Ragtime Diplomacy

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Haiti is the difficult subject of this month’s discourse. As I write, the United States is attempting to reach a peaceful, noninterventionary solution to the problem created when the president elected by popular vote three years ago, Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was forcibly ousted by a group of army officers.

It’s all sadly familiar to anyone with even a slight knowledge of HaitianU.S. relations in this century, though the problems used to be “easier” because the solutions were always onesided. I can best illustrate what I mean by saying that my own immediate freeassociation response to the word Haiti is “Franklin D. Roosevelt.” For years I believed a statement he once made that as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1916 he had written Haiti’s constitution— “a pretty darned good one if I say so myself.” It turns out that he was not telling the strict truth. But he could have been, and the “joke” itself speaks volumes about what Americans once thought and did where the Caribbean was concerned.

Haiti was much on the mind of Woodrow Wilson in 1915. Independent since 1804 after a slave uprising against French rulers, the country was beautiful, undeveloped, and very poor. Its two million-plus citizens . were mostly black peasants, more or less governed by a French-speaking, predominantly mulatto elite of high cultivation and low incomes. Its government was chronically in debt, mainly to a national bank owned by French, German, and American investors, and there was always the worry that France or Germany might use defaulted payments as an excuse to occupy the little republic. Wilson’s State Department hoped to put in place a “customs receivership” such as had existed for some years in next-door Santo Domingo, whereby an American agent collected the government’s receipts and reimbursed its creditors. This also squared with Wilson’s paternalistic feeling that under U.S. tutelage the peoples of Central America and the Caribbean could be taught to elect good men and so eventually to need no further policing.

Haiti was not, according to WiIsonian standards, electing good men in January of 1915, when Rear Adm. William B. Caperton, commander of the Atlantic Fleet’s cruiser squadron, received orders to take his flagship, USS Washington , to Cap-Haïtien on the north coast. The mission was to protect foreign lives and property during Haiti’s fifth revolution in four years. These had become almost choreographed and expected procedures for transferring power. An aspiring candidate with the means would hire several hundred or more cacos —peasant mercenaries—armed with swords, knives, pistols, and muskets. If the cacos could take Cap-Haïtien, the revolutionary leader would proclaim himself Chief of the Executive Power. If they continued a successful march southward to Port-au-Prince, then by common consent the capital was yielded without a fight. Then the Haitian Congress was convened and formally elected the rebel chief as president.

The 1915 revolutionist, already in control of Cap-Haïtien, was Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, described by Caperton after an interview as “a very gorgeous black gentleman arrayed like a head bellhop at the Waldorf.” Caperton readily extracted from him a promise neither to loot nor to burn the town and sailed away. In a few weeks, as expected, Guillaume Sam became the new president. The United States, however, did not recognize him yet. It was tired of the game and wanted, in Wilson’s words, to tell Haiti “as firmly and definitely as is consistent with courtesy and kindness” that the United States would not “permit revolutionary conditions constantly to exist there.” Guillaume Sam was offered a deal: American support, to provide stability, in exchange for the acceptance of an American financial overseer.

While Guillaume Sam pondered, lightning struck. A new revolt broke out in the north in July. It was led by a former government minister and diplomat, Rosalvo Bobo, whose platform was to resist Yankee meddling. He allowed that he admired American “genius” but “to turn over to them our customs houses and our finances…never, never, NEVER .” Bobo’s cacos were already in Cap-Haïtien when Caperton was again dispatched there to keep order. But on July 27 a message arrived summoning him immediately to Port-au-Prince, where truly serious violence had broken out. The Washington arrived the next morning to see the grisly end of Guillame Sam’s brief administration. Learning that a revolutionary committee was planning a direct attack on the presidential palace, he had jailed 170 of his political opponents and had them murdered before fleeing to the French Legation next door. When the word got out, a mob broke into the legation, dragged him out, and hacked him to bits. As the Washington entered the harbor, the mob was parading pieces of the body through the streets. The terrified diplomatic colony begged Caperton for protection, which he promptly furnished. By nightfall 330 Marines and bluejackets sustained the U.S. occupation of Port-au-Prince.