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Ragtime Diplomacy

June 2024
5min read

Haiti’s current plight is grimly familiar to anyone with the least knowledge of that country’s past

Haiti is the difficult subject of this month’s discourse. As I write, the United States is attempting to reach a peaceful, noninterventionary solution to the problem created when the president elected by popular vote three years ago, Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was forcibly ousted by a group of army officers.

It’s all sadly familiar to anyone with even a slight knowledge of HaitianU.S. relations in this century, though the problems used to be “easier” because the solutions were always onesided. I can best illustrate what I mean by saying that my own immediate freeassociation response to the word Haiti is “Franklin D. Roosevelt.” For years I believed a statement he once made that as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1916 he had written Haiti’s constitution— “a pretty darned good one if I say so myself.” It turns out that he was not telling the strict truth. But he could have been, and the “joke” itself speaks volumes about what Americans once thought and did where the Caribbean was concerned.

Haiti was much on the mind of Woodrow Wilson in 1915. Independent since 1804 after a slave uprising against French rulers, the country was beautiful, undeveloped, and very poor. Its two million-plus citizens . were mostly black peasants, more or less governed by a French-speaking, predominantly mulatto elite of high cultivation and low incomes. Its government was chronically in debt, mainly to a national bank owned by French, German, and American investors, and there was always the worry that France or Germany might use defaulted payments as an excuse to occupy the little republic. Wilson’s State Department hoped to put in place a “customs receivership” such as had existed for some years in next-door Santo Domingo, whereby an American agent collected the government’s receipts and reimbursed its creditors. This also squared with Wilson’s paternalistic feeling that under U.S. tutelage the peoples of Central America and the Caribbean could be taught to elect good men and so eventually to need no further policing.

Haiti was not, according to WiIsonian standards, electing good men in January of 1915, when Rear Adm. William B. Caperton, commander of the Atlantic Fleet’s cruiser squadron, received orders to take his flagship, USS Washington , to Cap-Haïtien on the north coast. The mission was to protect foreign lives and property during Haiti’s fifth revolution in four years. These had become almost choreographed and expected procedures for transferring power. An aspiring candidate with the means would hire several hundred or more cacos —peasant mercenaries—armed with swords, knives, pistols, and muskets. If the cacos could take Cap-Haïtien, the revolutionary leader would proclaim himself Chief of the Executive Power. If they continued a successful march southward to Port-au-Prince, then by common consent the capital was yielded without a fight. Then the Haitian Congress was convened and formally elected the rebel chief as president.

The 1915 revolutionist, already in control of Cap-Haïtien, was Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, described by Caperton after an interview as “a very gorgeous black gentleman arrayed like a head bellhop at the Waldorf.” Caperton readily extracted from him a promise neither to loot nor to burn the town and sailed away. In a few weeks, as expected, Guillaume Sam became the new president. The United States, however, did not recognize him yet. It was tired of the game and wanted, in Wilson’s words, to tell Haiti “as firmly and definitely as is consistent with courtesy and kindness” that the United States would not “permit revolutionary conditions constantly to exist there.” Guillaume Sam was offered a deal: American support, to provide stability, in exchange for the acceptance of an American financial overseer.

While Guillaume Sam pondered, lightning struck. A new revolt broke out in the north in July. It was led by a former government minister and diplomat, Rosalvo Bobo, whose platform was to resist Yankee meddling. He allowed that he admired American “genius” but “to turn over to them our customs houses and our finances…never, never, NEVER .” Bobo’s cacos were already in Cap-Haïtien when Caperton was again dispatched there to keep order. But on July 27 a message arrived summoning him immediately to Port-au-Prince, where truly serious violence had broken out. The Washington arrived the next morning to see the grisly end of Guillame Sam’s brief administration. Learning that a revolutionary committee was planning a direct attack on the presidential palace, he had jailed 170 of his political opponents and had them murdered before fleeing to the French Legation next door. When the word got out, a mob broke into the legation, dragged him out, and hacked him to bits. As the Washington entered the harbor, the mob was parading pieces of the body through the streets. The terrified diplomatic colony begged Caperton for protection, which he promptly furnished. By nightfall 330 Marines and bluejackets sustained the U.S. occupation of Port-au-Prince.

