Showing posts with label Jacques Roumain and The U.S. Occupation in Haiti: The Economic Impact (Part I). Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jacques Roumain and The U.S. Occupation in Haiti: The Economic Impact (Part I). Show all posts

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Jacques Roumain and The U.S. Occupation in Haiti: The Economic Impact

Jacques Roumain and The U.S. Occupation in Haiti: The Economic Impact (Part I)[1]

by Celucien L. Joseph

Jean Baptiste (“Jacques”) Roumain was born in Haiti on June 4, 1907 Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to a Haitian aristocratic family, the son of Auguste Roumain, a wealthy landowner, and Marie Émilie Auguste, the daughter of the Haitian President Jean Antoine “Tancrède Auguste” (1912-1913), who succeeded President Cincinnatus Leconte who died in office in August 9, 1912, in a massive explosion that ruined Haiti’s presidential palace in Port-au-Prince.[2] Roumain’s grandfather-President suffered a devastating illness— “a victim of severe anemia caused by advanced untreated syphilis”[3]—leading to his untiming death in office on May 2, 1913. Shortly after the death of President Auguste, the Haitian National Assembly appointed Miche Oreste Lafontant as the “acting President.”

President Lafontant was a progressive leader and a reformer who attempted to modernize the country and unify various antagonistic political parties or groups. He initiated the rebuilding process of the former Presidential Palace that was vanquished. Because of internal political turmoil, he was forced to step down from public office, and ultimately died in exile in New York on 28 October, 1918. After the short tenure of Presidents Emmanuel Oreste Zamor (from February 8, 1914 to October 29, 2014), Joseph Davilmar Théodore (from November 7, 1914 to February 22, 1915), Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam (February 25, 1915 to July 28, 1915), Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave succeeded the office of next Presidency and became the first “official president” of the defacto American military occupation and cultural imperialism, beginning in July 1915 and ending in August 1934.  Nonetheless, American military troops invaded the independent and sovereign Caribbean nation on July 27, 1915, following the popular uprising leading to the ruthless death of President Sam, whose body parts were crushed, split, and thrown in the streets of Port-au-Prince. President Dartiguenave, who was chosen by the American government, would occupy the presidential post from August 12, 1915 to May 15, 1922.

The “suffering Black Republic” experienced a shattering civil war in 1912 that further alienated various political parties, dehumanized the Haitian people,  and substantially weakened the Haitian political and civil society. Political unrest and chaotic order is characteristic of Haiti’s turbulent years during those defacto presidential administrations. As American historian Hans Schmidt has described the “presidential narrative” and the “routine” of Haiti’s Heads of state in the first quarter of the twentieth century:

Revolutions and insurrections in Haiti became more frequent during the late nineteenth century and by 1910 followed well-established patterns. A candidate for the office of president would for a caco army in the north of Haiti, capture the port of Cap-Haitien, declare himself a legitimate rival of the incumbent president, and march on Port-au-Prince. As the caco army approached Port-au-Prince, plundering as it moved along, the incumbent president often would leave the country with part of the treasury funds. The caco army would then capture Port-au-Prince, surround the legislature, and oversee the election of the insurgent candidate by the Haitian Senate. From 1888 to 1915 no Haitian president served a complete seven-year term and only one died a natural death while in office; the other ten were either killed or overthrown, seven of them during the chaotic period after 1911. The main prize for successful revolutionaries was control of the customhouses, which accounted for all government revenues.[4]  

Roumain emerged as a public voice and an anti-imperial critic of the American occupation and American imperialism in the first third of the twentieth century. His anti-Occupation rhetoric summons Haitian elite and the masses to unite together under the banner of “collective suffering” to fight the foreing invadors in the Caribbean nation: “Soyons des frères unis, ‘Le peuple et l’elite; sans cela une mise plus cruelle que la mort physique nous attend. Brisons les barriers! (“Let us be brothers united, the people and the elite; without that, a death more cruel than physical death awaits us. Let us break the barriers! In particular, he calls the Haitian youth to be united under the common cause: the liberation of their native land: “Jeunesse, ou etes-vous? Ressaissons-nous! Jeunesse, vous êtes éparpille! Cela ne doit pas être. Groupez-vous! Nous avons donné le branle et nous espérons, après les rudes journées de lutte, entonner l’hymne de la délivrance!”[5] (“Youth, where are you? Group yourselves! Youth, you are scattered! That should not be. Consolidate yourselves! We have set in motion and we hope that, after the harsh days of struggle, we will sing the hymn of deliverance”).
As the President of the Ligue de la Jeunesse Patriote Haitienne, Roumain had exercised a vast influence on the Haitian youth of his generation. The Haitian Youth was committed to his leadership, inspired by his patriotic zeal, and sharp cultural criticism and activism of the social and political order of his day; they followed him unreservedly.

