U.S. Marines Slaughtered 15,000
Yankee Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934
The following article is reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 608, 14 October 1994.
“I spent 33 years and 4 months in active service as a member of our country’s most agile military force – the Marine Corps…. And during that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism….
“Thus I helped make Mexico … safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba, a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street.”
–Major General Smedley Butler, “America’s Armed Forces,” Common Sense, October 1935
Bill Clinton’s colonial occupation of Haiti was, at first, hailed by desperate Haitians hoping for protection against the terror of the [Raoul] Cédras regime and its paramilitary attachés. But the U.S. military has gone into Haiti precisely to prevent the uprooting of the military machine which Washington created and maintained through decades of Yankee imperialist domination. When the Marines landed in Port-au-Price in 1915, it was the beginning of an American occupation which lasted 19 years, killed thousands, and left the bloody U.S.-trained National Guard in control.
The pretext for the July 1915 invasion came when despised Haitian president Vibrun Guillaume Sam was torn limb from limb by an enraged multitude. Beset by insurrectionary forces, Sam’s supporters had mowed down 173 political prisoners in the capital. U.S. warships rushed to the scene to put down the uprising. President Woodrow Wilson cited the possibility that Germany might build a base at Haiti’s Môle St. Nicolas, facing the eastern tip of Cuba. Washington’s concern to secure access routes to the Panama Canal, which opened a year earlier, “certainly weighed in the balance of the motivation for the occupation,” writes Suzy Castor in her 1971 study, La ocupación norteamericana de Haiti y sus consecuencias (1915-1934). But “fundamental” to Washington’s aims, she wrote, was the economic “motivation”: to make Haiti safe for exploitation by American capital. This was “dollar diplomacy” by gunboat.
A telegram to the U.S. Navy Department by Admiral William Caperton shortly after the invasion requested additional forces to disband the guerrilla soldiers known as cacos, adding: “Such action now imperative at Port au Prince if United States desires to negotiate treaty for financial control of Haiti.” Already in December 1914, a contingent of Marines had landed in the Haitian capital at the request of the National City Bank of New York and seized $500,000 from the National Bank of Haiti. The purpose was to force the Haitian government to sign over control of the customhouses.
The Yankee occupiers seized control of Haiti’s government and economy. Just as American soldiers are today deployed around the Haitian parliament to show who’s boss, in 1915 Marines guarded the doors of the building where assembled deputies and senators voted in Washington’s hand-picked “president,” Dartiguenave, who had agreed to U.S. control of Haiti’s finances. To ensure ratification of a treaty effectively making Haiti a U.S. protectorate, Caperton seized unsigned bank notes intended for the Haitian government and proclaimed that they would be turned over when the Senate approved the treaty.
The occupation was brutal and racist to the core. A report in the Nation (10 July 1920) testified:
“The five years of American occupation … have served as a commentary upon the white civilization which still burns black men and women at the stake. For Haitian men, owmen and children, to a number estimated at 3,000, innocent for the most part of any offense, have been shot down by American machine gun and rifle bullets; black men and women have been put to torture to make them give information; theft, arson, and murder have been committed almost with impunity upon the persons and property of Haitians by white men wearing the uniform of the United States….
“I have heard officers wearing the United States uniform in the interior of Haiti talk of ‘bumping off’ (i.e., killing) ‘Gooks’ as if it were a verity of sport like duck hunting.”
The occupation force was dominated by white Southerners led by Marine colonel Littleton W.T. Waller, a Virginian who replaced Caperton as the U.S. commanding officer. Waller made known his objection to “bowing and scraping to these c—ns.” U.S. authorities instituted a color bar against “race-mixing” after the arrival of white women from the U.S. The American military forced rural Haitians to carry a “bon habitant” (good citizen) card which Marines could demand to inspect at any time. Failure to produce the card meant immediate arrest or even execution.
