In recent years, both the Bush and Clinton administrations have ordered the Coast Guard to intercept Haitian immigrant boats before they reach U.S. waters. Most of them have been sent back to Haiti. What responsibility, if any, does the United States have toward Haiti and her refugees?
A Violent Past
Haiti is located on the western half of an island called Hispaniola, one of Columbus' first landfalls. (The other half of the island is the Dominican Republic.) By 1700, the French had seized possession of Haiti and turned the tropical paradise into the richest sugar-producing colony in the Caribbean. Disease, mass murder, and slave labor quickly annihilated the island's original inhabitants, the Arawaks. Seven hundred thousand slaves were torn from their homes in West Africa to replace the Arawaks as laborers on the French sugar plantations.
Inspired by the revolution in France, Haitian slaves revolted in 1791 and, after much bloodshed, gained control of the French colony. In 1803, Napoleon sent 28,000 French troops to put down the rebellion. Haitian forces defeated them. The following year, Haiti became the world's first independent black nation and the second republic in the Western Hemisphere (after the United States).
During the next century, Haiti had some 50 rulers, nine of whom declared themselves "president for life." Civil war, military revolts, political assassinations, and destruction of foreign-owned property finally led to the 1915 occupation of Haiti by the United States. U.S. Marines remained in Haiti for nearly 20 years. After the Marines left in 1934, U.S. policy created a Haitian security force, which exercised virtual control over the national government.
In 1957, Francois Duvalier (called "Papa Doc" by the Haitians) installed a dictatorship. "Papa Doc" established his own private police force known as the Tontons Macoutes (named for a character from a Haitian nursery rhyme who steals naughty children). By 1960, Duvalier's Tontons Macoutes outnumbered the soldiers in the Haitian army. Their bloody terror tactics helped keep him in power.
When "Papa Doc" died in 1971, his son, Jean Claude Duvalier (known as "Baby Doc") took power. "Baby Doc" was little more than a figurehead president. Real power rested with the military and the Tontons Macoutes. In contrast to "Baby Doc's" rich lifestyle, Haitians continued to suffer under the heel of poverty, government corruption, and murderous repression.
In 1986, public demonstrations forced "Baby Doc" to flee Haiti. Joyous mobs surged into the streets of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital. The Haitian people attacked "Papa Doc's" tomb and burned his embalmed body. Angry crowds captured some of the hated and feared Tontons Macoutes. Many were lynched while others fled into hiding. For a time, it appeared that Duvalierism had been destroyed. A five-member council, led by a general, took control of the government and promised democratic elections. But many important Haitians still owed their wealth and power to the old way of doing things.
The leading opponent of the wealthy elite was Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A Roman Catholic priest, Aristide spoke out on behalf of Haiti's slum dwellers and rural peasants. He pledged to put food on their tables and re-distribute property concentrated in the hands of wealthy landowners. While these sentiments made Aristide a hero to most Haitians, he made himself the enemy of Haiti's small ruling class.
On Sunday, September 11, 1988, armed men attacked Aristide's church. Thirteen of his parishioners were killed, and Aristide barely escaped. Clearly, the attackers took their orders from the military government. Aristide went into hiding.
In 1990, the United States and the United Nations forced a presidential election on Haiti's military government. Aristide ran, and he won an overwhelming victory in the first truly democratic election held in Haiti's 200-year history.
Seven months after taking office, Aristide was overthrown by another military revolt. President Aristide fled to Venezuela and later sought asylum in the United States.
The Haitian Boat People
Back in Haiti, many of Aristide's supporters were beaten, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. With the country in turmoil, the economy shattered, and poverty taking its toll, nearly 40,000 people tried to escape Haiti by boat during the winter of 1991–92. Many perished at sea. Most of the survivors were intercepted by the Coast Guard and taken to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Here the refugees were interviewed to determine if they were seeking political asylum or simply escaping from Haiti's terrible poverty.
Soon the facilities at Guantanamo could not handle the increasing number of refugees. President Bush ordered the Coast Guard to return all the boat people to Haiti, regardless of their status. Critics argued that this new policy violated the Geneva Convention on Refugees, which had been signed by the United States.
The Geneva Convention on Refugees prohibits the return of refugees to their homeland if they have a "well-founded fear of persecution." This international treaty was written in response to the experience of Jewish refugees who had been forced back into Hitler's hands when other nations refused to grant them asylum.
During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton criticized President Bush's Haitian refugee policy. Soon after the election, Clinton changed his mind and ordered the policy to continue. He argued that prohibiting the immigration of Haitian refugees would prevent many Haitians from drowning in an attempted ocean crossing.
But Clinton did pledge to work to restore President Aristide to office, saying that Aristide would undoubtedly improve conditions in Haiti and end the refugee crisis. Some Americans criticized Clinton's support of Aristide. They cited a CIA report that Aristide has been hospitalized for mental problems. Some alleged he masterminded the murder of a political opponent during his short time in power. Still others claimed he is passionately anti-American. Aristide denied all these charges, and the Clinton administration has continued to back his return to power.
