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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A primer on U.S.-Haiti relations

By Michael Muskal
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Relations between the United States and Haiti have been closely intertwined since they were separately born in blood in revolutions against European colonizers centuries ago. Often, it has been a thorny relationship involving invasion, race and economic questions.

In the wake of an earthquake that shattered Haiti, President Obama pledged Wednesday that the United States would help with rescue and humanitarian efforts. Although it is likely that the United States would help any country in the Caribbean, Obama noted that this disaster was especially devastating.
“For a country and a people who are no strangers to hardship and suffering, this tragedy seems especially cruel and incomprehensible,” the president said. “We are reminded of the common humanity that we all share. With just a few hundred miles of ocean between us and a long history that binds us together, Haitians are neighbors of the Americas and here at home. So we have to be there for them in their hour of need.”
The United States and Haiti are the oldest republics in the Western Hemisphere, the United States rebelling against Britain at the end of 18th century and Haiti overthrowing the French at the beginning of the 19th. But whereas the American Revolution was led by the wealthy and educated, Haiti’s uprising was led by Francois-Dominique Toussaint L’ouverture, a black Spartacus, a freed slave leading an army of slaves who traced their lives to Africa.
It was race that kept the United States and Haiti apart in the early years despite their common battle against colonial masters. Southerners feared the former slave republic at a time when slavery was going strong in the United States.
After the Civil War ended slavery in the United States, relations still were compromised by economic issues as the emerging U.S. sought markets and military bases. Haiti went through its own internal crises.
It was Woodrow Wilson who in 1915 sent U.S. Marines to Haiti after the president there was killed by an angry crowd. Troops stayed until 1934 helping to train the new military. From the late 1950s, the military, led by two generations of the Duvaliers, ran the impoverished country as a personal fiefdom. Its refugees fled the dictatorship and from economic want to often die en route to the United States.
Partly because Haiti remained an overwhelmingly black nation, its plight has always been near to the hearts of key African-American groups, such as the Congressional Black Caucus. Many blacks charged that the United States was loath to admit Haitian refugees because of race, while embracing those who fled from Cuba under a communist regime.
The Duvaliers were overthrown in the late 1980s and a popular vote was held, leading to the 1990 election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He was overthrown by the military and joined his nation’s Diaspora. In 1994, the United States led a multinational force that returned Aristide to office.
But Haiti’s woes didn’t end. It remained the worst-off nation in the Americas despite U.S. and world aid and a United Nations presence to help train troops. Among those missing in Tuesday’s earthquake are some American military personnel.
Among other aid, the United States is considering sending troops.
Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of the U.S. Southern Command, said Wednesday that the U.S. was looking at the possibility of sending troops to aid U.N. relief efforts and provide some security. He said the United States was also considering sending a Marine amphibious ship with an expeditionary unit of 2,000 Marines that could land troops in coming days.