The United States Once Invaded and Occupied Haiti

In 1915, American troops began a 19-year, unofficial occupation of the Caribbean nation

U.S. Marines Haiti
U.S. Marines search for Haitian rebels in 1919. U.S. National Archives/Wikimedia Commons

Today, many Americans think of Haiti as a country still struggling to recover from a devastating earthquake. But fewer realize that it's recovering from something else, too, reports Ishaan Tharoor for The Washington Post — the United States' invasion and occupation of the country in 1915.

In July of 1915, Haiti was in the midst of a wave of political unrest that culminated with the assassination of their president. President Woodrow Wilson used Haiti’s problems as an excuse to send troops. The conflict ended in a treaty that gave the U.S. control over Haiti’s military and finances, according to the State Department’s recap — a de facto occupation that would last 19 years.

Americans had stepped in under the guise of quelling anarchy and fostering democracy. But in reality, reports Tharoor, two things drove their actions: a desire to curb Haiti’s economy and government in a direction that was more in line with their own and concern over imperialist interest from France and Germany. U.S. leaders soon pressured the Haitian legislature to elect a new pro-American president, Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave.

Though the occupation bolstered the country's infrastructure and stabilized currency, the occupiers' racist and imperialist attitudes simply stoked the fire of political unrest. Rebellions plagued the occupation, and the U.S.’s attempts to use force against protesters didn’t help. Haitian American writer Edwidge Dandicat recalls her family’s experience in the New Yorker:

One of the stories my grandfather’s oldest son, my uncle Joseph, used to tell was of watching a group of young Marines kicking around a man’s decapitated head in an effort to frighten the rebels in their area. There are more stories still.

The United States ended its occupation in 1934, but its effects still persist today. The U.S. turned Port-au-Prince into a bustling urban center and created an army to squelch opposition in rural areas, explains Tharoor. Future leaders employed the same model to maintain dominance. The U.S. occupation may have failed in its goal of improving American and Haitian relations, but it it left a blueprint for oppressors to come.

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