History of Haiti (1915–86)

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United States occupation[edit]

In 1915, Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave was appointed by US authorities to the Presidency of Haiti. Martial law was declared, and persisted until 1929. A treaty, which allowed the US government complete control over cabinet positions and Haiti's finances, was passed by the legislature in November 1915. The treaty also established the Gendarmerie d'Haïti (Haitian Constabulatory Force), Haiti's first professional military. Dartiguenave dissolved the legislature in 1917 after its members refused to approve a new constitution. A referendum subsequently approved the constitution, which allowed foreigners to own land, something which had been forbidden by Haitian law since independence in 1804.

The US occupation was a costly period in terms of human life. A revolt by disgruntled citizens was put down in 1918, with an estimated 2,000 killed. White foreigners, many with deep racial prejudices, dominated public policy, which angered the historically dominant Mulattos. However, Haiti's infrastructure, including roads, telephone lines, and plumbing, were repaired. Lighthouses, schools, hospitals, and harbors were built. Louis Borno replaced Dartiguenave as president in 1922, after he was forced out of office. He ruled without a legislature until elections were permitted in 1930. This newly formed legislature elected Sténio Vincent, a mulatto, as president.

By 1930, Haiti had become a liability to the United States. A congressional inquiry, known as the Forbes Commission, exposed many human rights violations, and while it praised improvements in Haitian society, it criticized the exclusion of Haitians from positions of authority. By August 1932, with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as US President, American troops withdrew and authority was formally transferred to local police and army officials.

Dictatorship and the rise of Duvalier[edit]

Main article: François Duvalier

Vincent took advantage of the stability to gain dictatorial power. Vincent expanded his economic authority by referendum, and in 1935, he forced a new constitution through the legislature. This constitution gave him power to dissolve the legislature and reorganize the judiciary at will, as well as the power to appoint senators. He also brutally oppressed political opposition. Rafael Leónidas Trujillo came to power in 1930 in the neighboring Dominican Republic, and in 1937, he attacked the border with Haiti, killing an estimated 20,000 Haitians. Seen by Vincent as an attempted coup, he purged the military of all officers suspected of disloyalty. Many of these later joined the Dominican military.

In 1941, Élie Lescot, a mulatto who was an experienced and competent government official, was elected as President. Despite high expectations, his tenure paralleled Vincent's in its brutality and marginalization of opposition. He declared war on the Axis powers during World War II, and used this as an excuse to censor the press and repress his opponents. Lescot also maintained a clandestine cooperation with Trujillo, which undermined his already-nonexistent popularity. In January 1946, after Lescot jailed editors of a Marxist newspaper, protests broke out among government workers, teachers, and business owners. Lescot resigned, and a military junta, the Comité Exécutif Militaire (Executive Military Committee), assumed power.

Haiti elected a legislature in May 1946, and after two rounds of voting, Dumarsais Estimé, a black cabinet minister, was elected president. He operated under a new constitution which expanded schools, established rural farming cooperatives, and raised salaries of civil servants. These early successes, however, were undermined by his personal ambition, and his alienation of the military and elite led to a coup in 1950, which reinstalled the military junta. Direct elections, the first in Haiti's history, were held in October 1950, and Paul Magloire, an elite mulatto Colonel in the military, was elected. Hurricane Hazel hit the island in 1954, which devastated the nation's infrastructure and economy. Hurricane relief was inadequately distributed and misspent, and Magloire jailed opponents and shut down newspapers. After refusing to step down after his term ended, a general strike shut down Port-au-Prince's economy, and Magloire fled, leaving the government in a state of chaos. When elections were finally organized, François Duvalier, a rural doctor, was elected, on a platform of activism on behalf of Haiti's poor.

Duvalier produced a constitution to solidify power, and replaced the bicameral legislature with a unicameral one. In 1964, Duvalier declared himself President-for-Life. He fired the chief of the military and established a Presidential Guard to maintain his power. He also established the Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale (National Security Volunteers), commonly referred to as the Tonton Makout, named after a monster in Haitian mythology. The Tonton Makouts became Haiti's secret police, and had pervasive influence throughout Haiti's rural countryside. Duvalier used his newly gained influence in the military to establish his own elite. Corruption was endemic, and he stole money from government agencies to reward officials loyal to him. Duvalier also exploited popular vodou beliefs, creating a cult of personality surrounding himself, claiming to be a houngan (a sorcerer). Due to his repressive and authoritarian rule, U.S. President John F. Kennedy revoked aid and recalled Marine Corps missions in 1962. However, after the assassination of Kennedy, relations with Duvalier eased, partially due to Haiti's strategic location near Cuba.