In June 1934, at the end of the American Occupation in Haiti which lasted 19 years  (1915-1934), Jacques Roumain, under the tutelage of the Parti Communiste Haitien (Haitian Communist Party) released an eighteen-page booklet entitled “A Preliminary Analysis of the Years 1932-1934.” The booklet was published in 1934, and is organized according in three broad headings and interrelated topics:

a)      Ecroulement du Mythe Nationaliste/The Collapse of the Nationalist Myth

b)      Préjugé de couleur et lutte de classes/Color Prejudice and Class Struggle

c)      Critique du Manifeste de Réaction Démocratique[6]/Critique of Manifesto of the Group La Réaction Démocratique (RD)

              According to Roumain, the purpose of the booklet was to provide a critical analysis of the Haitian society during the years 1932-1934—a significant historical moment which led to the progressive decline of Haitian nationalism and patriotic fervor. One of the most important observations Roumain makes in the first heading is to link Haitian nationalism, and the economic domination and exploitation of Haitian peasant class and the working class population by the Bourgeoisie-elite minority and the ruling class.  In the second heading, Roumain establishes the intersections of class, color prejudice, economics, and global capitalism.  Finally, the third part consists of an acute response to a distinguished group of Haitian writers who published the twenty-three page essay with the pertinent title Le Manifeste de la Reaction Democratique (RD) (The Manifesto of Democratic Reaction). The Manifeste is signed by Delegate Committee for Signature (COMITE DELEGUE POUR LA SIGNATURE) including the following names: Dr. Marcel Herald, Jean F. Brierre, Lys Dartiguenave, Dr. Georges E. Rigaud, Max L. Hudicourt, Salnave Zamor, depute.[7] In their essay, these thinkers articulate alternative routes to social and economic development which are often contradict Roumain’s own ideology and position on the subject. In their reaction, they have overlooked the active role of the Haitian government in discouraging small businesses in the country to flourish.

Overall, the significance of the 18-page booklet, which Roumain signed at the end as a Member of Central Committee and the Haitian Communist Party (Membre du C.C. du P.C.H.), provides a Marxist reading of the Haitian reality. Roumain expresses a counter-response to the Manifesto of the Group: LA REACTION DEMOCRATIQUE—whose chief leader was the radical Max Hudicourt—. Roumain suggests an alternative path for economic and social development to what’s been proposed in the Manifesto. Roumain’s program of social development gives primacy to scientific socialism, theory of distributes justice, and communitarianism. First of all, he concurs that it is the Haitian peasants and the rural residents of the country who bear the brunt of the economic and socio-political catastrophe. Yet, the predicament Haitian peasant-farmers and the substantial economic disparity which is so characteristic of the country’s daily production and trade can be traced to the overbearing economic system and class organization of nineteenth -century colonial Saint-Domingue.

In the booklet already referenced above, Roumain expresses the view that the proletarianization process accelerated at a deadly pace during the epoch of the American occupation in Haiti.[8] The economic impact of the U.S. occupation on Haitian economy was the decisive turning point in Haitian history. In July 28, 1915, the U.S. Marines violently penetrated Haitian soil and lasted for nineteen years. Generally, the American occupation disturbed national pride, humiliated the country’s elite class, and drastically shifted the leadership of Haitian intelligentsia and the ruling class; the imperial power also challenged the country’s sovereignty and the autonomy of the independent “Black Republic.” On the other hand, the exact causes of the American neocolonialism and imperialist intervention are inconclusive and continue to be a matter of scholarly debate.  Some critics favorably maintain that the U.S. imperial interference into the Haitian life and experience was incontestably linked to national anarchy, recent mass executions of political prisoners, and the ensuing assassination of the Haitian President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam in the same year (1915).

