On May 23, 2008, Senator Barak Obama delivered a speech in Miami, FL in which he discussed his Administration’s policy towards Latin America and the Caribbean, should he be elected President in November. The speech was delivered before the Cuban-American National Foundation and received broad media exposure since it signaled that the Illinois Senator would fight for votes even in communities where Republicans have traditionally enjoyed strong political support. Cuban-Americans are notoriously anti-Castro and have successfully lobbied for the imposition and maintenance of strong economic and political sanctions against the Cuban government. Conventional wisdom has dictated that if one is to win the Cuban-American vote, one must endorse its positions on Cuba. Obama seemed to defy the conventional wisdom by proffering that he favors more exchanges with Cuba, i.e. a relaxation of some of the US sanctions.
The speech did not limit itself to a discussion of Cuba alone. It dealt with Latin America and the Caribbean as a whole. On this occasion, the campaign released a position paper called A New Partnership for the Americas which laid out more clearly the policy from which Obama derives inspiration and which he intends to pursue:
Obama will pursue a program of aggressive, principled and sustained diplomacy in the Americas with a focus on advancing freedom as Franklin Roosevelt described it: political freedom, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
Is that right? Upon reading this I did a double take. Wasn’t Franklin Delano Roosevelt Assistant Secretary of the Navy when the US marines invaded Haiti in 1915?
In principle, he did not order the invasion. President Woodrow Wilson did using the Monroe Doctrine. When Roosevelt became President later, he repudiated the Monroe Doctrine, adopting instead the Good Neighbor Policy that led to the withdrawal of American troops from Haitian soil in 1934. Yet, while historians agree that American intervention in the early 20th century was dictated by geopolitical and national security concerns, rather than the welfare of the occupied peoples, in 1928 Roosevelt said in defense of US Intervention in Haiti:
[Haiti] was in chronic trouble, and as it is close to Cuba the bad influence was felt across the water. Presidents were murdered, governments fled, several time a year. We landed our marines and sailors only when the unfortunate Chief Magistrate of the moment was dragged out of the French Legation, cut into six pieces and thrown to the mob. Here again we cleaned house, restored order, built public works and put governmental operation on a sound and honest basis. We are still there. It is true, however, that in Santo Domingo and especially in Haiti we seem to have paid too little attention to making the citizens of these states more capable of reassuming the control of their own governments. But we have done a fine piece of material work, and the world ought to thank us. (Foreign Affairs, Vol. VI, 1928. p. 584)
Haitians have long held that the American Occupation of Haiti (1915-1934) was one of the most humiliating periods in the nation’s history since the slaves freed themselves from the chains of French colonialism and established the second independent Republic in the Americas. Haitians had vowed never again to be under the boot of a foreign people. Yet there they were, subject to rules and policies imposed by a foreign power. According to the Haiti Country Study done by the Library of Congress, here is in a nutshell what happened during the American Occupation:
Representatives from the United States wielded veto power over all governmental decisions in Haiti, and Marine Corps commanders served as administrators in the provinces. Local institutions, however, continued to be run by Haitians, as was required under policies put in place during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. In line with these policies, Admiral William Caperton, the initial commander of United States forces, instructed [Rosalvo] Bobo to refrain from offering himself to the legislature as a presidential candidate. Philippe Sudre Dartiguenave, the mulatto president of the Senate, agreed to accept the presidency of Haiti after several other candidates had refused on principle.
With a figurehead installed in the National Palace and other institutions maintained in form if not in function, Caperton declared martial law, a condition that persisted until 1929. A treaty passed by the Haitian legislature in November 1915 granted further authority to the United States. The treaty allowed Washington to assume complete control of Haiti’s finances, and it gave the United States sole authority over the appointment of advisers and receivers. The treaty also gave the United States responsibility for establishing and running public-health and public-works programs and for supervising routine governmental affairs. The treaty also established the Gendarmerie d’Haïti (Haitian Constabulary), a step later replicated in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. The Gendarmerie was Haiti’s first professional military force, and it was eventually to play an important political role in the country. In 1917 President Dartiguenave dissolved the legislature after its members refused to approve a constitution purportedly authored by United States assistant secretary of the navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. A referendum subsequently approved the new constitution (by a vote of 98,225 to 768), however, in 1918. Generally a liberal document, the constitution allowed foreigners to purchase land. Dessalines had forbidden land ownership by foreigners, and since 1804 most Haitians had viewed foreign ownership as anathema.
President Roosevelt accomplished for the United States a great many things during his four terms of office, beginning with his robust handling of the economic initiatives that pulled the US out of the Great Depression. Along with his spouse, Eleanor, he pushed for the establishment of the United Nations and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Haitians however might not appreciate Obama’s reference to Roosevelt-style “aggressive diplomacy” when Roosevelt remains so closely associated with tight-fisted management of Haiti during the American occupation.
In his May 23rd speech, Obama said other things about Haiti which I will comment on in the future. Meanwhile I invite your reflections. Will this faux pas dull Obama’s shine among Haitians and others who remain skeptical of a truly new orientation in US foreign policy under an Obama administration? You tell me.