After President Trump made his dubious comments about Haiti and other low income countries. Many Libertarians and the Anti Imperial Left have claimed Americas occupation of Haiti from 1915–1934 is the reason Haiti is poor today. These claims are false.
Although its effects often wore off, US rule looks pretty good by comparison with what came before and after in most countries. Haiti offers a particularly dramatic example. Before the US occupation in 1915, seven presidents had been overthrown in seven years. After the last US marines left in 1934, the country lapsed back into instability until, in 1957, the black nationalist Duvalier assumed power.
He and “Baby Doc” (his son Jean Claude) ruled continuously until 1986, presiding over a reign of terror undertaken by their savage secret police, the Tontons Macoutes. After Baby Doc’s overthrow it was back to chaos, leavened only by despotism. In 1994 the United States was driven to intervene once again to oust a military junta and restore to power President Jean Bertrand Aristide. But no matter who is in charge, the Haitian people continue to suffer horrifying levels of poverty, crime, disease, and violence; their country is the poorest an the Western Hemisphere, and one of the poorest on earth.
By contrast, the almost two decades of American occupation stand out as an oasis of prosperity and stability. While not exactly democratic (the United States ruled for a time through an appointed president), the American occupation was undertaken with minimal force. Haiti hosted fewer than 800 US Marines, and life was freer than at just about any time before or since.
The Americans made no attempt to exploit Haiti economically; US authorities actively discouraged large American companies from setting up shop for fear that they would take advantage of the people. The US administrators ran the government fairly and efficiently, and by the time they left they could tick off a long list of achievements: 1,000 miles of roads and 210 bridges built, 9 major airfields, 1,250 miles of telephone lines, 82 miles of irrigation canals, 11 modern hospitals, 147 rural clinics, and on and on.
Unfortunately, most of the physical manifestations of the American empire roads, hospitals, telephone systems began to crumble not long after the marines pulled out. This should be no surprise; it has been the case whenever more technologically advanced imperialists have left a less sophisticated area, whether they were the Romans pulling out of Britain or the British out of India. The two most lasting legacies of American interventions in the Caribbean may be a resentment of flie Yanquis, now perhaps fading, and a love of baseball, still passionately felt.
This does not mean, however, that occupation is entirely futile. US troops can stop the killing, end the chaos, create a breathing space, and establish the rule of law. What the inhabitants do then is up to them. If America’s aim is to recreate Ohio in Kosovo or Haiti, the occupiers are doomed to disappointment. But if the goals are more modest, US rule can serve the interests of occupiers and occupied alike. Put another way, nation building is generally too ambitious a task, but state building is not, the apparatus of a functioning state can be developed much more quickly than a national consciousness.
In Latin America, the rise and fall of democratic regimes also coincided with the rise and fall of American influence. In the second and third decades of this century, American intervention in Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic produced the freest elections and the most open political competition in the history of those countries. In these countries, as in others in Central America and the Caribbean, American influence in support of free elections was usually exerted in response to the protests of opposition groups against the repressive actions of their own governments and as a result of American fears that revolution or civil war would occur if significant political and social forces were denied equal opportunity to participate in the political process.
The American aim, as Theodore Wright made clear in his comprehensive study, was to “promote political stability by supporting free elections” rather than by strengthening military dictatorships. In its interventions in eight Caribbean and Central American countries between 1900 and 1933 the United States acted on the assumption that “the only way both to prevent revolutions and to determine whether they are justified if they do break out is to guarantee free elections.”
The interventions by United States Marines in Haiti, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere in these years often bore striking resemblances to the interventions by federal marshals in the conduct of elections in the American South in the 1960s: registering voters, protecting against electoral violence, ensuring a free vote and an honest count.
Direct intervention by the American government in Central America and the Caribbean came to at least a temporary end in the early 1930s. Without exception the result was a shift in the direction of more dictatorial regimes. It had taken American power to impose even the most modest aspects of democracy in these societies. When American intervention ended, democracy ended. For the Caribbean and Central America, the era of the Good Neighbor was also the era of the bad tyrant. The efforts of the United States to be the former gave a variety of unsavory local characters Trujillo, Somoza, Batista the opportunity to be the latter.
As for the “War is a Racket” narrative. The interventions in Central America and the Caribbean have become infamous as “gunboat diplomacy” and as “banana wars” undertaken at the behest of powerful Wall Street interests. Smedley Butler helped solidify this myth when, after his retirement from the Marine Corps, he became an ardent isolationist and anti-imperialist. He spent the 1930s denouncing his own career, claiming he had been “a racketeer for capitalism” and a “highclass muscle man for Big Business.”
In fact, in the early years of the twentieth century, the United States was least likely to intervene in those nations (such as Argentina and Costa Rica) where American investors held the biggest stakes. The longest occupations were undertaken in precisely those countries Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic where the United States had the smallest economic stakes. Moreover, two of the most interventionist Presidents in U.S. history, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, were united in their contempt for what TR called “malefactors of great wealth.” Wilson was probably the most imperialist President of all, and his interventions had a decidedly idealistic tinge. His goal, as he proclaimed at the start of his administration, was “to teach the South American republics to elect good men.”