Consequently, the goal of the Wilson administration was to restore civil order, national peace, and to improve political and economic stability in Haiti. To justify the invasion, the official records of the Wilson regime sustained that the incursion was compulsory “for the protection of foreign lives and property… and to preserve order.”[9] Some Haitianist historians and Western political scientists have advanced counter arguments, confirming that the ultimate objective of the occupation was to further American economic interest and imperialistic expansion in the island. As historian Mary Renda has observed, the Occupation was after all an institution, a power structure and a symbiotic event in the history of Haiti and the history of U.S. foreign policy.[10]

 Roumain, however, helps us understand the economic impact of the Occupation on Haiti’s national economy and local businesses, resulting in the alienation of national small businesses and enterprises, and the increase of foreign production and trade in the country during that era. As he explains, “Local small industries, particularly shoe making, all died out, to be replaced by technologically produced assembly line goods from the United States or elsewhere.”[11]  For example, in an article entitled “Autour de la taxe ur l’alcool et le tabac”[12] published in Le Petit Impartial, dated September 29, 1928, Roumain publicly expresses his discontent and wage against the implementation of the new law enacted in August 14, 1928 under the Borno administration;[13] the new law established internal taxes on alcoholic beverages, manufactured tobacco, and tobacco productions of local consumption and production, but not on those destined for foreign exportation like the United States of America. The new law brought about shattering consequences on national goods and trade, both in urban and rural Haiti; it was burdensome for peasant- producers to “hold their place in the world market so long as they had to pay.”[14] It was estimated that 150 workshop-producers of Haitian “rhum” and tobacco products were forced to close their doors in various parts of the country—including manufacturers in the North, South, and West of Haiti—a considerable number of workers were abruptly laid off from their former employees.  The ensuing result is tragic, demoralizing, and dehumanizing, as Roumain angrily writes: “While thousands of workers were suddenly dying of desperate hunger, hundreds of courageous young women are unable to earn bread, would probably be forced to themselves into prostitution. The proletarian is starved and languished in the most horrible physical and moral misery. [15]

In addition, the Occupation authorities and the “cooperative government” established the Bureau of Internal Revenue to collect all internal and custom taxes; as a result, these taxes had a substantial impact on the thousands of small distillers and the peasants who purchase smoking tobacco by the leaf.[16] “Those small distillers, unable to pay the taxes, had their business closed by the government and occupation authorities. This in turn affected the small producers of sugar cane who sold their crops to the local distilleries and the small producers of sugar cane who sold their crops to the local distilleries and the small retail merchants who specialized in the buying and selling of alcoholic beverages and other products derived from alcohol.”[17]

According to many critics, any collective attempt or solidarity on the part of the local retailers and Haitian nationalists to challenge the U.S. imperial force would be confronted by the “cooperating Government” and the foreign invaders. As Schmidt points out,

Prior to 1920, all criticism of the Occupation had been strictly toward liberalizing the occupation, restrictions were somewhat eased. In any case, Haitian editors continued to be arrested since they pressed the limits of Russell’s tolerance, whatever these happened to be. With the exception of the few journalists who constituted a minor nuisance and whose jailing made Russell and Borno appear despotic in both Haiti and the United States, the Occupation effectively suppressed all dissent.[18]

Contrary to the evidence presented above, Mats Lundahl in Poverty in Haiti has contended that the American occupation has not worsened Haitian life and affected the country’s economic growth. For him, the Occupation “represents a hiatus in the history of Haiti”[19] and that American imperialism has fostered what he has termed “a constructive phase” in Haitian history.   Lundahls has deliberately ignored the historical economic deficit and the social question, which Roumain and others had pointed out. After intensive research on the Haitian society and politics during the time of the American occupation, Robert Heinl came to the conclusion that

the occupation failed because the Americans never recognized the social situation in Haiti, and their labors were thus in vain….What the occupation did and tried to achieve or build—from infrastructure to creation of a noir yeomanry or a career civil service, even the Garde, it matters not—turned out to be built on sand. The few legacies that did last were indirect: a degree of modernization, and cultural echoes of a prolonged and, for a while—before it too went the way of other blancs—dominant foreign presence.[20]

The economic distress caused by falling coffee prices and increases in government taxes, as mentioned in our previous analysis, lead to national discontent over the apparent continuance of Borno as client-president.[21]  “By the fall of 1929, unbeknown to complacent officials and the state Department, popular discontent in Haiti needed only a rallying point to develop into a major uprising against the occupation.”[22] Roumain is infuriated that those in position of power and influence failed to protect national economy and small businesses against American economic capitalism in the country:

And no one protests, and everyone continues to encourage an inexplicable silence of our country methodically being devoured by the Yankee vultures! The law of the treaty between Borno and the military force, our scarce national industries, also pave the way to the progressive invasion of the country by the US Capital/capitalism.[23]
            Disappointingly, with his anti-imperialist language sandwiched with his anti-capitalist expansion, Roumain denounces the neocolonial project of the American occupation and predict the colossal challenges and damages of the imperial might in Haïti: 

The work of colonization is perfectly running. The time of civilization will soon ring for all Haitians; in the countryside we will soon see the tremendous erection of large stacks of sugar mills. We contemplate, alas, the spread of greenery and enormous tobacco fields or the bristling aggressive horizon of the sisal plants.Our eyes will be marveled as new palaces will be built upon the ancient “halls” that are being ruined and demolished.[24]
            Roumain interprets the conquest or incursion of the American occupation as a form of neo-colonization and economic manipulation of the country’s resources including agricultural productions, the land and its resources, and the nation’s small businesses. In addition, these small local businesses did not have the means and economic resources or power to compete against the newly-established foreign (American) producers. The proletarianization process was particularly disastrous for Haitian peasants. As Roumain remarks, “The peasant of the country’s northern plain in particular has been violently separated from his means of production, to the point where he had to sell the shirt off his back, his labor mercilessly exploited.”[25] Representative authorities from the foreign imperialist industrial companies systematically opposed any attempt at economic autonomy on the part of the local merchants and small businesses; such was the case of a Haitian textile company that tried to unite and was ultimately brought to heel by some American advisor/financier.[26]

For Jacques Roumain, the American occupation and American economic capitalism were the most aggressive and oppressive external forces contributing to Haiti’s underdevelopment and the plight of the Haitian people in the first half of the twentieth century.


[1] This excerpt was taken from Dr. Joseph’s forthcoming book, Thinking in Public: Faith, Secular Humanism, and Development in Jacques Roumain (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015)
[2] For helpful biographical information about Jacques Roumain, see “Jacques Roumain,” in Caribbean Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical-Writing Encyclopedia, edited by Herdeck and Lubin, 480-493; “Jacques Roumain,” in Caribbeans and Caribbean Americans, edited by Mendez, Cueto, and Deynes, 379-381. French and literary scholar Francois Leon-Hoffmann, the editor of Jacques Roumain: Oeuvres Completes, 2003, has written the most comprehensive biographical and literary chronology on Roumain, Hoffmann, “Chronologie,” 1209-1225.
[3] Abbott, Haiti: A Shattered Nation, 50.
[4] Schmidt, The United States Occupation of Haiti, 42.
[5] Roumain, “A la Jeunesse,” 463.
[6] Roumain, “Analyze schematique:32-34,” 650-668.
[7] Ibid., 657-668.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Pamphile, Haitians and African Americans, 103.
[10] Renda, Taking Haiti, 20. Renda has written the most judicious, sophisticated work on the American occupation in Haiti.
[11] Roumain, “A Preliminary Analysis of the Years 1932-1934,” 51.
[12] Roumain, “Autour de la taxes sur l’alcool et le tabac” (1928) ; Also, see Roumain, Œuvres Complètes, 500-501.
[13] (Eustache Antoine Francois Joseph) Louis Borno was a puppet president who cooperated with the Occupants and approved new legislations in favor of American imperialism in his native land. Borno served as President of Haiti from 1922 to 1930. Roumain was a fierce critic of the Borno administration.
 Roumain, “Appel à la Presse,”  524.
[14] Drake, Money Doctors, Foreign Debts, and Economic Reforms in Latin America, 50.
[15]  Roumain, “Autour de la taxe sur l’alcool et le tabac,”500.
[16] Dupuy, Haiti in the World Economy, 134.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Schmidt, The United States Occupation of Haiti, 196.
[19] Lundahl, Poverty in Haiti, 9.
[20] Heinl, Written in Blood, 513.
[21] Schmidt, The United States Occupation of Haiti 1915-1934, 197.
[22] By the fall of 1929, unbeknown to complacent officials and the state Department, popular discontent in Haiti needed only a rallying point to develop into a major uprising against the occupation
[23] Roumain, “Autour de la taxe sur l’alcool et le tabac,” 500.
[24] Ibid., 500-501.
[25] Roumain, “A Preliminary Analysis of the Years 1932-1934,” 51.
[26] Ibid.