The imperialists attacked the very roots of Haiti’s independence, gained through the revolutionary struggle led by Toussaint Louverture that smashed chattel slavery more than a century before. In 1918 Haitian peasants rose up in the cacos rebellion against subjection to the forced-labor corvée system. Black American writer James Weldon Johnson wrote after visiting Haiti in 1920:
“The Occupation seized men wherever it could find them, and no able-bodied Haitian was safe from such raids, which most closely resembled the African slave raids of past centuries. And slavery it was, though temporary. By day or by night … Haitians were seized and forcibly taken to toil for months in far sections of the country. Those who protested or resisted were beaten into submission…. Those attempting to escape were shot….”
–quoted in Scott Nearing and Joseph Freeman, Dollar Diplomacy (1925)
Led by Charlemagne Péralte, the cacos overran th gendarmerie (police). Marines responded with the bloodbath. Péralte was shot and his corpse hung from a door. Photos of his execution, which resembled the crucifixion of Christ, were disseminated throughout the countryside, but this only inspired more resistance from the religious peasants. Horrifying examples of vengeance by Marine and gendarme squads – including the beheading of a young blind man, the killing of entire families and pregnant women – were documented by Haitians in a petition to the Secretary of the U.S. Navy (reprinted in the Nation, 21 May 1921).
The rebellion lasted about five years. A U.S. military inquiry put the number of cacos killed at 3,250, while Marines and gendarmes suffered only 100 killed or wounded. This was the first reported case of coordinated air-ground combat, as planes bombed rebels trapped by Marines. In one incident, U.S. troops killed over 50 (and possibly as many as 200) cacos who had been hurling rocks. The sole U.S. “casualty” was a Marine who lost two front teeth. For his “bravery” in this “battle,” Major Smedley Butler was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, thanks to an order by Assistant Naval Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Benefiting from the U.S. occupation were companies like Standard Fruit and the Haitian American Sugar Company, which took advantage of new land ownership laws to massively dispossess the peasants. U.S. companies were encouraged to set up shop where, as a New York business daily reported, “The run-of-the-mill Haitian is handy, easily directed, and gives a hard day’s labor for 20 cents, while in Panama the same day’s work cost $3” (quoted in James Ridgeway, ed., The Haiti Files ). The same theme was struck in the 1980s when the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) touted Haiti’s “highly productive, low cost labor.” When President Aristide in 1991 timidly tried to raise the minimum wage from 22 cents to 37 cents per hour, AID howled against this “high distortion in labor costs.”
In 1929, an outbreak of social struggle led the U.S. to question the usefulness of continuing the occupation. After a five-week student strike, American authorities called for more Marine reinforcements. In response, customhouse workers in Port-au-Prince went on strike, and Haitians swarmed into the streets to throw rocks at the U.S. troops. In the southern town of Les Cayes, Marines killed 12 protesters. But the writing was on the wall. A U.S. investigation of the 1929 protests, the Forbes Commission, recommended a policy of ”Haitianization” and gradual withdrawal of the Marines. Under the sign of FDR’s “good neighbor” policy in Latin America, the last U.S. troops were withdrawn in 1934. Yet U.S. control of Haiti’s finances continued until after World War II.
An estimated 15,000 Haitians had perished under the bloody occupation. To run Haiti after its exit, the U.S. left the new gendarmerie, the National Guard, which it developed and trained after disbanding the Haitian military. Since 1934, one-third of Haiti’s budget has been spent on the military. The U.S. has propped up every Haitian despot since that time, including the infamous “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who organized the Tontons Macoutes thugs and killed 50,000 opponents. His demented son “Baby Doc” was forced to flee to France amid a mass upheaval in 1986, and the U.S. sponsored the current junta of torturers and murderers under Raoul Cédras. To put an end to the cycle of puppet dictators it’s necessary to defeat the imperialist masters. That must be the common effort of Haitian and American workers against the capitalist rulers, from Port-au-Prince to Washington and Wall Street, who have turned the first black republic into a neo-colonial hell. U.S. out of Haiti! ■