Cadeau on Pamphile, 'Contrary Destinies: A Century of America's Occupation, Deoccupation, and Reoccupation of Haiti'

Leon D. Pamphile
Sabine Cadeau

Leon D. Pamphile. Contrary Destinies: A Century of America's Occupation, Deoccupation, and Reoccupation of Haiti. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2015. 192 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-6102-3.

Reviewed by Sabine Cadeau (Yale University) Published on H-LatAm (September, 2017) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz

Scholars interested in the origins of Haiti’s contemporary crises will do well to consult Leon D. Pamphile’s Contrary Destinies: A Century of America’s Occupation, Deoccupation, and Reoccupation of Haiti. It is an accessible, informative work that straddles the boundary between academic and popular writing. It covers the entirety of modern Haitian history from its founding as a nation in 1804. Having long observed Haiti dismissed for its legacy of dictatorship and corruption, Pamphile demonstrates that the United States is ultimately the principal author of the very condition that it decries. Contrary Destinies focuses on the importance of serial American interventions in Haiti from the early twentieth century through the present. Pamphile agrees that French colonialism and the Haitian Revolution are foundational for understanding Haiti’s emergence as a nation. However, he successfully demonstrates that the American occupation of 1915-34 had a paramount influence on the subsequent economic, political, and cultural development of Haiti and he unabashedly advances the argument that the United States has essentially controlled Haiti since 1915.  

The US occupation of Haiti represented one facet of the galloping expansion of US interests in the Caribbean Basin during the early twentieth century. One of the strengths of Pamphile’s work is that he continuously weaves together the necessarily interrelated discussions of US economic and political agendas in Haiti. The invasion of Haiti and the neighboring Dominican Republic followed the Spanish American War and the completion of the Panama Canal. It was also a significant step in the Americans’ World War I-era campaign to eliminate the German economic and strategic presence in the Americas. New York bankers were interested in taking over Haiti’s National Bank, its customs revenue, and its external debt, which had previously been under French control. As it did with Guantanamo Bay, the United States had long entertained the project of annexing Haiti’s Môle St. Nicolas as a naval base. The US also wanted to explore Haiti’s potential for mining and agricultural investment.

Pamphile emphasizes that the American occupation succeded in establishing US control of Haitian public finances. At the start of the occupation the United States confiscated the Haitian customs houses, and Haitian customs revenue was managed by an American receivership. The marines also immediately took over the former Haitian National Bank, whose assets and debts were transferred to the National City Bank of New York. By conquering Haiti, the Americans took control of the country’s external debt and have maintained effective control of the country ever since. Debts initially stemming from the 1825 slave indemnity paid to France were reimposed upon Haiti by the Americans in 1902, 1915, and again in 1922. In 1931 Haitian officials tried to put an end to these financial agreements but the Americans refused. The debts were not paid off until 1952. The US military perpetually defended the interests of American bondholders, and as Pamphile points out, Americans continue to control the bank and the port of Haiti. Pamphile demonstrates that for well over a century, Haiti has had little or no sovereign control over its meager national revenues; however, he does not provide a detailed analysis of the conduits of US financial control since 1952. A detailed history of Haiti’s foreign debt obligations and foreign aid arrangements during the second half of the twentieth century would strengthen a work that posits the central significance of financial control. It may of course be that the history of Haiti’s post-1952 foreign debt remains shrouded in the fog of official corruption, but if this is the case it would nonetheless be helpful if the author could bring this idea to our attention. 

While the US was interested in dominating Haitian finances, Haiti has received relatively little direct US investment during the twentieth century. Perhaps Pamphile does not give sufficient weight to the role of politics and racial prejudice in his discussion of Americans’ decisions not to invest directly in Haiti. Pamphile cites the intriguing observations of American experts who surveyed the country and conducted geological explorations during the 1920s and who concluded that Haiti was simply not a promising terrain for investment. Apparently, Haiti’s decentralized pattern of peasant land-tenure and the resultant scarcity of open land in the country’s flattest, most fertile regions discouraged US officials from pursuing large-scale plantation investment in Haiti. In addition, in 1930 an American high commissoner concluded “that there were no important mineral resources capable of profitable exploitation, under present conditions ” (p. 42). Perhaps the reader familiar with Haiti’s history of instability and troubled relations with white supremacist foreign powers might be disinclined to take this claim at face value.  Was it in fact the shortage of land or unfavorable geology in Haiti that limited American investment? Did Haitian patterns of land ownership remain a barrier even after then Undersecretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself rewrote the Haitian constitution in order to overturn the clause that previously forbade foreigners from owning land in Haiti? Did anti-black racism or the specter of popular resistance cast a certain shadow on the project of foreign investment? While some American concerns such as the McDonald Company, the Haitian American Sugar Company (HASCO), and the Standard Fruit and Steamship Company did invest in Haiti during this era, perhaps American investors calculated that they could exploit Haitian labor more cheaply by investing in sugar plantations in the neighboring Dominican Republic, where land was more abundant. While Standard Fruit successfully exploited Haitian banana production for roughly a decade after the US occupation, the cancellation of its contract following Haiti’s 1946 revolution suggests that the barriers to US investment have been more political than economic. This overall debate evokes the formulation of Mats Lundahl, who has investigated modern Haitian economic history through the interrogative lens of, “politics or markets?”

The US occupation gave the Americans lasting control over Haitian politics. During the occupation, the US fundamentally revoked Haiti’s national sovereignty. The Americans dissolved the National Assembly and created a new constitution under the supervision of a new, American-trained constabulary. During the occupation and after, Haitian politicians who were not compliant with the military could not maintain power. Pamphile views the disbanding of the old military and the establishment of the Gendarmerie as the strongest legacy of the US occupation. This force would eventually become the backbone of the Duvalier dynasty, Haiti’s longest and most brutal twentieth-century dictatorship.   

