“Self-Determining Haiti,” by James Weldon Johnson
II. What the United States Has Accomplished
When the truth about the conquest of Haiti—the slaughter of three thousand and practically unarmed Haitians, with the incidentally needless death of a score of American boys—begins to filter through the rigid Administration censorship to the American people, the apologists will become active. Their justification of what has been done will be grouped under two heads: one, the necessity,and two, the results. Under the first, much stress will be laid upon the “anarchy” which existed in Haiti, upon the backwardness of the Haitians and their absolute unfitness to govern themselves.The pretext which caused the itervention was taken up in the first article of this series. The characteristics, alleged and real, of the Haitian people will be taken up in a subsequent article. Now as to the results: The apologists will attempt to show that material improvements in Haiti justify American intervention. Let us see what they are.
Diligent inquiry reveals just three: The building of the road from Port-au-Prince to Cape Haitien; the enforcement of certain sanitary regulations in the larger cities; and the improvement of the public hospital at Port-au-Prince. The enforcement of certain sanitary regulations is not so important as it may sound, for even under exclusive native rule, Haiti has been a remarkably healthy country and had never suffered from such epidemics as used to sweep Cuba and the Pana Canal region. The regulations, moreover, were of a purely minor character—the sort that might be issued by a board of health in any American city or town—and were in no wise fundamental, because there was no need. The same applies to the improvement of the hospital, long before the American Occupation, an effectively conducted institution but which, it is only fair to say, benefited considerably by the regulations and more up-to-date methods of American army surgeons—the best in the world. Neither of these accomplishments, however, creditable as they are, can well be put forward as a justification for military domination The building of the great highway from Port-au-Prince to Cape Hatien is a monumental piece of work, but it is doubtful whether the object in building it was to supply Haitians with a great highway or to construct a military road which would facilitate the transportation of troops and supplies from one end of the island to the other. And this represents the sum total of the constructive accomplishment after five years of American Occupation.
Now, the highway, while doubltess the most important achievement of the three, involved the most brutal of all the blunders of the Occupation. The work was in charge of an officer of Marines who stands out even in that organization for his “treat ‘em rough” methods. He discovered the obsolete Haitian corvée and decided to enforce it with the most modern Marine efficiency. The corvée, or road law, in Haiti provided that each citizen should work a certain number of days on the public roads to keep them in condition, or pay a certain sum of money. In the days when this law was in force the Haitian government never required the men to work the roads except in their respective communities, and the number of days was usually limited to three a year. But 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 night, from the bosom of their families, from their little farms or while trudging peacefully on the country roads, 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. At night, after long hours of unremitting labor under armed taskmasters, who swiftly discouraged any slackening of effort with boot or rifle butt, the victims were herded in compounds. Those attempting to escape were shot. Their terror-stricken families meanwhile were often in total ignorance of the fate of their husbands, fathers, brothers.
It is chiefly out of these methods that arose the need for “pacification.” Many men of the rural districts became panic-stricken and fled to the hills and mountains. Others rebelled and did likewise, preferring death to slavery. These refugees largely make up the “caco” forces, to hunt down which has become the duty and the sport of American Marines, who were privileged to shoot a “caco” on sight. If anyone doubts that “caco” hunting is the sport of American Marines in Haiti, let him learn the facts about the death of Charlemagne. Charlemagne Peralte was a Haitian of education and culture and of great influence in his district. He was tried by an American courtmartial on the charge of aiding “cacos.” He was sentenced, not to prison, however, but to five years of hard labor on the roads, and was forced to work in convict garb on the streets of Cape Haitien. He made his escape and put himself at the head of several hundred followers ina valiant though hopeless attempt to free Haiti. The America of the Revolution, indeed the America of the Civil War, would have regarded Charlemagne not as a criminal but a patriot. He met his death not in a fight, not in an attempt at his capture, but through a dastard deed. While standing over his camp fire, he was shot in cold blood by an American Marine officer who stood concealed by the darkness, and who had reached the camp through bribery and trickery. This deed, which was nothing short of assassination, has been heralded as an example of American heroism. Of this deed, Harry Franck, writing in the June Century of “The Death of Charlemagne,” says “Indeed it is fit to rank with any of the stirring warrior tales with which history is seasoned from the days of the Greeks down to the recent world war.” America should read “The Death of Charlemagne” which attempts to glorify a black smirch on American arms and tradition.
