There is, in Haiti, a particular ghost that has been haunting the people of that nation for a hundred years. It haunts not only their persons, but their politics, their very livelihood. It is a peculiar ghost, for it is not the ghost of one person but of many. It is even the ghost of non-persons, of ideas, of places, of things said and things wished.
It is in the ominous year of 1915 that we begin tracing the historical roots of that ghost which haunts Haiti. That year, the people of Haiti learned that they were to be the subjects of an American Occupation “for their own good.” They were to be ruled now by Admiral William Banks Caperton, a white man from the United States. To a black nation that had driven off the white men with their slavery one hundred years before, this did not sit well. But the Admiral was not like the other white men they had heard of: he put aside the customs of segregation that was the norm of his country and was jovial in the taking of companionship with those black men in Haiti. He wore a thick mustache, they said; he was polite and was quite the dancer. So on those occasions, when he went to their homes for dinner, he never passed up the opportunity to dance with their wives, his white hands wrapped tight around their black palms, and their black bodies ever pressing against the dress uniforms he wore for such moments. Through these dinners and dances, he charmed them with assurances that the United States “was in Haiti to do good,” to “guide the country forward.” Many believed him, and they looked forward to a peaceful and prosperous Haiti. The Admiral did not forget about Haiti’s poor. He sent out one of his subordinates, Arthur Miller, with a Haitian interpreter at his side, to communicate with the peasants of the countryside. He promised the peasants many a thing, that America was here to eliminate poverty, and to protect them from the tyranny of their governments. In the midst of this debauchery, there was of course resistance, for there were those who did not believe. But they were imprisoned and clobbered to their deaths. They faced the wrath of Smedley Butler, who believed that Haiti was to do well as long as its countrymen allowed white men to lead them.
By the end of August, Admiral Caperton was the sole king of the country. He had seized the National Bank of Haiti. He had taken control of all the major customs houses on the island. He appointed a president, Surdre Dartiguenave, who was to be the voice and face of the Occupation. Dartiguenave sang the tunes of Caperton and helped disseminate the propaganda that America was here to alleviate the struggle of a people whom for too long had struggled.
But Admiral Caperton, with his thick moustache, and politeness, and good dancing skills, was but the faithful executioner of a process. He had been acting on the orders of Robert Lansing and the State Department, who in turn had been getting the advice of American businessmen like Roger Farnham and Paul Allen – all part of a larger collective of Wall Street men. These Wall Street men, as historian Georges Eddy Lucien informs us, held the larger share of 600-billion dollars of capital seated idly in the banks of the United States, France, England and Germany. It was necessary for them to have that money grow and so they needed new territories, they needed occupations. Professor Laurent DuBois tells us that it is those same Wall Street men that the State Department relied on when it decided to strip away Haiti’s constitutional amendment that barred land ownership to foreigners. The stripping of that constitutional amendment “opened Haiti for business,” and the businesses came like swarming bees. They came singing the tunes of the Admiral, promising millions of dollars in investments, in job creation and economic uplift. Some of these companies we can name: The Haitian-American Sugar Company, The National Citi Bank of New York, the Haitian-American Pineapple Company, Dyewood of Boston. Thousands of peasants lost their lands, lands owned by them for generations; they now had to work for big foreign corporations for meager wages.
By 1922, Haiti was a different country. Its old army had been completely eliminated and was replaced by the Gendarmerie, a native force created by the bloodthirsty Smedley Butler who won a medal in Haiti for orchestrating its destruction. The Gendarmerie was to maintain peace and security in the country. It achieved this through forced labor (for a new infrastructure needed to be built to accommodate the influx of foreign corporations), imprisonment, torture and mass killings. When segregationist John H. Russell was appointed High Commissioner of Haiti that year, he oversaw an ambitious project of “nation building”: he was going to create a middle class; he was tired of Haitians and “their education of poetry and of literature and of medicine and of law.” The Occupation was now going to teach Haitians how to farm, and how to build furniture. This was going to move the country forward.
The Occupation ended in 1934. Many of the men who masterminded it – Caperton, Butler, and their puppet, Dartiguenave – had all but died. The corporations that were given lands failed miserably, with the lone exception of the Haitian-American Sugar Company, which endured for over five decades until it closed its doors in 1989. The people were now landless and jobless, and so migration became necessity. But these dead men, these dead entities, they live on as one collective in this ghost that continues to mold Haiti’s policy.
When President Michel Martelly and his ministers recently announced that the nation is open for business, do know that these are not the words of self-reflecting statesmen, but the words of possessed men. When you hear numerous casual observers and passionate advocates of Haiti insist that the country needs more investments from abroad to move forward, know that these feelings are not rooted in conviction but, rather, in the self-serving propaganda of dead men who can’t figure how to remain rotten in their crypt with their defunct corporations. When you read about the ten thousand NGOs in Haiti proudly boasting of the purposefulness of their presence there, about how they’re helping the poor and the unfortunate, be mindful that such bragging is but the reverberating echo of John H. Russell and the Service Technique. Not even Stephanie Villedouin, the current Minister of Tourism for Haiti, has been able to escape the haunts of that spirit. She has been stubborn in her tenacity to hand over L’ile-A-Vache to persons and non-persons who and which we do not know. But their promises and tactics, we are familiar with. They are promises of “job growth, economic uplift and middle class creation.” And that means Haitians must once again vacate their lands for the materialization of these promises, much in the same way their ancestors did for The National Railway of Haiti, the Haitian-American Sugar Company, and the Haitian-American Pineapple Company.
At this point, we can only hope to one day get a class of politicians who are well attuned in the matters of the paranormal so they many finally cast out this ghost of a hundred years that continues to haunt and plague the Haitian people.
Alain Martin is the director and a writer of an upcoming feature film, The Forgotten Occupation, about the first United States Occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934. A trailer for the film may be viewed attheforgottenoccupation.com.
Schmidt, Hans. The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934. Rutgers University Press, 1971.
William Banks Caperton papers, 1873-1939. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.