Moulton on Verna, 'Haiti and the Uses of America: Post-U.S. Occupation Promises'

Chantalle F. Verna
Aaron Coy Moulton

Chantalle F. Verna. Haiti and the Uses of America: Post-U.S. Occupation Promises. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2017. Illustrations. 252 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8135-8516-1; $99.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8135-8517-8.

Reviewed by Aaron Coy Moulton (Stephen F. Austin State University) Published on H-Caribbean (December, 2018) Commissioned by Sarah Foss (Oklahoma State University)

Printable Version:

Chantalle F. Verna’s Haiti and the Uses of America: Post-U.S. Occupation Promises is a marvelous addition to the literature not just on Haitian-US relations but also on US-Latin American cultural exchanges, development and foreign aid, and works on the Good Neighbor Policy. On the one hand, the historiography of Haitian foreign relations continues to receive new injections, such as Brenda Gayle Plummer’s internationalist tome, Julia Gaffield’s reexamination of the first years of independence, Matthew Smith’s regionalist examination, and Wien Weibert Arthus’s analysis of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s diplomacy.[1] On the other hand, the most well-known works lauded for a groundbreaking cultural analysis or transnational methodology, epitomized by those from Mary Renda and Alan McPherson, remain focused on Haitian resistance to the 1915-34 US military occupation.[2] This is not surprising, though, given the impact of this episode on Haitian society and US policy toward the region. The majority of research still seeks to explain US hegemony and Haitian opposition, with some of the earliest studies serving as springboards for revisionist approaches to US foreign relations.[3]

It is in the middle of this literature, replete with Haitian resistance to US imperialism or US relations with Haitian despots, that Verna offers Haiti and the Uses of America. In a succinct text that complements her narrow focus from the occupation into the first years of the international Cold War, she highlights those Haitian government officials, professionals, reformers, and educators who believed US ties and institutions could benefit and uplift their nation. These Haitians, who included not just intellectuals but Jean Price-Mars, Élie Lescot, Sténio Vincent, Duvalier, and other figures quite familiar to scholars of Caribbean international relations, sought to take from the United States ideas, institutions, knowledge, and resources that might help address national concerns. Pulling out the important roles of Pan-Americanism and the Good Neighbor Policy in nurturing such views and relationships, Verna finds that this ideal vision endured into the Cold War with many Haitians pinning their hopes for domestic stability and national development in international ventures under the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and linked to the United States. The end result of Verna’s rigorous study is an invaluable glimpse into an overlooked aspect in Haitian-US relations alongside a fascinating consideration regarding the past quarter century’s international debacles ranging from Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s governments to relief programs after natural disasters.

Haiti and the Uses of America opens with a brief historical summary that introduces the reader into how, from independence into the early twentieth century, Haitian elites frequently debated the merits and dangers of international ties. They engaged the United States in the late 1800s through cultural exhibits and admired Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. Even with the US occupation and countless insults to Haitian sovereignty and their people, these elites aimed to gain from this presence and directed early efforts toward the country’s schools. Although anti-US sentiments did target the Service Technique de l’Agriculture et de l’Enseignement Professionnel, its students including Maurice Dartigue, Max Vieux, and Jean Price-Mars, received funding and traveled to Columbia University’s Teacher's College. These individuals navigated escalating protests to, and their own complicated feelings over, the US government’s blunt presence while using US-based resources and knowledge for their and their nation’s benefit, whether in Dartigue’s educational programs or Price-Mars’s indigénisme.

Verna traces these complex interactions from the occupation’s end into the Good Neighbor Policy’s heyday. Various elite Haitians tapped into Pan-Americanism and interpreted improved Haitian-US cultural relations as avenues to strengthen their nation’s global reputation. In her third chapter, Verna provides myriad examples of Haitian-US cultural institutes, new school texts championing Haiti’s anticolonial image, civic festivals, and more. An increasing number of Haitian students attended US institutions and participated in student and teacher exchanges thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation, the Inter-American Educational Foundation, and plenty more public and private entities. These links bled into a powerful faith in postwar internationalism, which Verna follows into her case study at the Marbial Valley. There, UNESCO, the State Department, the Rockefeller Foundation, Dumarsais Estimé’s government, and private institutions worked with Haitian experts hoping to identify a grand solution to the nation’s poverty. Many experts were prominent veterans and graduates of Haitian-US cultural and educational exchanges over the past decades, and those experiences with US-based institutions and resources carried into this aid project. Even while detailing the conflicts and limitations generated from racism and bureaucratic constraints, Verna argues that a deep belief in international development and collaboration had taken root in an influential and politically active segment of Haiti’s population.