There is a reason why the methods employed in road building affected the Haitian country folk in a way in which it might not have affected the people of any other Latin-American country. Not since the independence of the country has been any such thing as a peon in Haiti. The revolution by which Haiti gained her independence was not merely a political revolution, it was also a social revolution. Among the many radical changes wrought was that of cutting up the large slave estates into small parcels and allotting them among former slaves. And so it was that every Haitian in the rural districts lived on his own plot of land, a plot on which his family has lived for perhaps more than a hundred years. No matter how small or how large that plot is, and whether he raises much or little on it, it is his and he is an independent farmer.
The completed highway, moreover, continued to be a barb in the Haitian wound. Automobiles on this road, running without any speed limit, are a constant inconvenience or danger to the natives carrying their market produce to town on their heads or loaded on the backs of animals. I have seen these people scramble in terror often up the side or down the declivity of the mountain for places of safety for themselves and their animals as the machines snorted by. I have seen a market woman’s horse take flight and scatter the produce loaded on his back all over the road for several hundred yards. I have heard an American commercial traveler laughingly tell how on the trip from Cape Haitien to Port-au-Prince the automobile he was in killed a donkey and two pigs. It had not occurred to him that the donkey might be the chief capital of the small Haitian farmer and that the loss of it might eventually bankrupt him. It is all very humorous, of course, unless you happen to be the Haitian pedestrian.
The majority of visitors on arriving at Port-au-Prince and noticing the well-paved, well-kept streets, will at once jump to the conclusion that this work was done by the American Occupation. The Occupation goes to no trouble to refute this conclusion, and in fact it will by implication coroborate it. If one should exclaim, “Why I am surprised to see what a well-paved city Port-au-Prince is!” he would be almost certain to receive the answer, “Yes, but you should have seen it before the Occupation.” The implication here is that Port-au-Prince was a mudhole and that the Occupation is responsible for its clean and well-paved streets. It is true that at the time of the intervention, five years ago, there were only one or two paved streets in the Haitian capital, but the contracts for paving the entire city had been let by the Haitian Government, and the work had alrady been begun. This work was completed during the Occupation, but the Occupation did not pave, and had nothing to do with the paving of a single street in Port-au-Prince.
One accomplishment I did expect to find—that the American Occupation, in its five years of absolute rule, had developed and improved the Haitian system of public education. The United States has made some efforts in this direction in other countries where it has taken control. In Porto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines, the attempt, at least, was made to establish modern school systems. Selected youths from these countries were taken and sent to the United States for training in order that they might return and be better teachers, and the American teachers were sent to those islands in exchange. The American Occupation in Haiti has not advanced public education a single step. No new buildings have been erected.Not a single Haitian youth has been sent to the United States for training as a teacher, nor has a single American teacher, white or colored, been sent to Haiti. According to the general budget of Haiti, 1919-1920, there are teachers in the rural schools receiving as little as six dollars a month. Some of these teachers may not be worth more than six dollars a month. But after five years of American rule, there ought not to be a single teacher in the country who is not worth more than that paltry sum.
Another source of discontent is the Gendarmerie. When the Occupation took possession of the island, it disarmed all Haitians, including the various local police forces. To remedy this situation the Convention (Article X), provided that there should be created,—
without delay, an efficient constabulary, urban and rural, composed of native Haitians. This constabulary shall be organized and officered by Americans, appointed by the President of Haiti upon nomination by the President of the United States… These officers shall be replaced by Haitians as they, by examination conducted under direction of a board to be selected by the Senior American Officer of this constabulary in the presence of a representative of the Haitian Government, are found to be qualified to assume such duties.