In the meantime, the issue of the alleged American violation of the Geneva Convention on Refugees came before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Clinton administration argued that the Geneva agreement applied only to aliens who had already managed to reach U.S. soil, not to those intercepted on the open sea by the Coast Guard. On June 21, 1993, the Supreme Court agreed (by a vote of 8–1) with the government's position. [Sale v. Haitian Centers Council, 113 S.Ct. 2549 (1993)]
The Governor's Island Agreement
In an attempt to restore President Aristide to power in Haiti, President Clinton arranged a meeting between Aristide and the Haitian military ruler, General Raoul Cedras. This meeting took place on July 3, 1993, at Governor's Island in New York Harbor. The Governor's Island Agreement called for the return of Aristide as head of government by October 30, 1993. Cedras was to resign. In return, Aristide promised to grant a pardon to Cedras and all others involved in the overthrow of his government in 1991.
The Governor's Island Agreement also ordered the separation of the Haitian military and police forces into two distinct agencies. Both forces would be retrained by United Nations advisers and placed under civilian control. President Clinton promised to back this agreement "to the fullest" and committed $37.5 million in U.S. aid to help reconstruct Haiti's collapsed economy.
In the months following the Governor's Island Agreement, it grew clear that the military had no intention of honoring it. Shootings, beatings, and intimidation of Aristide's supporters intensified. A gun-waving anti-Aristide crowd refused to let the U.S.S. Harlan County dock when it arrived in Haiti with U.N. advisers aboard. Finally, on October 14,1993, Aristide's designated minister of justice was assassinated in Port-au-Prince, just weeks before Aristide was scheduled to return to Haiti. In response, the United Nations ordered an embargo (a legal obstruction to trade) on any oil or military equipment destined for Haiti. President Aristide announced that he would not return to the island as long as Cedras remained in power.
In the ensuing months, Aristide rejected several U.S. proposals to resolve the impasse. He did so, he said, because the proposals limited his power as elected president. For example, he rejected a plan that returned Haitian security forces to military, rather than civilian control.
In December 1993, an attack by police, soldiers, and armed henchmen left about 100 Haitians dead and an entire Port-au-Prince neighborhood in ruins. The U.S. Coast Guard continued to turn back Haitian boat people.
Haiti in Recent Years
In spite of the Governor’s Island Agreement, repression, assassination, and rape continued to devastate Haiti. In May 1994, the Haitian military chose Supreme Court Justice Emile Jonassaint as the provisional president of its third de facto regime. The UN responded with stricter economic sanctions and a resolution authorizing member states to use all necessary means to facilitate the departure of the military regime and the restoration of Aristide’s constitutional rule.
In 1994, the United States was prepared to send troops into Haiti in order to restore Aristide to power. However, before deploying these troops, Clinton sent a negotiating team led by Jimmy Carter into Haiti. These negotiations bore fruit on October 15, 1994, when Aristide returned to power.
In 1995, Artistide’s first prime minister Rene Preval was elected president, and Haiti’s political climate began to stabilize. The UN responded to the improved situation by scaling back its peacekeeping efforts in Haiti.
In 1999, the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act allowed Haitians who had resided in the United States since or before December 31, 1995 to file an application for lawful permanent resident status.
In spite of improvements in Haiti, poverty and political violence remain a daily reality, and questions of the U.S. responsibility to Haitian refugees still trouble Americans. In the year 2000, Haitians continue to be expelled from U.S. waters and sent back to the crushing poverty and political dangers that await them in Haiti.
For Further Discussion and Writing
- How was the United States involved in Haiti's internal affairs in the past?
- Do you think the United States has a responsibility to help the Haitian people? If so, where should the United States draw the line?
- Do you think the United States has violated the Geneva Convention on Refugees? Why or why not?
- If it is true, as some say, that elected President Aristide is a flawed leader, should the United States still be attempting to secure his return as president?
- Should U.S. immigration rules be the same for persons coming here (a) to flee political oppression and (b) to escape extreme poverty? Why or why not?
- What similarities and differences do you see between the Jews fleeing Hitler 50 years ago and the boat people fleeing Haiti today?
For Further Information
Background Notes: Haiti, March 1998: The State Department’s official background notes on Haiti, including information on Haitian history, economics, geography, government, population, and foreign relations.
A C T I V I T Y
What Should the World Do About Haiti?
A. Form groups of three students each. Each student should review this article and write a one-paragraph answer to one of the questions listed below. The students in each group should then share their answers with each other.
- Why are the Haitian boat people fleeing their homeland?
- Who is Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and should the UN support his political career?
- What is President Clinton's current policy regarding Haiti and the Haitian boat people?
B. Next, each group should brainstorm a list of possible actions the United Nations and the United States could take regarding the situation in Haiti and the Haitian boat people.
C. Finally, the members of each group should order their list of actions from most to least desirable, then prepare to defend their first and last choices before the rest of the class.