Domestic Politics Drives Bush’s Interest in Haiti

Although early in the last century there was a brief flurry in a few American business circles about oil in Haiti, the idea died decades ago. Hence, let us assume that George W. Bush’s arrival in Port au Prince had nothing to do with the American national appetite for black gold, there being none on that blighted isle.

If rumor has it right, it’s in Haiti that they stitch the covers of baseballs, there being no machine that can do it for less than a Haitian woman. We can speculate that George W. Bush, who got rich having Texas taxpayers subsidize a baseball team in which he had part ownership, may have made his move into Haiti to guarantee a plentiful supply of spheroids for Opening Day, which is only a couple of weeks away. Probably not, however.

So what’s he doing there? It’s possible that Paul Wolfowitz or some other big-shot neocon mentioned the poverty in the land of voodoo and misery. It would be in keeping with Mr. Wolfowitz’s many acts of charity directed toward persons of color. Let’s occupy that woebegone place and show them the way toward wealth and full employment, as we have done here in the United States.

The formula for national prosperity is the one piece of intellectual property that N. Gregory Mankiw, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, is willing to share with all comers without royalties or other licensing fees. Dr. Mankiw, you will recall, is the chap who said: “Outsourcing is just a new way of doing international trade. More things are tradable than were tradable in the past, and that’s a good thing.” The more jobs you send abroad, the more jobs you get back-a hypothesis confirmed every day by the tens of thousands handing in applications to personnel departments of firms across America.

But as sure a way to riches as the great sucking sound may be, sending jobs to China will not do much for Haiti, because Haiti has no jobs to send. Haiti is free of the fear which runs through much of America-the fear of the employed that they may not be so much longer. The advantage of being Haitian is that you don’t have to worry about paying your credit-card bill or your home-equity loan or making your car payment. Having no car, no home and no credit card, Haitians are fortunate enough to be almost care-free. With a little more luck, they will be food-free, and then it’s blue skies from here on in.

So what is the most compassionate of all the compassionate conservatives doing dibble-dabbling in Haiti?

Be assured that it has nothing to do with Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the deposed president of Haiti, his alleged radicalism, or the more-than-alleged kleptomania of some of the people around him. Among the ambitions that George Bush does not have is playing sheriff in that godforsaken country. Mr. Bush’s approach to Haiti is more like that of Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, who is supposed to have called John H. Allen, the American manager of the Bank Nationale in Port-au-Prince, to Washington to hear all about Haiti; when Allen finished, Bryan leaned back in his chair and exploded, “Dear me! Think of it. Niggers speaking French!”

So what’s Mr. Bush up to in that country, where the land and the people both are exhausted past the point of poverty. Need you ask? He’s making sure that he carries the state of Florida in next November’s election. George W. Bush wants to make sure that thousands of very black Haitian refugees don’t get into rowboats, tubs, rafts, canoes or junk trucks with pontoons attached to them and float over to the white beaches of Florida. That happened to Bill Clinton, and there was the deuce to pay. Mr. Bush isn’t going to make that same mistake: No black man is getting off that island until the last electoral vote is counted. But let’s leave vote-counting for another time.

If there is one thing that the United States has had enough practice at, it is overawing Haitians with shows of military force. The United States Navy turned up to intimidate Haiti in 1857, 1859, 1868, 1869, 1876, 1888, 1892, 1902, 1903, 1904, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1911, 1912 and 1913. In 1915, evidently despairing that these visitations would ever succeed in teaching the Haitians how to run their affairs, the Americans occupied the place, not leaving until 1934.

Over the centuries, American motives for interesting itself in Haiti kept changing. In 1817, the American Colonization Society-with the backing of Thomas Jefferson-promoted first Liberia and then Haiti as a place for ex-slaves. Some 13,000 of them were shipped off to the island, where they were not welcomed and, after having been given a terrible time by the local citizenry, drifted back to the United States-or at least as many as could drifted back. Since not even the greatest of us necessarily learn from experience, it was Abraham Lincoln who had a hand in the next disastrous try at whitening America by shipping black people off to Haiti. He had the government commit to paying $50 a head to a contractor for moving them out of the country. Some 500 lost black souls ended up on Il a Vache, where they suffered so much that a U.S. Army transport was sent to bring them back to their native land, which had no use for them.

American interest in Haiti as a naval base waxed and waned through most of the 19th century, and, as usual, there was a money angle-a rather nauseating one. A little background is needed here. Haiti is, after the United States, the oldest independent nation in the Western Hemisphere, having attained that status when its population, almost all of whom were slaves, revolted and drove their French masters out. The French, however, did not give up easily. They tried to recapture their lost colony and were again defeated by the Haitians, who still couldn’t get the French off their backs until they agreed to pay their departed masters a huge, multimillion-dollar indemnity for their former slaves. Payment of this debt, supported by the United States slave power, weighed down the country’s possibilities for material progress for decades.

In due course, the debt was converted into bonds held by the National City Bank of New York. To ensure the interest on the bonds was paid, the American government stood ready to seize the Haitian custom-house revenues, the only source of money the bedraggled little state had, and give them to the bank. What was once the National City Bank is now Citigroup, one of the world’s biggest financial agglomerations. It stands to reason that if German and Swiss banks and other corporations can be successfully sued for their part in the Nazis’ crimes, Citigroup is ripe for a gigantic judgment against it for the profits it took-and, one can say, continues to take to this day-from Haitian slavery. In the middle of the 19th century, the amount involved was over $20 million. Compound the interest on that for 150 years, plus some kind of very large and richly deserved punitive damages, and maybe even Citigroup might feel a twinge of pain from the pea under that mattress.

When the United States sent in the Marines in 1915 and took over until 1934, the American officers’ reaction to the locals was the same as a White House neocon’s is to an Arab today: unalloyed contempt, as illustrated by this letter from Col. Little W. T. Waller, USMC, to a friend, also in the Corps: “What the people of Norfolk and Portsmouth would say if they saw me bowing and scraping to these coons-I do not know …. “

There was precious little bowing and scraping, however, in an occupation that seems, when you read about it, to have been a dress rehearsal for Iraq. There was the same placing and replacing of puppet politicians, some of whom insisted on allowing their Haitian nationalism to get the best of them and were then tossed out. There was the same constitution-writing as we are watching in Iraq, with the same inclusion of provision for American business, and the same American-created constabulary, which turned treacherous in much the same manner as is seemingly transpiring in Iraq. And just as photographs of Uday and Qusay Hussein’s dead bodies were displayed everywhere in Iraq, in Haiti, after two Marines assassinated an insurgent named Charlemagne Peralte, a picture of his body clad only in a loin cloth was circulated throughout the country. That misfired, too, when the Haitian peasantry decided that Peralte resembled the crucified Jesus. To build roads and such, the Americans reinstituted the corvée, a French practice of forcing unpaid labor from the people, roping them together chain-gang style; you might call it part-time slavery. As with Iraq, the American occupation of Haiti was plagued by eruptions of violence, civil insecurity, strikes and a stubborn hatred of the white liberators by an ungrateful population.

The man in overall charge of five years of this model Haitian nation-building program was Franklin D. Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The Republicans made an issue of Roosevelt’s indefensible administration of Haiti in the 1920 election, in which he was the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate. Things got somewhat better under the Republicans, but the Haitians continued to revolt against their Jim Crow lords and masters.

African-American politicians may protest our new incursion into Haiti; but when you consider the reasons offered for 150 years of American insults, depredations, humiliations, invasions, killings, kickings and beatings, Mr. Bush having the Marines shanghai Mr. Aristide in order to carry Florida is no worse then what has gone before.