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Returning to Haiti : Is It All Over for the Monroe Doctrine?

July 17, 1994|Gaddis Smith | Gaddis Smith teaches diplomatic history at Yale. His newest book, "The Last Years of the Monroe Doctrine," will be published by Hill & Wang in August

NEW HAVEN, CONN. — 'No, I don't despair, I don't believe in despair, but our problems won't be solved by the Marines. I'm not sure I wouldn't fight for Papa Doc if the Marines came. At least he's Haitian. No, the job has to be done with our own hands. We are an evil slum floating a few miles from Florida, and no American will help us with arms or money or counsel. We learned a few years back what their counsel meant.'- Graham Greene, 'The Comedians' 1966


July 28: Under orders from Washington, U.S. Marines land in Haiti. July 31: After losing two men to sniper fire, U.S. forces proceed to disarm Haitians. Sept. 3: The U.S. commander declares martial law, announces he is "invested with the power and responsibility of government in all functions." Sept. 16: Haitian puppet officials agree to treaty giving the United States the authority to maintain "a government adequate for the protection of life, property and individual liberty." This chronology is not a prediction, but a summary of real events in the year 1915.

In 1994, as in 1915, Haiti is wracked by deadly political violence. Today's rulers are contemptuous of democracy and human rights. They have not been moved by a punishing economic embargo. They have spurned the efforts of the United States and others to negotiate a political settlement leading to the return of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. And now U.S. naval vessels are gathering near Haiti and the Marines are practicing amphibious operations. William H. Gray III, the Clinton Administration's special adviser on Haitian affairs, says no invasion is "imminent," but defines imminent as a matter of "hours or days."

Thus, with the strong possibility that history may be repeated, it is useful to explore the past, noting how much has changed in the relations of the United States and Haiti in 80 years--and how much remains the same. A comparison will not provide a solution to the Clinton Administration's difficulty, but it will clarify the nature of U.S. interests.

Early in the 20th Century, the Monroe Doctrine, with its attached corollaries, was the guiding principle for U.S. security in the Western Hemisphere. It held that the United States would oppose all European interference with the independent republics of the Americas. But the political turbulence and fiscal irresponsibility of several countries in the Caribbean basin--Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Haiti--seemed to invite European intervention. The United States was particularly fearful that Germany might obtain a naval base threatening the sea lanes to the Panama Canal, then under construction.

President Theodore Roosevelt came up with a solution in 1904--known as the Roosevelt corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. He declared that civilized nations everywhere in the world should exercise "an international police power" toward countries engaging in "chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society."

In the Western Hemisphere, that responsibility belonged to the United States. Under the Roosevelt corollary, the United States first established a protectorate over the Dominican Republic, Haiti's neighbor on the island of Hispaniola.

In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson added the establishment and protection of democracy as a goal of Latin American policy. The next year, the issues of democracy, "chronic wrongdoing" and U.S. national security came together in Haiti. The Haitian government was little more than a succession of military chieftains. Haiti was in debt to foreign investors. Germany appeared to be interested in settling debts in return for a base at Mole St. Nicolas, a harbor overlooking the passage between Haiti and Cuba. The United States, invoking the Monroe Doctrine, declared it would not tolerate "a foothold" by any other power in Haiti.

By January, 1914, normal conditions in Haiti--meaning constant fighting and changes of regime--led the Wilson Administration to demand the country's leaders follow democratic procedures and protect the life and property of Americans and other foreigners. A small force of Marines, about 120 men, landed and remained briefly in Port-au-Prince to emphasize American seriousness. But nothing changed. This month's revolutionary leader became next month's president--and ex-president the month after.

In March, 1915, Gen. Vilburn Guillaume Sam seized power and arrested large numbers of the opposition. The Guillaume government lasted until July 28--murdering 167 political prisoners in its last moments. Sam took refuge in the French legation. The U.S. charge in Haiti reported what happened: "At 10:30, mob invaded French legation, took out president, killed and dismembered him before legation gates. Hysterical crowds parading streets with portions of his body on poles. U.S.S. Washington entering harbor."

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