The chapter on the post-occupation period complicates the view that Haiti somehow represents the more resistant, anti-American side of Hispaniola. Pamphile successfully argues that from 1935 onward, despite periods of strained relations, overwhelming economic and political dependency has facilitated American political control in Haiti. Pamphile explains that following the occupation, Sténio Vincent, Élie Lescot, Dumarsais Estimé, Paul Magloire, and even François Duvalier inevitably bowed to American financial power and encouraged cooperation in order to obtain American aid and secure loans. None of these presidents thought that they could stay in power without American money.  Even Haitian officials who exhibited some pretense of nationalism and autonomy knew that they could not last in office without American aid, loans, and military assistance. Pamphile demonstrates a nuanced understanding of the contradictory interplay between Haitian nationalism and Haitian subservience. He points out that in very distinct and divergent ways, Dumarsais Estimé, François Duvalier, and Jean-Bertrand Aristide were the three twentieth-century Haitian rulers who most threatened to defy direct American control. But all three ultimately demonstrated the overwhelming might of their northern neighbor. Without American backing, the popular Estimé was deposed. While Duvalier took strategic advantage of Cold War rivalries and made bold demands of the Americans, he could never fully break away from US aid and control. Aristide, the revolutionary populist who denounced US imperialism and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), was deposed by the military, exiled to the US, and had his ideology and movement reprogrammed by the American government, which placed him back in power.

One of the advantages of a book that covers Haitian history from the colonial period to the present is that it allows the reader to observe the evolution of US interests in Haiti over a long period of time. Notwithstanding commonplace assertions that Haiti is an irrelevant basketcase characterized by a total and complete lack of resources, the United States has never chosen to ignore Haiti. At the very least, the US is interested in Haiti as a potential security concern. If it has no interest in the country’s social or economic development, it is interested in preventing new waves of boat people, preventing unauthorized drug trafficking and money laundering, and keeping rival powers from gaining a toehold in the Caribbean Basin. While American economic interests in Haiti might appear minor today, US concerns over regional stability largely explain its recent reoccupations of Haiti and its support for MINUSTAH, the UN occupying force.

While Pamphile employs comparative language in his analysis of the relations between the United States and Haiti, the key point to take away is the extreme asymmetry of those relations and their consequences. If US interests in Haiti and perhaps the entire Caribbean Basin are utterly miniscule by contrast with its interests in East Asia or the Middle East, US policy in Haiti has played the determining role in that country’s twentieth-century trajectory. Structural adjustment programs imposed by the IMF and the elimination of any trade protections favoring Haitian agriculture or industry laid waste to the country’s once-robust farming sector. Pamphile connects Haiti’s lack of effective sovereignty with its continuous economic deterioration. He points out that in 1967 Haiti’s national budget was 30 percent dependent on foreign aid. Today that proportion is more than 60 percent. US policy, especially neoliberal market reforms during the Clinton years, has created the utmost condition of prostrate dependency. 

While some authors have chosen to elide the complexities of Haiti’s recent history, Pamphile’s work also sheds light on the important political history of the Aristide era. By focusing on Aristide’s exile, and his eventual willingness to comply with the IMF and Washington, Pamphile makes clear that the Haitian struggle for democracy that blossomed with great promise during the late 1980s was ultimately broken by the Haitian military, US intervention, and international financial institutions. Readers interested in this failed revolution should also consult Alix Rene’s insightful book, La seduction populiste: essai sur la crise systémique haïtienne et le phénomène Aristide, 1986-1991 (2003).

Following Haitian history from what we might call the era of government to the contemporary era of governance, Pamphile explores the negative implications of foreign aid and the NGO sector. The United States, the leading provider of foreign aid in Haiti, gives most of the money to foreign-based nongovernmental organizations that function as semi-automous entities within Haiti. Pamphile concludes that these organizations along with the all-important United Nations military peacekeeping mission continue to allow the United States to ignore any notion of Haitian sovereingty. Contrary Destinies reminds us that throughout the twentieth century that Haiti has been characterized by a complex predicament of non-sovereignty and foreign control.

In the United States, recent historical scholarship on Haiti continues to focus overwhelmingly on slavery and the Haitian Revolution. Twentieth-century Haiti is often overlooked. By re-examining the US military occupations of Haiti, Pamphile reminds us that American hegemony is the key question for understanding Haiti’s history of weak institutions, military dictatorships, and economic underdevelopment since 1915. This overview of Haitian history raises a set of worthy questions for Haiti, the Caribbean, Latin America, and other regions of the world: what role has foreign aid played in twentieth- and twentieth-first-century imperial relations? Do NGOs represent an important new tool for undermining the sovereignties of formerly colonized nations? Do the US and other former colonial powers continue to fear Haitian sovereignty and do they reject the notion of black political sovereignty anywhere? What role does racism continue to play in global relations? This book’s succint summary of Haitian history suggests the need for more detailed political, economic, intellectual, and social histories of the twentieth century along the lines of Matthew Smith’s recent Red and Black: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change: 1934-1957. Far more remains to be written on the first US occupation as well as the Duvalier and Aristide eras. But for scholars and especially for the reading public, this work represents a useful starting point for those wishing to acquire an introduction to Haitian history.



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Citation: Sabine Cadeau. Review of Pamphile, Leon D., Contrary Destinies: A Century of America's Occupation, Deoccupation, and Reoccupation of Haiti. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. September, 2017. URL:

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