is the point of sending in the Marines yet again?

The great problem with interventionism abroad is the same one faced by central planners on the home front: the resulting disaster always requires more intervention to “fix” the problem caused by meddling in the first place. A good example, and one that I hope will sufficiently challenge if not enrage my left-wing readers, is rent control: housing is scarce, and costly, because demand is high. The rent controllers intervene, fix prices at a certain level, further limiting the supply of available housing – and causing acute shortages. The same principle of “blowback” operates in the foreign policy realm: we intervene in the name of pursuing “American interests,” establishing “democracy,” fighting terrorism, or whatever, and the result is the exact opposite of the intended result. During the cold war era we intervened in Afghanistan, armed the Islamist Mujahideen, and essentially created a monster that would come back to bite us some 20 years later.

That the same pattern has recurred in Haiti several times over the course of the 20th century is perhaps due to its geographical proximity to the continental United States. Enveloped since its inception in a penumbra of political and financial exploitation disguised as moral and economic uplift, the nascent Haitian nation was smothered in its crib.

When President Clinton ordered 20,000 troops into Haiti to “uphold democracy” and install Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the Presidential Palace, he was trying to undo the results of decades of U.S. intervention on behalf of “Papa Doc” Duvalier, a dictator propped up by U.S. subsidies, whose style of rule was summed up by his remark that “I know the Haitian people because I am the Haitian people.” But U.S. meddling predated the Papa Doc/cold war era, with the roots of the present crisis stemming from the early part of the last century.

Haiti has, much to its misfortune, been considered our front yard since at least 1910, when the National Bank of Haiti, capitalized by the French, went broke, and the National City Bank of New York moved into the vacuum, taking over de facto administration of the Haitian treasury. U.S. railroad interests soon followed, and it wasn’t too long before a host of American business interests, including W. R. Grace Corp., lobbied President Woodrow Wilson to demand the revenue coming in from Haitian customs as repayment for the government’s debt: in effect, turning over the administration of Haiti’s independent government to the U.S.

A key mover and shaker behind this interaction of private capital and public policy was Roger L. Farnham, vice president of the National City Bank of New York, as well as Haiti’s National Bank and National Railway. Farnham held the threat of U.S. military intervention over the emerging Haitian democracy like a veritable Sword of Damocles, demanding that the custom house revenues be turned over to National City Bank, without much success – until the outbreak of World War I.

Farnham raised the specter of German influence in Haiti – a small group of German businessmen had established a tiny enclave – and this was the pretext, in 1914, for a detachment of U.S. Marines to come ashore and relieve Haiti’s National Bank of two strongboxes containing half a million dollars in Haitian currency – which was promptly transported to a New York City safe deposit box. The Haitian government was now literally the captive of the New York banks: it was a policy of annexation by financial abduction.

In 1915, Haiti went through one of its periodic eruptions of volcanic violence, when the tyrant Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was overthrown in a revolution, and Wilson intervened to make Haiti safe for democracy – and the New York banks. A 19-year occupation ensued, which even Farnham realized was a brutal and counterproductive injustice. To get some historical perspective, check out this fascinating piece from the November 9. 1921 issue of The Nation:

“How Haiti was reduced to the state of a conquered province; how the process was prepared in Washington long before intervention began; how little excuse there was for American intervention, and how little America has accomplished there apart from killing Haitians – these things have become a matter of public record, as told by the men responsible for the intervention and as revealed in the United States Navy’s secret dispatch-book, in the hearings before the Senate Commission on Haiti and Santo Domingo, Medill McCormick, chairman, these past weeks. The newspapers for some reason have been silent, but here are the facts as they have become part of the record.”

The brutality of the occupation gave rise to the Haiti-Santo Domingo Independence Society, as a direct outgrowth the Anti-Imperialist League‘s opposition to the conquest of the Philippines. The early leaders of the NAACP, as well as The Nation under Oswald Garrison Villard‘s tutelage, were the leaders of this movement, which included a significant libertarian element. What is interesting is that they took the exact opposite position of today’s liberals and African-American leaders by staunchly opposing U.S. intervention root and branch.

