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A Brief History of U.S. Involvement in Haiti

  • Published
  • By Dan Knickrehm
  • 43rd Airlift Wing Historian
In 1803, after 12.5 years of fighting, a slave uprising succeeded in ousting the French run government of Haiti. This was the only successful slave revolt ever to occur in the Western hemisphere. Made up primarily of former African warriors who were captured and sent to Haiti, the slave population constituted a large influx of people that proved difficult for the minority French ruling class to acculturate and control. Thus when Haitian slaves felt the need to fight for their freedom they had a military history they could call on to help them win their battles.

The first response to the successful revolt by the fledgling United States and some European nations was the institution of sanctions against Haiti. Because the early American economy relied so much on slave labor and because prominent U.S. politicians owned slaves themselves, those who ran the government could not recognize or condone the actions that took place in Haiti without jeopardizing their own livelihood. This situation would not change until at least after the American Civil War.

In 1915 the ruler of Haiti was killed in a popular uprising. This civil unrest provided the United States with justification for occupation of Haiti by approximately 20,000 troops for 19 years. The results of the occupation from 1915-1934 resulted in 86 U.S. soldiers killed, 3,200 Haitians killed and Haitian economic dependency on the U.S. When the U.S. military occupation was over, the nation's security was turned over to the Haitian National Guard. Over the next 20 or so years the Haitian National Guard carried out a policy of violent oppression that resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of Haitians.

Beginning in the 1950s the U.S. started training Haitian military leaders who subsequently developed a reputation for being corrupt and abusive. From 1957-1984 Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son "Baby Doc" were in power in Haiti. This dictatorship was largely supported by the U.S. as an alternative to a perceived expansion of communism in the area. During their rule the Duvaliers killed a reported 30,000 Haitians and when "Baby Doc" was ousted in 1986 he fled with much of the nation's wealth.

In 1990 Jean-Bertrand Aristide became the first democratically elected President of Haiti. Shortly after he took office he was ousted in a military coup. Two leaders of the coup were men who had been formerly trained in the United States. The ensuing political repression led to many Haitian refugees fleeing the island. Initially the Bush administration turned these refugees back. However, in 1994 President Clinton changed U.S. policy and allowed Haitians into Guantanamo, Cuba. Following the change in policy the U.S. threatened military intervention in Haiti and that threat, along with diplomacy conducted by former President Jimmy Carter, forced the military coup leaders to step down.

This change in policy opened the door for the development of better relations between the U.S. and Haiti for the future. Beginning in 2004 a United Nations stabilization mission was sent to Haiti. This mission was made up largely by Brazilians and included 6,900 soldiers as well as 2,211 police. The stabilization mission began to make headway toward eliminating corruption in the Haitian police forces. By 2007 crime rates in Haiti were declining and a sense of security was returning.

Even though the security issue was improving, 2008 revealed that Haiti was vulnerable in a number of different areas. Cost of living increases and rising food prices led to the collapse of the government. Four strong storms caused significant damage to coastal areas. This confluence of external shocks, poverty, corruption and violence was made worse by an ineffectual government that was largely unable to cope with the pressures placed on it. The U.N. stabilization mission was primarily focused on security so developments in other areas such as the economy were not addressed.

In May of 2009 former President Clinton was named U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti. Taking a broader view of Haiti's problems, Clinton suggested a multifaceted plan for recovery and stability. As part of the economic plan for Haiti, Clinton began getting investors interested in his program for Haitian recovery.

As we all know in January of 2010 Haiti was hit by the earthquake that caused so much destruction on the island. It remains to be seen how this disaster will affect the recovery of the island nation. While our thoughts and prayers go out to those who survived the devastating earthquake we can only hope that our humanitarian efforts at Pope and the efforts of countless other Americans will contribute to the improvement of U.S. relations with Haiti in the future.