During the first months of the Occupation officers of the Haitian Gendarmerie were commissioned officers of the marines, but the war took all these officers to Europe. Five years have passed and the constabulary is still offered entirely by marines, but almost without exception they are ex-privates or non-commissioned officers of the United States Marine Corps commissioned in the gendarmerie. Many of these men are rough, uncouth, and uneducation, and a great number from the South, are violently steeped in color prejudice. They direct all policing of the city and town. It falls to them, ignorant of Haitian ways and language, to enforce every minor police regulation. Needless to say, this is a grave source of continued irritation. Where the genial American “cop” could, with a wave of his hand or club, convey the full majesty of the law to the small boy transgressor or to some equally innocuous offender, the strong-arm tactics for which the marines are famous, are apt to be promptly evoked. The pledge in the Convention that “these officers be replaced by Haitians” who could qualify, has, like other pledges, become a mere scrap of paper. Graduates of the famous French military academy of St. Cyr, men who have actually qualified for commissions in the French army, are denied the opportunity to fill even a lesser commission in the Haitian Gendarmerie, although such men, in addition to their pre-eminent qualifications of training, would, because of their understanding of local conditions and their complete familiarity with the ways of their own country, make ideal guardians of the peace.
The American Occupation of Haiti is not only guilty of sins of omission, it is guilty of sins of commission in addition to those committed in the building of the great road across the island. Brutalities and atrocities on the part of American marines have occurred with sufficient frequency to be the cause of deep resentment and terror. Marines talk freely of what they “did” to some Haitians in the outlying districts. Familiar methods of torture to make captives reveal what they often do not know are nonchalantly discussed. Just before I left Port-au-Prince an American Marine had caught a Haitian boy stealing sugar off the wharf and instead of arresting him he battered his brains out with the butt of his rifle. I learned from the lips of American Marines themselves of a number of cases of rape of Haitian women by marines. I often sat at tables in the hotels and cafes in company with marine officers and they talked before me without restraint. I remember the description of a “caco” hunt by one of them; he told how they finally came upon a crowd of natives engaged in the popular pastime of cock-fighting and how they “let them have it” with machine guns and rifle fire. I heard another, a captain of marines, relate how he at a fire in Port-au-Prince ordered a “rather dressed up Haitian,&rdwuo; standing on the sidewalk, to “get in there” and take a hand at the pumps. It appeared that the Haitian merely shrugged his shoulders. The captain of the marines laughingly said: “I had on a pretty heavy pair of boots and I let him have a kick that landed him in the middle of the street. Someone ran up and told me that the man was an ex-member of the Haitian Assembly.” The fact that the man had been a member of the Haitian Assembly made the whole incident more laughable to the captain of the marines.
Perhaps the most serious aspect of American brutality in Haiti is not to be found in individual cases of cruelty, numerous and inexcusable though they are, but rather in the American attitude, well illustrated by the diagnosis of an American officer discussing the situation and its difficulty: “The trouble with this whole business is that some of these people with a little money and education think they are as good as we are,” and this is the keynote of the attitude of every American to every Haitian. Americans have carried American hatred to Haiti. They have planted the feeling of caste and color prejudice where it never before existed.
And such are the “accomplishments” of the United States in Haiti. The Occupation has not only failed to achieve anything worth while, but has made it impossible to do so because of the distrust and bitterness that it has engendered in the Haitian people. Through the present instrumentalities no matter how earnestly the United States may desire to be fair to Haiti and make intervention a success, it will not succeed. An entirely new deal is necessary. This Government forced the Haitian leaders to accept the promise of American aid and American supervision. With that American aid the Haitian Government defaulted its external and internal debt, an obligation, which under self-government the Haitians had scrupulously observed. And American supervision turned out to be a military tyranny supporting a program of economic exploitation. The United States had an opportunity to gain the confidence of the Haitian people. That opportunity has been destroyed. When American troops first landed, although the Haitian people were outraged, there was a feeling nevertheless which might well have developed into cooperation. There were those who had hopes that the United States, guided by its traditional policy of nearly a century and a half, pursuing its fine stand in Cuba, under McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft, would extend aid that would be mutually beneficial to both countries. Those Haitians who indulged this hope are disappointed and bitter. Those members of the Haitian Assembly who, while acting under coercion were nevertheless hopeful of American promises, incurred unpopularity by voting for the Convention, are today bitterly disappointed and utterly disillusioned.
If the United States should leave Haiti today, it would leave more than a thousand widows and orphans of its own making, more banditry than has existed for a century, resentment, hatred and despair in the heart of a whole people, to say nothing of the irreparable injury to its own tradition as the defender of the rights of man.
The real reasons for the Occupation and the continued presence of American troops in Haiti, will be told in the issue of September 11, in an article entitled Government Of, By, and For the National City Bank.
The Nation, vol. 111, no. 2879, pgs 235-237