Reverend Jesse Jackson berates the Bush administration for not intervening early enough to save Aristide’s “democratic” thug-ocracy: the U.S., he says, “has a history of intervening on the wrong side.” He wants us to intervene on the “right side.”

Jackson, the Congressional Black Caucus, and their fellow liberal Democrats dutifully echo the Wilsonian arrogance of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who once remarked:

You know I had something to do with running a couple of little republics. The facts are that I wrote Haiti’s constitution myself and if I do say it, I think it is a pretty good constitution.”

The occasion, as Jim Zwick points out in a lucid essay on Haiti and the anti-imperialist tradition, was the election of 1920, when Roosevelt was running for vice president. It was, remarks Zwick, “one of the more notable gaffes of the campaign.”

Also a revealing one. The mentality of liberal interventionism is not, either in principle or effect, all that different from its neoconservative first cousin. It is merely a question of style, and scope. The various “humanitarian” interventions undertaken by the Clinton administration – Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Haiti, et al – were small incursions undertaken with no guiding strategic orientation other than opportunity and caprice.

The neocons, on the other hand, operate on a much grander scale, and their ideology determines a relatively narrow strategic focus on the Middle East. It is the difference between “soft” and “hard” Wilsonianism, with the former cultivating an image of genteel multilateralism and the latter leaning toward an imperious unilateralism. Whatever their other differences, however, both the Bush administration and Jesse Jackson agree that Haiti is, somehow, our responsibility.

This is true only in the sense that we are responsible for drawing the right lessons from nearly a century of failed interventionism in Haiti. How many times must we rescue that nation from incipient chaos before we realize that not even Sisyphus, who displeased the gods, was deserving of such a fate? And what sin, pray tell, have we committed?

Hubris, a sacrilegious arrogance, was considered a grave sin by the ancient Greeks, and it was often punished directly by the gods, as in the case of Sisyphus, and others. Returned to Olympus, in this, the age of pagan decadence, it could be that, with Haiti, the gods are punishing the Bush administration for its “unipolar” conceit.

I will not go into the various permutations of the current crisis, which are already breaking out and promising a long and possibly quite bloody stand-off between rival gangs loosely disguised as political factions. I will only note the call-up of fresh National Guard units to Iraq, and the prospect of another interminable and ultimately futile occupation. As a case history of the interventionist project, the story of the American attempt to implant “democracy” in Haitian soil is one of massive crop failure.

The ideologues who agitated for what they call the “liberation” of Iraq predicted “falling dominoes” throughout the Middle East as a result. It serves them right that the first domino to fall is not Syria, or Iran, but … Haiti. After the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. is the rescuer of last resort when it comes to “failed states.” Although I’m waiting for some leftist type to come up with the requisite “it’s all about oil” mantra, I’m not aware of any oil reserves to speak of in Haiti. Here is a U.S. intervention born of pure conceit.

As for the claims by Aristide and Rev. Jackson that what happened in Haiti amounted to a U.S. “coup,” I have my doubts. At any rate, the idea that Aristide was “abducted” by the U.S. military instead of being driven out by his own thuggish ex-supporters seems dubious, at best: according to Rep. Charles Rangel – hardly a Bush shill – this impression on Aristide’s part is somewhat “subjective.” To say the very least.

Not that the U.S. is above that sort of thing, God knows, but due to the somewhat stretched-to-the-limit condition of U.S. forces overseas, and Bush’s opposition to Haitian nation-building in the 2000 election, the idea of a U.S.-engineered coup seems counterintuitive. Why bother with Haiti, when this administration has so much else on its plate? No new war in ’04 – that’s what Karl Rove would like, at any rate.

But that’s just the problem with running a global empire: we don’t control events. They control us.

Read more by Justin Raimondo