Tending the Backyard: US Foreign Policy in Cuba and Haiti, 1898-2014


President Obama yesterday announced that the time had come for the USA to “cut loose the shackles of the past” and re-establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba. This move would return US-Cuba ties to the state they existed prior to the severance of 1961.

Or would it? The Guardian yesterday wrote that this move presents an “opportunity for the US and Cuba to engage on genuinely equal terms for the first time in their long and troubled history,” the gist of the article being that since 1809 (when Jefferson tried to buy Cuba from the Spanish) Cuba has been on the unfortunate end of an unequal relationship.

In that sense Cuba is no different to many other Caribbean and Latin American countries. There is a unique dynamic and a unique history between Cuba and the United States, but it is a relationship best understood within the context of wider US policy in its own “backyard”. Haiti, Cuba’s neighbour (and my primary area of study) shares many similar past experiences with the USA, including tourism, migration and the potential establishment of a naval base. The outcomes, however, have been dramatically different.



Guantanamo Bay, back in the day

Guantanamo Bay is an infamous symbol of 21st Century US foreign policy, as an internment and torture camp. It became a US Naval Base after the USA invaded Cuba in 1898, as the Cubans neared victory in their struggle for independence against a crumbling Spanish army.

The invasion came as the American press, screaming for benevolent intervention, reached its peak. Manifest destiny broke from the mainland, into the Caribbean, spurred on by the paternalist desire to help America’s neighbours in their supposed hour of need (even though the war was nearing its end). Strategic concerns were never far away; Mariola Espinosa has written that a desire to control Yellow Fever was central to US policy in Cuba, and in addition to that there is Guantanamo.

The Platt Amendment gave Cuba its “independence” (so long as it behaved itself and stayed clear of Yellow Fever), but kept Guantanamo Bay for the USA; its deep, peaceful waters a clue to growing US intentions in the Caribbean. The Navy had desired a deep harbour in the Caribbean for decades, but their first choice had been the Môle St Nicolas in northwest Haiti (where Columbus landed in 1492).

In 1891, the USS Philadelphia anchored off the coast of the Môle with orders to acquire it through aggressive negotiation; only through the skill and integrity of Haitian Foreign Minister Anténor Firmin and US Ambassador to Haiti Frederick Douglass was the gunboat diplomacy of the US Navy deterred. Douglass made the case to Washington that there was “no one point (in Haiti)…more sensitive than the cession of any part of their territory to any foreign power”, having fought so hard to win independence and keep it during the Haitian Revolution. This move cost Douglass his job. (see Carolyn Fleur-Lobban, Introduction to “The Equality of Human Races” by Anténor Firmin, 2000, p. xlv)

As the decade wore on and US paternalism acquired a “big stick”, the USA would soon invade Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, occupy the Panama Canal Zone, and extend control in Puerto Rico. Haiti was invaded in 1915, after the assassination of President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. The new occupiers discussed annexing the Môle, but eventually decided that it was not worth the risk to occupied Haiti’s stability, when they already had one deep harbour in Cuba.

The opportunity to capture Guantanamo was less risky in newly-independent Cuba, and came much sooner, than the chance to take the Môle. And with it, a permanent seat of US military power nestled itself in a Cuban harbour, and not a Haitian one.


Cuba tourism

Cuba under Batista is famous for being the USA’s “playground”. A place where the rich and glamorous of early-twentieth century America could enjoy the banned vices of home, in casinos and brothels nestled in a tropical paradise. Christine Skiwot’s Purposes of Paradise finds similarities in Cuba’s experience in tourism with Hawaii, at this time not yet a state. Military intervention became cultural, as the US tourist industry cultivated a class of loyal elite (and paler-skinned) Cubans and Hawaiians who grew rich from the hedonistic trade.

What is less-known is that the Haiti of President Paul Magloire, described by David Nicholls as a “playboy” president, underwent similar changes, although this began in Haiti much later; as the Black Republic was previously seen as too exotic a place for rich white American tourists, but the situation changed and resorts grew alongside a newfound Vodou-tourist experience that offered a profane, tourist-friendly version of serving the spirits.

Whilst Hawaii moved to American statehood in 1959, Cuba and Haiti took radically different routes. Fidel Castro overthrew Batista and installed a socialist government; and Haiti became ruled by the authoritarian François Duvalier. US attempts to kill Castro are well-known, but Kennedy also wanted Duvalier dead, and Duvalier was famously hostile towards foreigners in Haiti. However Duvalier’s pragmatic anti-communism (usually directed at his political opponents) kept American relations above-freezing, and in his final years, he became a good friend of Richard Nixon. Castro’s government survived CIA plots, Kennedy’s disastrous attempt to direct a Cuban exile invasion at the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. The US embargo on Cuba survived with it, and Americans were banned from visiting Cuba.

