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U.S. forces in Haiti, 1915.
U.S. forces in Haiti, 1915.

Peter Shawn Taylor

What can we learn from the U.S. occupation of Haiti? Add to ...

It will take at least a decade to fix Haiti, according to last week's international conference in Montreal. In fact, it will take far longer than that. History has already proven that 19 years is too short a time to build both the infrastructure and democracy that Haiti needs.

If any period might be considered a "golden" era of development and modernization in Haiti, it must be the U.S. occupation from 1915 to 1934. While by no means a resounding triumph, colonial rule by the Americans did have its successes. And it provides a convenient frame of reference for what the rest of the world can expect as it tries to rebuild the benighted country.

In July, 1915, a mass execution of political opponents by Haitian president Vilbrun Guillaume Sam - and Sam's subsequent dismemberment in the streets of Port-au-Prince - prompted U.S. president Woodrow Wilson to send 2,000 marines to seize control of the country. Further motivation for Wilson's gun-boat diplomacy was concern that if he didn't step into the vacuum, Germany might.

Once in control, the U.S. found Haiti to be almost entirely lacking in modern infrastructure, much as it appears today after the earthquake. There was no telephone service, no intercity roads, no public health care, no public school system, no working harbours. Corruption was endemic and the administration entirely dysfunctional. These problems were fixed when the Americans left in 1934.

A report by the American High Commissioner to Haiti reported a substantial list of achievements during the first 14 years of occupation. Among the accomplishments, the Americans built 12 hospitals, 147 rural clinics, 210 bridges, 12 lighthouses, nine wharves, along with irrigation, sanitation, municipal water and technical education systems. In 1929 alone, clinics provided 1.3 million health-care treatments, a blessing for a country racked by syphilis, malaria, hookworm and yaws.

There were virtually no automobiles in Haiti when the marines arrived. By 1929, there were 3,000 cars, trucks and buses. A telephone system with 1,200 subscribers also appeared from the ether as the Americans single-handedly brought the country into the 20th century.

The occupation government also operated without accusations of corruption, in contrast to previous domestic administrations. Despite many critics watching closely, there was not a whiff of financial scandal. And neither did the U.S. appear to exploit its control for commercial gain. In 1923, the State Department refused a monopolistic concession to the Sinclair Oil Co. due to lack of sufficient benefits for Haiti.

If the world wishes to create a functional system of public works for Haiti, then the period of U.S. control provides a successful template.

And yet there is more to making Haiti work than providing it with the necessary modern conveniences. It also requires a democratic tradition and a competent bureaucracy. And the evidence suggests this will take a commitment much longer than 10 years.

In 1929, the U.S.'s client president in Haiti, Louis Borno, announced he was cancelling elections. This, combined with the beginnings of the Great Depression, new taxes and reduced government spending, led to the widely reported "Cayes Massacre," in which U.S. marines killed 12 Haitian demonstrators. Immediately thereafter, president Herbert Hoover began looking for an exit strategy.

A presidential commission the next year recommended a swift end to U.S. occupation to solve the political crisis at home. Even so it was entirely pessimistic about Haiti's fate. "The commission is under no delusions as to what may happen in Haiti after … the complete withdrawal of the United States forces," it warned. "Any government formed in these circumstances is liable to become an oligarchy."

Which is exactly what happened. The quick withdrawal of U.S. forces without any commitment to leaving behind a sustainable democracy doomed Haiti to generations of dictatorships under the repressive Duvalier clan.

Moreover, the country's infrastructure rapidly disintegrated due to incompetence and corruption. In 1958, U.S Marine Colonel Robert Heinl returned to Haiti and found most of what he had left behind gone. The telephone system no longer worked, roads were non-existent and the ports silted up and crumbling. Donkeys were once again the main mode of transportation. "Curiously, the only effective survivor of the occupation's infrastructure benefits is the modest network of grass air-strips unchanged since 1934," Heinl wrote. Today, these are being used for tent cities.

Over the next 10 years, Canada and other developed countries plan to spend billions building hospitals, roads, ports and airports for Haiti, just as the Americans did from 1915 to 1934. But if we don't make an equally massive commitment to leave behind a real democracy - and Haiti remains one of the world's most corrupt and dysfunctional countries - then it will all be for naught.

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