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1934-1941 - Sténio Vincent

After years of turmoil, the brutal killing of President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, who had ordered the execution of 167 political prisoners, proved to be the last straw for U.S. officials. On July 28, 1915, U.S. Marines invaded Haiti to protect U.S. financial interests and citizens. By this time, U.S. companies controlled most of Haiti's banking and the railroad industry, and the U.S. Navy already had used force 26 times to extract debt payments from Haitian banks. Rather than striking and then receding as had previously been the case, the U.S. military came to stay in 1915. Marines seized control of the country, disbanding the Haitian military and installing Phillippe Sudre Dartiguenave, an elite mulatto, as president (1915-22). During its occupation, the United States amended the Haitian constitution, stabilized the economy, and made improvements in infrastructure. U.S. Marines also created the Garde d'Haïti, a security unit that harassed and even killed opponents of the occupation.

In 1922 Louis Borno replaced Dartiguenave, who was forced out of office for temporizing over the approval of a debtconsolidation loan. Borno ruled without the benefit of a legislature (dissolved in 1917 under Dartiguenave) until elections were again permitted in 1930. The legislature, after several ballots, elected mulatto Sténio Vincent to the presidency.

The occupation of Haiti continued after World War I, despite the embarrassment that it caused Woodrow Wilson at the Paris peace conference in 1919 and the scrutiny of a congressional inquiry in 1922. As a result of years of intensive and bitter publicity concerning American intervention in Haitian affairs, the general public and perhaps most of the civilized world, undoubtedly believed that the United States Government had debauched the very sovereignty of Haiti, conducted there a loose-jointed regime of military exploitation well splashed with blood by a thieving gang of medal-hunting Marines, and had by force built up a huge and remunerative banking business for Wall Street at the expense of the poor blacks. Congressmen said so. Senators said so. Ex-governmental officials said so. Presidential candidates said so.

Article after article, published in reputed authoritative American magazines and newspapers, signed by individuals who claimed to have first-hand facts, in which the most inhuman acts imaginable were imputed to Americans when dealing with Haitians, in which the United States Government was accused of glaring breaches of treaty rights, international law, and good faith in Haitian affairs, and in which our officials in Haiti have been set forth as agents of moneyed interests intent on "hogging" the best land r.nd most lucrative industries in that republic.

By 1930 President Herbert Hoover had become concerned about the effects of the occupation, particularly after a December 1929 incident in Les Cayes in which marines killed at least ten Haitian peasants during a march to protest local economic conditions. Hoover appointed two commissions to study the situation. A former governor general of the Philippines, W. Cameron Forbes, headed the more prominent of the two.

The Forbes Commission praised the material improvements that the United States administration had wrought, but it criticized the exclusion of Haitians from positions of real authority in the government and the constabulary, which had come to be known as the Garde d'Haïti. In more general terms, the commission further asserted that "the social forces that created [instability] still remain--poverty, ignorance, and the lack of a tradition or desire for orderly free government."

In 1930 the U.S. Marines allowed Haiti to resume free elections. The winner, Sténio Vincent (1930-41), was a former senator with populist tendencies, and his election set Haiti on the path to reestablishing its autonomy. Vincent engaged in an ambitious program of infrastructure improvement, while insisting that the U.S. Marines end their active occupation. As a show of nationalism, he insisted on making his state addresses in Creole, rather than in French. Like many of his predecessors, however, Vincent also resorted to using the presidency to increase his own wealth and power. In 1935 he pushed through the Haitian Congress a new constitution that allowed the president to disband the legislature and reorganize the judiciary. Ultimately, Vincent succeeded in reestablishing Haiti's independence, but he also strengthened the country's legacy of dictatorial leadership.

The Hoover administration did not implement fully the recommendations of the Forbes Commission, but United States withdrawal was well under way by 1932, when Hoover lost the presidency to Roosevelt, the presumed author of the most recent Haitian constitution. On a visit to Cap Haïtien in July 1934, Roosevelt reaffirmed an August 1933 disengagement agreement. The last contingent of marines departed in mid-August 1934, after a formal transfer of authority to the Garde. As in other countries occupied by the United States in the early twentieth century, the local military was often the only cohesive and effective institution left in the wake of withdrawal.

With the departure of the Marines in 1934, Haiti's confused tumultuous political life resumed with a series of weak, ineffective and corrupt governments moving neither to develop political institutions necessary for a democratic society -- the courts, schools, police, etc. -- nor to begin economic development necessary to improve the standard of living of ordinary Haitians.

The Garde was a new kind of military institution in Haiti. It was a force manned overwhelmingly by blacks, with a United States- trained black commander, Colonel Démosthènes Pétrus Calixte. Most of the Garde's officers, however, were mulattoes. The Garde was a national organization; it departed from the regionalism that had characterized most of Haiti's previous armies. In theory, its charge was apolitical -- to maintain internal order, while supporting a popularly elected government. The Garde initially adhered to this role.

President Vincent took advantage of the comparative national stability, which was being maintained by a professionalized military, to gain absolute power. A plebiscite permitted the transfer of all authority in economic matters from the legislature to the executive, but Vincent was not content with this expansion of his power. In 1935 he forced through the legislature a new constitution, which was also approved by plebiscite. The constitution praised Vincent, and it granted the executive sweeping powers to dissolve the legislature at will, to reorganize the judiciary, to appoint ten of twenty-one senators (and to recommend the remaining eleven to the lower house), and to rule by decree when the legislature was not in session. Although Vincent implemented some improvements in infrastructure and services, he brutally repressed his opposition, censored the press, and governed largely to benefit himself and a clique of merchants and corrupt military officers.

Under Calixte the majority of Garde personnel had adhered to the doctrine of political nonintervention that their Marine Corps trainers had stressed. Over time, however, Vincent and Dominican dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina sought to buy adherents among the ranks. Trujillo, determined to expand his influence over all of Hispaniola, in October 1937 ordered the indiscriminate butchery by the Dominican army of an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Haitians on the Dominican side of the Massacre River. Some observers claim that Trujillo supported an abortive coup attempt by young Garde officers in December 1937. Vincent dismissed Calixte as commander and sent him abroad, where he eventually accepted a commission in the Dominican military as a reward for his efforts while on Trujillo's payroll. The attempted coup led Vincent to purge the officer corps of all members suspected of disloyalty, marking the end of the apolitical military.




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Page last modified: 02-08-2011 16:44:44 ZULU