François Duvalier died in 1971, and his son and successor Jean-Claude was unabashedly pro-American. Much of the vice that flowed into Havana was now redirected towards Port-au-Prince, especially sex tourism. Through this, HIV was introduced into Haiti in the late-1970s and, as rumours (incorrectly) flew in the USA that HIV-AIDS originated in Haiti, the tourist industry was destroyed, plunging Haiti into further economic difficulty.

Paul Farmer, in his book on AIDS in Haiti, wryly notes that had the epidemic started when Havana was the “tropical playground of the Caribbean”, before Castro and the embargo, HIV may have found its way to Cuba, not Haiti.



Elian Gonzalez captured in Florida by Federal Agents, 2000

Castro and Duvalier’s regimes both resulted in a massive movement of people from Cuba and Haiti to the United States, and this exodus followed the same pattern. The first to move were the elites, who joined small but already-established communities in the USA, especially Miami. In Cuba this elite faction was already decidedly pro-American, having benefited from the Batista regime and targeted by Castro’s property reclamation (a fine example being the Bacardi family). Light-skinned and educated, they were often able to adapt quickly to American society. The Cuban-exile community became a loud, critical bloc in Miami politics; one that has helped to uphold the embargo on Cuba until this very week.

Haiti’s elite were mostly chased out by the elder Duvalier’s repressive policies; the brain-drain that followed has given birth to a well-known tale that there are more Haitian doctors in Montreal than in Haiti.

In the 1970’s both economies were suffering; Cuba’s isolation in the Americas was proving difficult for economic prosperity, and Jean-Claude Duvalier’s neoliberal kleptocracy kept wages and opportunities down, as repression and terror remained. The impoverished people of the Caribbean followed their elite forebears to Florida, often in flimsy boats at the mercy of the sea, or worse.

The hypocrisy of US foreign policy was laid bare by the movement of these “boat people”; Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans were given the right to claim asylum as political refugees, although the political situation in Cuba had somewhat calmed in the 1970s. Haitians, whatever their motives for leaving, were classed as economic migrants and granted no such privilege. This, of course, depended upon whether they made it at all; the “Wet foot, dry foot” immigration policy with regards to Cuba meant that migrants had to reach south Florida to be given asylum. If they failed to make it ashore, they were turned back. For Haitian political refugees, being turned back would leave them at the mercy of Duvalier’s paramilitary force, the tontons macoutes.

Access for the poorer, darker-skinned migrants did not mean asylum in the same sense as the early migrants. The newer arrivals found it difficult to integrate into the traditionally-elite Cuban exile community of south Florida. Haitian migrants were ostracised by much of the community, especially after the outbreak of HIV-AIDS. Despite the Cuban Adjustment Act, new Cuban migrants to the United States can still be in an uncertain and precarious position, as highlighted by the Elian Gonzalez case of 1999-2000. Yet whilst the boat people struggled, Haitian elites continued to migrate to the USA on flights; known as the “Boeing People”, their feet never got wet, and found it easier to gain more secure terms of residence.


Channel 4 struggling to get the hang of the Unequal Relationship

Since the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier, Haiti has been invaded twice more by the USA on grounds of benevolence, and its economic and political situation is dependent on Washington. Cuba’s isolation in the Americas had ended long-before yesterday, and has been an active participant in recent Latin American affairs, as well as providing healthcare workers to aid Ebola treatment in West Africa. Migrants continue to come to the USA from both countries, in their thousands.

The end to the embargo would allow the Cuban diaspora to once again connect with family on the island through regular travel and improved telecommunications, as Haitian-American communities have been able to do. Cuba would benefit in global relations, as the USA would no longer treat it as a pariah state.

There has been a lot of concern on the effects of American neoliberalism entering Cuba. Haiti has felt the full force of American business exploitation over the past forty years; wages are still low, and free trade has caused irreparable damage to Haitian agriculture on more than one occasion. If it is truly an opportunity for true equality between the USA and Cuba, then the USA will have to break its traditional habit of viewing Caribbean countries as economic and cultural playthings that exist in its backyard.

