Haiti, Relations with

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HAITI, RELATIONS WITH. Relations between the United States and Haiti, the two oldest republics in the Western Hemisphere, have often been troubled. For most of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, race played a key role in the contact between the two nations. During the last several decades, other issues—immigration, security, and narcotics trafficking—have dominated their relationship.

In 1804, following years of rebellion against their French masters, Haitians were able to declare the independence of their island nation (which also encompassed the present-day nation of the Dominican Republic until 1844). Despite profitable trade relations with Haiti, the United States did not recognize the new republic. Southern congressmen, and their slave-owning constituents, were appalled at the thought of the "negro republic" and the dangerous message it might send to the millions of enslaved African Americans in the United States. It was not until 1862, during the Civil War, that the United States extended formal diplomatic recognition to Haiti. Still reflecting the intense racism in America, however, the Department of State appointed mostly African Americans—including Frederick Douglass—to head the U.S. diplomatic mission in Haiti in the post–Civil War period.

In the years following the Civil War, the American focus on Haiti began to sharpen as the United States pursued aggressive commercial and territorial overseas expansion. American industry, which needed both markets and sources for raw materials, saw Haiti as a relatively untapped resource. United States officials and businessmen worked assiduously to secure the Haitian market, and by the turn of the century, the United States ranked second only to France in trade with the Caribbean nation. The United States also developed a keen strategic interest in Haiti, for the American navy was clamoring for a Caribbean port to serve as a coaling station and base from which to protect America's lines of trade in the region. Môle St.-Nicolas, the finest port in Haiti, fit the bill nicely. Throughout the late nineteenth century, the United States attempted to secure a lease on the port, but Haiti refused.

During the early 1900s, U.S. concern with Haiti intensified. Part of the concern revolved around the increasing German economic presence in Haiti that threatened in some instances to displace American interests. Both the French and German governments were not above using diplomatic pressure and threats of intervention to induce Haiti to pay its debts or offer concessions. In 1910, the United States attempted to blunt the Europeans' penetration of Haiti by convincing the Haitian government to accept a major loan and offer American businesses profitable economic concessions. In 1915, Haitian political instability exploded into violence and the nation's president was seized and murdered by an angry crowd. In response, President Woodrow Wilson ordered U.S. marines into the nation to restore order and protect American interests. Thus began an American occupation of Haiti that lasted until 1934. During those years, American control of the Haitian economy became complete, despite occasional revolts by Haitian peasants.

By the late 1920s and early 1930s, with the Great Depression in full swing, the costly, and sometimes bloody, occupation of Haiti became extremely unpopular with the American people. President Franklin Roosevelt, as part of his Good Neighbor policy, promised to end the American military presence. With the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1934, the Haitian military—armed and trained by the United States during the occupation—filled the political void. The key figure who emerged from the political uncertainty in Haiti following the U.S. withdrawal was François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, who used the military to gain election to the presidency in 1957. Duvalier soon proved himself to be a completely corrupt and brutal dictator, who used his secret police force (the Tonton Macoutes) to intimidate and murder his opposition. He managed, however, to maintain good relations with the United States because of his professed tough stance against communism. In 1971, the old dictator passed away and was immediately replaced by his teenage son, Jean-Claude.

Beginning in the 1980s, U.S.-Haitian relations began to deteriorate rapidly. A new emphasis on human rights by President Jimmy Carter was part of the reason, and the American government began to hammer away at the blatant human rights abuses in Haiti. However, other factors were also involved. Drug trafficking became a widespread problem in Haiti, and U.S. officials chided the Haitian government for its ineffective measures to stem the flow of narcotics into America. Hundreds, and then thousands, of Haitian "boat people," attempting to flee the brutal political repression and poverty of their homeland, flooded into the United States. Most were immediately returned to Haiti, resulting in a cry of racism from Haitian American groups who compared the cold shoulder turned to Haitian immigrants to the warm welcome enjoyed by Cuban refugees. These and other issues increased American concerns about the security of Haiti and fears of radical forces taking control from the Duvalier regime.

In 1986, Duvalier fled Haiti amidst growing political instability and frequent riots. His departure did little to improve the lot of the average Haitian or to soothe American concerns for the future of the nation. What followed was a confusing procession of juntas, provisional governments, and postponed, cancelled, or rigged elections, all under the savagely brutal hand of the Haitian military. Under intense diplomatic and economic pressure from the United States, Haitian elections were held in December 1990, resulting in the selection of Jean-Bertrand Aristide as the new president. Within a year, however, Aristide was forced from office by the military. The United States responded with economic sanctions and threats of intervention if Aristide was not restored to power. As chaos and violence engulfed Haiti, the United States, with support from the United Nations and the Organization of American States, organized and led a multinational force into Haiti in September 1994. Aristide was restored to power. He was succeeded by Réné Preval, who was elected in 1996.

Most of the multinational force was withdrawn from Haiti, leaving a United Nations peacekeeping force of six thousand. The goal of the UN force was to maintain order, train a new Haitian police force, and oversee future elections. The United States pumped millions of dollars of economic assistance into Haiti during the late 1990s. While many of the worst examples of political corruption and brutality began to come to an end following the U.S.-led intervention, the situation in Haiti remained tense and uncertain. Despite American and international economic assistance, the Haitian economy continued to perform badly, and Haiti remained one of the poorest nations in the world. As of 2002, illegal immigration from Haiti remained a source of friction with the United States, as did the issue of drug trafficking. It seemed unlikely that any of these problems would disappear in the years to come.


Logan, Rayford W. The Diplomatic Relations of the United States and Haiti, 1776–1891. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1941.

Plummer, Brenda Gayle. Haiti and the United States: The Psychological Moment. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.

Renda, Mary A. Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915–1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Schmidt, Hans. The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915–1934. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1971.

Michael L.Krenn

See alsoCaribbean Policy ; Intervention .