The United States occupied Haiti from 1915 until 1934 and justified this occupation by arguing that it had the moral obligation to stabilize the country. Today, the US Department of State office of the Historian puts it this way: “...President Wilson sent the Marines to Haiti to prevent anarchy. In actuality, the act protected U.S. assets in the area...”
The US occupation of numerous southern neighbors and its purchase of various islands in the region suggest that its intervention in Haiti was part of a broader American expansion into the Caribbean and Latin America. At the time, the European powers were less of a counterweight to American expansion as they were engaged in their own interventions in Africa and later in their own war, the Great European War now called Word War I.
The pretext for the American Occupation can be understood through an examination of the impact of American companies, particularly Citibank and the railroad company owned by James P. McDonald, which, backed by a series of Haitian governments, helped to create havoc in Haiti. The laying of the tracts for that railroad began in 1905 when a group of Haitian businessman started a project to link Port-au-Prince to Cap Haitian by rail. After they exhausted their funds, McDonald purchased their company and expanded its scope to include the rights for 50 years to 20 kilometers of land on either side of the railroad tracts all along its course. Additionally, he was granted a monopoly on all future Haitian banana exports.
James P. McDonald's dream of reviving a plantation economy with foreign owners and local laborers became a nightmare for Haitians. Countless farmers were dispossessed of their land without compensation, their homes burned and their livelihoods destroyed to make way for McDonald's plantations. Although numerous dispossessed farmers left Haiti for good, many others decided to fight the government forces allied with McDonald. They called the government forces lizards and called themselves Kako, a name apparently derived from the taco bird that feeds on lizards. The name Kako may also be a short form of karako, a popular cloth worn by the countryside people.
The fighting between McDonald's allies and the Kakos destabilized Haiti and resulted in rapid turnover of a series of governments. Between 1911 and 1915, the country passed through 7 different presidents. This new instability contrasted with the earlier years of the republic when such leaders as Christophe, Petion, Boyer, and Soulouque ruled for about a decade or more.
As these events unfolded in Haiti, the US became increasingly confident that the instability would justify its longstanding desire to colonize Haiti. First, in 1857, the US took over Navassa , an island 35 miles from the Haitian coast and claimed by Haiti since its independence. In 1891, the US sent troops to quell an enslaved Haitian workers rebellion on Navassa. Another American effort to seize another Haitian island began in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln approved efforts to colonize Ile-a-Vache as a gateway to Haiti. This mission failed when American settlers on Ile-aVache were devastated by a variola epidemic and reinforcements were not sent as the US became embroiled in the Phillipines. Later, while constructing the Panama Canal in 1904, the US considered acquiring Mole St. Nicholas in Haiti to build a US military base to help protect the canal.
In 1915, sensing that a US invasion of Haiti was imminent, the Haitian ambassador to Washington, Selon Menos, summed up American policy towards Haiti as “ through a system of progressive strangulation, the US aimed to force Haiti to reach out for the chains.” Two agents of that strangulation were McDonald and Roger L. Farnham, the vice-president of Citibank. Farnham acquired a chokehold on Haiti's finances after the country became beholden to creditors from whom it had to borrow to pay an indemnity to France valued today at 21 billion dollars. By the end of the 19th century, 80% of Haiti's national budget was going to France. Concerned that this unsustainable situation would lead to default, in 1888, France created a Haitian National Bank, owned by France, to secure payments to itself. Later, in 1895, France sold the Haitian National Bank to Citibank, a transaction that made Farnham the chair of the Haitian National Bank. In 1914, backed by US troops, Farnham moved Haiti's gold reserves to a Citibank branch in New York.*
In 1915, the US consulted with both McDonald and Farnham on a plan to invade Haiti. In preparation for the invasion, the United States elected to exercise the leverage it had over Haiti's National Bank and stopped funding Vilbrun Guillaume Sam's government, making the country bankrupt. Following the invasion, Farnham purchased the railroad company from McDonald. US marines were now helping to evict Haitian farmers to transfer their land to American agricultural companies. The Haitian American Development Corporation received 14,000 acres. The Haytian Pineapple Company received 600 acres. Prior to the American invasion, HASCO, the Haitian American Sugar Company had trouble securing land in the region of Port-au-Prince, but following the US invasion, this was resolved. HASCO acquired 11,000 acres and opened its sugar mill in 1918. Under American Occupation, the number of people fleeing Haiti for the Dominican Republic and for Cuba steadily grew. In 1912, only 200 Haitians had migrated to Cuba. In just one year into the American Occupation, 5000 went to Cuba. In 1920, thirty thousand moved to Cuba, bringing the total number of Haitians residing in Cuba at that time to 100,000.
The Kako farmers who fought the Haitian government “lizards” with their machetes and a few old rifles, had to now fight a far superior force, the US Marines, who were equipped with a more modern weapon, the machine gun. With sheer courage alone, the countryside farmers fought the Americans for their land. Ironically, the people of the countryside are often portrayed as docile and malleable, but in rising to defend the country, they demonstrated that they could be as tough as the situation demanded, giving credence to the proverb: jan ou wè m nan, konsa m danjere.
Wherever US companies attempted to evict people, Kakos resisted preventing the US from reimposing the plantation economy uprooted by the Haitian Revolution. The Kakos kept the vision of that revolution alive. Haitians were determined not to give up their land nor to work it for foreign owners. Their efforts against a seemingly invincible opponent brought about the Haitian expression: If McDonald can be stopped, so can you - W a rete, Makdonal te rete.
*It was not until 1935 that the Haitian Government purchased its National Bank from Citibank.
David Nicholls Rural Protests and Peasant Revolts 1804-1869. Haitian History: New Perspectives. Routledge, New York, 2013
Laurent Dubois. Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. Metropolitan Books /Henry Holt and Company. New York, 2011
Yoland Gilles: Private communication with Bookmanlit, 2013
The US Department of State Office of the Historian: https://history.state.gov/milestones/1914-1920/Haiti, accessed on 7/23/15
Peter C. Bloch, Virginia Lambert, and Norman Singer. Land Tenure Issues in Rural Haiti: Review of the Evidence. Land Tenure Center. University of Wisconsin Madison. 1988