Yet the point of this blogpost has been to suggest that historically-speaking, the impact of US foreign policy in the Caribbean cannot be easily predicted, and is at the mercy of a variety of factors. The benefits and drawbacks of this decision on the Cuban communities of the Americas cannot be foreseen, and there is still a long way to go.

Then again, to read this in Ishaan Tharoor’s piece in the Washington Post yesterday…

It’s a strange irony that some of Washington’s biggest proponents of free trade don’t want to see the United States enable such liberalizing changes in Cuba. Closer ties to Cuba, including trade links, will ideally lead to a deepening of Cuba’s own curtailed civil society. That, at least, is the current message of the Obama administration. The more open Cuba gets, the more access its people may have to the Internet and to outside channels of information. That, the hope goes, may speed political reform in Havana.

Critics may point to countries like China and Vietnam, where decades of economic development and free enterprise have yet to yield any real liberal, democratic dividend. But Cuba is fundamentally different; it exists in the U.S.’s shadow and its links to the American mainland, including some 1.5 million Cuban Americans, mean that even the most dogged authoritarian leader will struggle to inoculate the regime from American influence — that is, once Washington finally chooses to engage with Cuba.

Morality, free trade, “back-yard” politics.

Nothing changes.

(Title picture: McDonald’s at Guantanamo Bay)

The Life and Death of Jean-Claude Duvalier

Baby Doc, bby doc

Jean-Claude Duvalier, formerly President-for-life in Haiti, died yesterday of a heart attack aged 63. The death of a man, forced out of office nearly 30 years ago, may not seem significant, but it matters a great deal. His death denies the victims of his regime the opportunity to see legal justice served, and allows those who wish to resurrect Jean-Claudisme in full the chance to re-write history.


Jean-Claude Duvalier is better known as “Baby Doc”. He inherited this nickname in 1971, along with the presidency, after the death of his father François Duvalier, or “Papa Doc”. The son was never separated from the father; A sectagenarian at his death, Jean-Claude Duvalier was “Baby” for his entire life.

Dr. François Duvalier became “Papa Doc” before his presidency, given the nickname by his patients when working as a medical doctor in rural Haiti as part of the US-led campaign against infectious disease in the 1940s. The moniker, born in Haiti, was adopted globally as his dictatorship became infamous, and “Papa Doc” became the symbol of a lurid caricature of the Haitian leader. Papa Doc was recast as a barbarian, with a lust for wanton violence and anarchy, in numerous newspaper articles, sensationalist histories, and even critically acclaimed writers such as Graham Greene in his cynical novel The Comedians.

Duvalier ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1971. His dictatorship was brutal, but he was no madman. The violence he enacted upon his people through his loyal paramilitary force the tontons macoutes, the cult of personality created by his deliberate association with the lwa Bawon Samedi, the destruction of the army leadership, they were ruthless policies designed to establish and maintain control. The intimidation of the professional classes removed many of his political enemies either through “disappearance” or exile, and resulted in the rapid acceleration of a damaging “brain drain” from Haitian shores.

Papa Doc, Baby Doc
François Duvalier left, Jean-Claude Duvalier right.

Not a doctor, and looking exceptionally unprepared for presidency, “Baby Doc” felt an appropriate nickname for the portly 19 year-old. He lacked the intellect, the command, and the terror of his father, and as such his fifteen-year stay as President-for-life is often reduced to a “Baby” dictatorship; a Duvalier-lite, held together by lingering loyalty to the father and limited liberal reform.

But that is where “Baby Doc” is a misleading name. There were many developments specific to Jean-Claudisme that had a massive impact upon Haiti. They are certainly connected to the legacy of the father, but Jean-Claude Duvalier’s rule must be seen in its own right to truly understand its influence.


Loyal to Simone Duvalier (Jean-Claude’s mother) as much as to the new president, the macoutes continued to operate, intimidate and torture, the brain drain continued as more were forced into exile. François Duvalier had operated with a degree of impunity from the USA, in part due to the vicious suppression and murder of those who were suspected of being communists (and their families), who often doubled as Duvalier’s political enemies. Nixon didn’t mind, as long as there were no communists in the Presidential Palace, and Duvalier knew exactly how to play this hand.

Washington viewed Jean-Claude as a weak leader, and placed far more pressure upon the Haitian government. The borders opened, and American business rushed in with all the trimmings. Light-manufacturing plants sprouted in the environs of Port-au-Prince, dragging impoverished farmers into the capital for a pitiful salary.

