Nandini Deo is an assistant professor of political science. Her research interests include comparative politics, contemporary political thought, and women in the developing world.
The billions of dollars of international aid being sent to Haiti have already been characterized as one of the most global and ambitious aid efforts ever undertaken. The U.S. has given more aid to Haiti than any other nation has, providing more than $3 billion to the Haitian government in just the past 10 years alone. Unfortunately, much of the foreign aid sent to Haiti rarely sees the light of day, as the government in Port-au-Prince is corrupt and has no effective management system in place to oversee aid delivery.
To begin, Woodrow Wilson (in direct contradiction of his image as the internationalist President who supported the right of self-determination) ordered the invasion and occupation of Haiti in 1915. US troops stayed in the country until the mid-1930s. Before the official invasion, a group of investors in New York carried out a hostile takeover of Haiti’s banking system with the help of the US government.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Haiti experienced violent succession battles as one leader toppled another. The CIA—the secret intelligence agency developing in the United States at the time—has been linked to these destabilizing alternations in governance.
President Duvalier ended the instability of the 1950s and was a close ally of the United States. When he tried to reverse roles, using the Marines to further his political ends rather than working at their behest, the Kennedy administration cut off military aid to Haiti. When the son (Duvalier Jr.), succeeded his father in 1971, the United States hoped for a return to the previous close relationship. Such a relationship never materialized and like Cuba, Haiti was deemed a pariah state.
The early 1990s saw more chaotic relations between the US and Haiti. A military government finally gave way to a popular and legitimate President—Aristide. His pro-poor policies led to a coup that overthrew him—a coup supported by the US government, according to Aristide. In 1994, the US military once again invaded Haiti and restored Aristide’s government. After a few months in office, elections were held and President Preval took over with US support.
A decade after the US had entered Haiti on Aristide’s behalf, he returned to power just as a rebel force was gathering strength within the country. Aristide was flown out of Port-au-Prince by the United States in what it claims was a humanitarian intervention. Aristide considered it a kidnapping. Once again in 2004, US soldiers arrived in Haiti to restore order and property rights. Preval once again returned to power in 2008 and is the President the US is now working with to provide succor to the victims of the earthquake.
The majority of US aid to Haiti over the years has consisted either of military aid or money spent to support US troops and, later, UN troops in the country. The aid that is being sent today is at risk of returning to the US in the form of salaries for NGO workers as much it is of being squandered by a corrupt government. The corruption in Haiti owes a great deal to the fragility of its political and economic institutions.
After decades of US military occupation and economic sanctions, the US would like to hit the restart button on its relationship with Haiti. This is impossible. But, partnerships and effective aid today can go some distance in making up for the crimes and exploitation of the past decades. Americans have responded individually to individual suffering in a way that is commendable. Their US government must now begin to demonstrate a similar level of understanding and compassion.