Fall of Duvalier[edit]

Main article: Jean-Claude Duvalier

Duvalier died on 21 April 1971. During his rule, an estimated 30,000 citizens were killed by the government, and hundreds of thousands of Haitians emigrated to the United States, Cuba, and Canada. Duvalier was succeeded by his son, Jean-Claude, as the country's new leader. Still a teenager when he ascended to public office, Duvalier was said to be reckless and dissolute, raised in elite isolation and uninterested in politics. The first few years of his administration saw him leaving administrative duties to his mother, Simone, while he lived as a playboy. He was initially well-liked, as his rule was seen as gentler and less formidable than his father. Foreign nations became more generous with economic assistance, and the United States restored its aid program to Haiti in 1971. However, endemic corruption continued as it had under his father. Much of the Duvalier family's hundreds of millions of dollars in personal wealth came from the Régie du Tabac (Tobacco Administration). Originally established as a tobacco monopoly, in practice it was used as a slush fund, and little to no records were kept of its activity.

The neglect of Duvalier's regime, coupled with a lack of adequate infrastructure, left the nation vulnerable to health crises. The widely publicized outbreak of AIDS, rumored to have originated in Haiti, devastated tourism in the early 1980s, and an epidemic of African swine fever from the Dominican Republic devastated livestock and destroyed local farming. The USDA feared the disease's spread to North America, and pressured Duvalier to slaughter Haiti's population of pigs and replace them with animals provided by international aid agencies. The Haitian government complied, but the decision caused outrage among the nation's farmers. Their pigs were well-suited to the Haitian climate and environment, and did not require special feed or care; the new pigs required both. In May 1980, Duvalier married Michèle Bennett, a light-skinned, mulatto divorcée. This was perceived as a betrayal of his father's legacy of supporting the black middle class, and had an unexpected, drastically negative effect on Duvalier's popularity. The wedding's extravagant cost, which was rumored to be in excess of US$3,000,000, further alienated the black masses. A schism formed in the government between older, more conservative Duvalierists and appointees of Jean-Claude. This eventually resulted in the expulsion of Duvalier's mother, Simone, reportedly at Michèle's request.

Discontent and economic hopelessness reached a head when Pope John Paul II visited Haiti in March 1983. Declaring that "Something must change here," in a speech in Port-au-Prince, the Pope called for equitable distribution of income and a more egalitarian social and political structure. Revolts began, revitalized by the Catholic Church, and riots began to break out in the city of Gonaïves, with crowds attacking food distribution centers. From October 1985 to January 1986, protests spread throughout the country, to the south. A revolt began in the provinces two years later. The city of Gonaïves was the first to have street demonstrations and raids on food-distribution warehouses. The protests spread to six other cities across the country, including Cap-Haïtien. By the end of that month, Haitians in the south had revolted. The most significant rioting there broke out in Les Cayes.

Duvalier responded to riots by firing cabinet officials and cutting food prices. He also closed several independent radio stations, and deployed police units and army guards to quell the uprisings. However, these moves failed to pacify demonstrators, and in January 1986, the Reagan administration began to pressure Duvalier to renounce power and leave Haiti. Negotiations stalled, and while Duvalier initially accepted an offer of asylum in Jamaica, he rescinded his offer and decided to remain in Haiti. As a result, the US State Department cut back aid to Haiti, and violence in the streets spread to Port-au-Prince. On February 5, 1986, members of the military confronted the Duvalier regime and demanded his departure. With no support from the military or the legislature left, Duvalier consented, and he and his family departed by plane from Haiti to France on February 7. He named an interim legislature, the Conseil National de Gouvernement (CNG - National Governing Council) made up of three civilians as well as two military officials. This began a shaky period of transition to full democratic rule.