The sixty-year-old admiral now began a deft diplomatic performance. While assuring the revolutionary committee that the occupation was temporary, he looked for a presidential candidate for them to name who would be pliable, but not to a degree unacceptable to Haitian nationalists and possible future revolutionaries. The committee would likely have named Bobo, but he would not do. Poor Bobo assumed that having followed the usual scenario, he would be installed in the presidential palace by Haiti’s Congress. Instead, when he boarded the flagship arrayed in top hat and frock coat and carrying a suitcase labeled “Chief of the Executive Power,” he was told by Caperton’s French-speaking chief of staff, Capt. Edward L. Beach, that he was “not a candidate” and was in fact “a menace and a curse to [his] country” for forcing it anew into “the throes of agony.” Bobo, a well-educated and reputedly honest physician, protested in vain.

Caperton then, step by step and without strutting, secured reinforcements for his outnumbered garrison, dissolved the revolutionary committee, and disarmed the Haitian soldiers in the capital by simply paying, feeding, and discharging them. He postponed the election until he found his candidate. This turned out to be Philippe Dartiguenave, president of the senate, a cultivated lawyer who, like a few other members of the local elite, was anxious to have the turmoil end. He would accept U.S. control of the customhouses and security forces if no formal giveaway of independence or territory was required. (If Caperton’s terms seem harsh, they must be contrasted with those of the head of the State Department’s Latin American division, Boaz W. Long, who held that Haiti’s problems stemmed from “the failure of an inferior people to maintain the degree of civilization left them by the French.” He wanted a flat-out occupation for thirty-three years, renewable for successive terms at U.S. discretion.)

The Washington’s mission: protect U.S. lives and property during the fifth revolution in four years.

Dartiguenave was elected by Congress on August 12 in a chamber guarded by Marines.

But it did not end there. The next step was to get Haiti to sign a treaty embodying the agreed-on conditions, which included the replacement of the Haitian army and police force with a constabulary trained and led by Americans. But this elimination of the Haitian armed services robbed educated Haitians of commissions and perks that were their basic source of income. Unrest simmered. Caperton eventually had to send the Marines, now commanded by an iron-hard veteran of the Philippine insurrection, Col. Littleton Waller. Some two hundred cacos were killed in the pacification.

Finally the Haitian Congress gave in and ratified the treaty at the end of 1915. But the story was still not over. The Haitian constitution had to be rewritten to accommodate the new structure, based on a “suggested” draft sent down by Washington. (It was this one that Roosevelt claimed credit for, but actually it was drawn up in the State Department with some input from his office.) When the Haitian Congress again balked, Caperton at last had to drop the fig leaf of sovereignty and dissolve it. Eventually, in 1917, the constitution was ratified in a popular plebiscite conducted under Marine auspices. Only 5 percent of the population voted.

By then the diplomatic Caperton had been reassigned and replaced by Waller, whose assessment was that Haitian officials were “fine looking, well educated polished men…but they are real nigs beneath the surface.” In 1918 a new caco rebellion broke out, and this time he put it down at a cost of more than two thousand Haitian lives.

A Senate investigation in 1921 showed that the country was indeed pacified, foreign influences kept out, and the bankers paid on time, but it was no less poor and no more prepared for democratic government. The occupation ended in 1934, when world events shaped a new U.S. policy in the hemisphere, described by President Franklin Roosevelt, the self-proclaimed Haitian constitution writer, as that of the good neighbor.

And there we may leave. Haiti endured many regimes after the Marines left, but its root problems—poverty, injustice, and instability—remained unchanged. Whatever the United States will do in 1994, it cannot any longer play under the 1915 rules. But what are the right rules now? What, when it comes to that, is the game?

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