What allows Verna to illuminate these complex visions and relationships is her stellar research methodology. Plenty of scholars on foreign relations and international development would have been more than content with a traditional investigation into the Rockefeller Archive Center and National Archives II at College Park, Maryland. Some Haitian historians would have done perfectly fine in US-based collections like Dartigue’s papers at the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture. Not only did Verna’s efforts take her to Haitian libraries and the Archives Nationales d’Haïti, but she also identified and accessed private collections held by families of prominent Haitians who shaped this very history, including Jean Price-Mars, Jean Fouchard, and Élie Lescot. Verna then took this already immeasurable work a step further with dozens of oral histories, the end result being a brand new and nuanced perspective that puts Haitian worldviews at the forefront. Verna must be further commended for pursuing and triumphing with this difficult but worthwhile methodology while facing the challenges of natural disasters, in this case the 2010 earthquake, that have deterred even the most seasoned scholars when doing research in the Caribbean Basin.

Of course, Haiti and the Uses of America does suffer from the common curse of inventive research: the reader’s desire for more. Though there are frequent references to works on the Caribbean and World War II, a stronger engagement with studies on Mexico, Ecuador, and elsewhere would have helped Verna to cast her examination as an admirable addition to the literature on the Good Neighbor Policy. Similarly, she does not tackle the scholarship over anti-Americanism when her study of Haitian-US relations definitely is a critical intervention. Furthermore, there might emerge questions about how such aspirations endured or transformed when Price-Mars worked under Paul Magloire or during Duvalier’s dictatorship. Some readers will be quite interested in how Haitian-US cooperation shaped ideas on international development not just under the Alliance for Progress but also under many other ventures in the country, for Verna often hints at broader perspectives and programs. However, this text is already an important work in multiple historiographies. Haiti and the Uses of America will serve as the foundation for such future scholarship on cultural and diplomatic interactions in Haitian foreign policy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as well as the multifaceted relationship between Haiti, the United States, and international development.


[1]. Brenda Gayle Plummer, Haiti and the Great Powers, 1902-1915 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988); Julia Gaffield, “Haiti and Jamaica in the Remaking of the Early Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World,” The William and Mary Quarterly 69, no. 3 (2012): 583-614; Julia Gaffield, Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition after Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); and Matthew Smith, Liberty, Fraternity, Exile: Haiti and Jamaica after Emancipation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014). Some readers might be more familiar with Wien Weibert Arthus’s English-language article, “The Challenge of Democratizing the Caribbean during the Cold War: Kennedy Facing the Duvalier Dilemma,” Diplomatic History 39, no. 3 (2015): 504-531, but they can also consult his thorough and comprehensive dissertation “Les relations internationales d’Haïti de 1957-1971: La politique étrangère de François Duvalier” (PhD diss., Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne, 2011) or his brief summary, also titled “Les relations internationales d'Haïti de 1957 à 1971: La politique étrangère de François Duvalier,” Bulletin de l’Institut Pierre Renouvin 35 (2012): 157-167, as well as his “L’aide internationale peut ne pas marcher: Évaluation des relations américano-haïtiennes au regard de l’Alliance pour le Progrès (1961-1963),” Journal of Haitian Studies 17, no. 1 (2011): 155-177.

[2]. Mary Renda, Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001); and Alan McPherson, The Invaded: How Latin Americans and Their Allies Fought and Ended U.S. Occupations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[3]. This goes back to Hans Schmidt in The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1971), who dedicated his book to Lloyd Gardner, one of the most influential revisionists in US diplomatic history.

Citation: Aaron Coy Moulton. Review of Verna, Chantalle F., Haiti and the Uses of America: Post-U.S. Occupation Promises. H-Caribbean, H-Net Reviews. December, 2018. URL:

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