An agricultural policy disaster accelerated the internal migration, caused by an outbreak of African swine fever among Haitian pigs. It is a non-fatal disease but affects the quality of the meat. Fearing a spread of the virus to the continental U.S., The USA forced Haitian authorities to conduct a mass slaughter of pigs, insisting compensation would be made. This took the form of replacement pigs; pink, fat pigs that had been selectively-bred for centuries, so much so that they required special food and concrete flooring to survive (unlike the hardy Haitian black pig). These were luxuries few Haitian farmers could afford for themselves, let alone their livestock. The damage was extraordinary. Pig Many impoverished farmers headed to the capital, in the hope of getting work by any means possible. Sex tourism and the international drug trade also migrated to Haiti, those two predators of intense poverty and open borders. They brought HIV and gun crime respectively to the new slums of Port-au-Prince. Luckner Cambronne, an important lieutenant to both Duvaliers, began a policy of selling Haitian blood to America, to whoever would buy.

Why did Duvalier wholeheartedly embrace American influence? He was more interested in survival than control, and pandering to the USA’s economic demands alongside his proven anti-communism would ensure their support in the long run and strengthen his position as president by sacrificing policy leadership. It was also worth Duvalier’s while, economically. Light manufacturing and the drug trade fit well alongside the kleptocracy and cronyism of Jean-Claudisme, and Duvalier made hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes, business deals and embezzlement from the Haitian state.

Moderate social liberalisation occurred in the 1970s, as the regime was pressured on the matter by Jimmy Carter’s administration. Dissatisfied rural Haitians began to organise, and radio stations such as Jean Dominique’s Radio Haiti Inter carried the voice of protest in Kreyol. However the insincerity of these reforms was laid bare in the 1980s, after Jean-Claude was given carte blanche by the new U.S. President Ronald Reagan.Protests catalysed by the creole pig disaster were forcefully suppressed, participants were tortured, and Jean Dominique was forced into exile after gunmen stormed Radio Haiti Inter looking for him.

But the tide was rising. The brutality of macoute repression could not stop the growing anger of the population. Protests and strikes became daily occurrences, new radio stations such as the Catholic Radio Soleil took the place of those shut down, and on the 7th February 1986, Jean-Claude Duvalier fled Haiti for France, on board a U.S. plane courtesy of President Reagan.


Duvalier returned to Haiti in 2011, at the moment of the presidential election run-off between Michel Martelly and Mirlande Manigat. The Collective Against Impunity was swiftly founded, aiming to hold Jean-Claude to account for the myriad of human rights abuses that occurred under his regime, reminiscent of efforts in Chile against fellow neoliberal dictator Augusto Pinochet. As they struggled to bring him to court, Jean-Claude Duvalier enjoyed the spoils of a “house arrest” that included frequent fine-dining in Pétionville’s restaurants and bars, spending the last of his plunder that had been frivolously whittled down in lavish Parisian spending sprees, and an expensive divorce. He's back Jean-Claude Duvalier on his return to Haiti, 2011. Amy Wilentz, acclaimed journalist of post-Duvalier Haiti, argued yesterday that Duvalierism lives on, and it is embodied in President Michel Martelly. It is in his interests, she writes, to bury the excesses of Duvalierism away and celebrate the achievements of authoritarianism, as soon Martelly too shall rule by decree. Duvalier’s neoliberal reforms have only continued after 1986, despite the flight of the assembly plants after economic embargos were imposed by President Clinton in the 1990s, during a military dictatorship that deposed Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Rice   In 1986 the IMF forced Haiti to lower rice tariffs in exchange for a $24.6m emergency loan. The Haitian rice economy collapsed, unable to compete in price with the American rice now flowing into the country. A few years later, Clinton himself offered subsidies to American rice companies to export to Haiti, further increasing Haiti’s economic dependence and accelerating the rural flight to Port-au-Prince, or to the diaspora. The capital suffered overcrowding and an influx of poorly-constructed Bidonville huts. When the earthquake came, they offered no resistance. Yet Martelly, backed by the Clintons, continues to open the border. Haiti, he says, is “open for business.”

Duvalier’s death, like that of Pinochet, denies his many victims and his families the opportunity to see justice served in the courtroom. But history can still hold Jean-Claude Duvalier, and his enduring legacy, to account. Unsurprisingly his death has been met by calls for reconciliation by President Martelly and those who have benefited, or benefit still, from the era of Jean-Claudisme. It is a continuation of a recent resurgence in Duvalierist sentiment, observed by justice campaigner Michèle Montas-Dominique.

