Ragtime Diplomacy


The sixty-year-old admiral now began a deft diplomatic performance. While assuring the revolutionary committee that the occupation was temporary, he looked for a presidential candidate for them to name who would be pliable, but not to a degree unacceptable to Haitian nationalists and possible future revolutionaries. The committee would likely have named Bobo, but he would not do. Poor Bobo assumed that having followed the usual scenario, he would be installed in the presidential palace by Haiti’s Congress. Instead, when he boarded the flagship arrayed in top hat and frock coat and carrying a suitcase labeled “Chief of the Executive Power,” he was told by Caperton’s French-speaking chief of staff, Capt. Edward L. Beach, that he was “not a candidate” and was in fact “a menace and a curse to [his] country” for forcing it anew into “the throes of agony.” Bobo, a well-educated and reputedly honest physician, protested in vain.

Caperton then, step by step and without strutting, secured reinforcements for his outnumbered garrison, dissolved the revolutionary committee, and disarmed the Haitian soldiers in the capital by simply paying, feeding, and discharging them. He postponed the election until he found his candidate. This turned out to be Philippe Dartiguenave, president of the senate, a cultivated lawyer who, like a few other members of the local elite, was anxious to have the turmoil end. He would accept U.S. control of the customhouses and security forces if no formal giveaway of independence or territory was required. (If Caperton’s terms seem harsh, they must be contrasted with those of the head of the State Department’s Latin American division, Boaz W. Long, who held that Haiti’s problems stemmed from “the failure of an inferior people to maintain the degree of civilization left them by the French.” He wanted a flat-out occupation for thirty-three years, renewable for successive terms at U.S. discretion.)

The Washington’s mission: protect U.S. lives and property during the fifth revolution in four years.

Dartiguenave was elected by Congress on August 12 in a chamber guarded by Marines.

But it did not end there. The next step was to get Haiti to sign a treaty embodying the agreed-on conditions, which included the replacement of the Haitian army and police force with a constabulary trained and led by Americans. But this elimination of the Haitian armed services robbed educated Haitians of commissions and perks that were their basic source of income. Unrest simmered. Caperton eventually had to send the Marines, now commanded by an iron-hard veteran of the Philippine insurrection, Col. Littleton Waller. Some two hundred cacos were killed in the pacification.

Finally the Haitian Congress gave in and ratified the treaty at the end of 1915. But the story was still not over. The Haitian constitution had to be rewritten to accommodate the new structure, based on a “suggested” draft sent down by Washington. (It was this one that Roosevelt claimed credit for, but actually it was drawn up in the State Department with some input from his office.) When the Haitian Congress again balked, Caperton at last had to drop the fig leaf of sovereignty and dissolve it. Eventually, in 1917, the constitution was ratified in a popular plebiscite conducted under Marine auspices. Only 5 percent of the population voted.

By then the diplomatic Caperton had been reassigned and replaced by Waller, whose assessment was that Haitian officials were “fine looking, well educated polished men…but they are real nigs beneath the surface.” In 1918 a new caco rebellion broke out, and this time he put it down at a cost of more than two thousand Haitian lives.

A Senate investigation in 1921 showed that the country was indeed pacified, foreign influences kept out, and the bankers paid on time, but it was no less poor and no more prepared for democratic government. The occupation ended in 1934, when world events shaped a new U.S. policy in the hemisphere, described by President Franklin Roosevelt, the self-proclaimed Haitian constitution writer, as that of the good neighbor.

And there we may leave. Haiti endured many regimes after the Marines left, but its root problems—poverty, injustice, and instability—remained unchanged. Whatever the United States will do in 1994, it cannot any longer play under the 1915 rules. But what are the right rules now? What, when it comes to that, is the game?