“A revisionist discourse has been attempting to rewrite history and to convince the young that things were better under Duvalier.”

To brush Duvalier under the carpet as the weak “Baby Doc” figure, is to silence the brutality of his regime, to forget the hundreds of millions he stole from Haiti, to ignore the damage of forty years of neoliberal economics, HIV and the continuing streams of cocaine that flow through the country, and to spit in the face of his victims. To focus solely on the “positives” of Jean-Claudisme is to sow doubt into the post-Duvalier democratic project, and justify a Haiti that is open for business, ruled by decree.

This silencing cannot be allowed to succeed.

Skeleton Women: The British habit of sliding head-first down icy slopes


On Sunday Jenny Jones achieved sport’s biggest accolade and made history, becoming the first Britain to win (and keep*) an Olympic medal on snow. Yet she joins a growing list of British women (with Lizzie Yarnold currently leading the Sochi competition) in extreme sport who have mined out all the medals for Britain since 2002.

Until Jones, all of these medals came in the skeleton, that gentle pastime whereby you throw yourself down a thin stream of ice, head first of course, steering yourself at 80mph with intricate wiggles and taps of your feet. Alex Coomber started off the trend in 2002 with bronze at Salt Lake City, when skeleton returned to the programme after a 54-year absence. Rudman claimed silver in Turin four years later, before Amy Williams went one better and dominated the competition in Vancouver 2010.

The British phobia of winter is well-known, and the annual barbeque here on the first warm day in March is nearly as big as Christmas. So it is remarkable to find that alongside this success is the fact that the British had a massive hand in the invention of ice-sliding sports.

It all began in the Swiss resort town of St. Moritz, with a wager. St. Moritz was a spa town back in 1864, popular with wealthy Victorians looking to replenish themselves in summer. As September hit, hotelier Johannes Badrutt watched his English guests packing up for London, taking their riches with them. So Badrutt suggested a bet;

Come and see the Alps this winter, and if you are bored, cold, or unhappy, I will pay for everything. The St. Moritz tourist page celebrates the moment the English discovered the winter for the first time, gasping in amazement at the sunshine (of all things) and the glorious scenery. Badrutt won his bet, and soon the British populated the Alps every winter, and like all British tourists of history, decided to take over the town.

The British tourists managed to get hold of a delivery sled, which they put to use to slide on the icy, precarious, and dangerously downhill narrow streets of the town. (Slightly) more sophisticated guests decided that a simple delivery sled would not do; some would not travel in anything less than a carriage, and so the first bobsleds were constructed.

The Swiss hoteliers had created a monster and soon their fellow townspeople were being threatened by daring tourists, sliding through the streets at difficult speed. They decided to construct some purpose-built toboggan tracks to keep the British off the streets; one of these became the Cresta Run, built by Major John Bulpett in 1884/5, and quickly became represented by the St Moritz Tabogganing Club (SMTC). The first “Grand National” race was held in 1885, and in 1890, the “erratic” Mr Cornish made the decision to go down the Cresta head first. Skeleton was born.

It is a shame how quickly skeleton and Cresta (seen as a different sport by some) became so exclusive. According to British Skeleton, it now costs £450 for each slide down the pipe. It was always a domain of the wealthy, but there was a simple romance about those early sliders, who grabbed a sled at the top of the hill and threw themselves at it. The SMTC saw it fit, in the 1920s, to ban women from their course. Their website writes;

“Mrs J.M Baguley was the last lady to ride the Cresta in a race on 13th January 1925. Ladies rode in practice after that date, but were banned from riding on 6th January 1929.”

They do not elaborate, and the terms and conditions simply state “women are not permitted to ride the Cresta run”. You have to wonder what it was that changed their minds. Perhaps it is related to the refusal to allow women to compete in long-distance running events in this era, based on some perceived notion of physical inferiority. The modern Olympic Games have since rectified this; in Sochi the sole male-only event remaining is the Nordic Combined.

But the spiritual home and birthplace of the sport remains closed; women cannot ride the Cresta. Former rugby star Matt Dawson, in his article for the Daily Mail, was astute enough to spot the presence of the descendants of the Nazi Joachim von Ribbentrop, but didn’t notice the complete absence of women. Ian Cowie, writing in the Telegraph, simply mentions they have been banned since 1929, but again spies a Ribbentrop, and both note the army traditions and Old Boy atmosphere that surrounds the Cresta.

It is patently ridiculous that if Amy Williams turned up with her sled at the Cresta today she would likely be turned away. If they still believe women aren’t “tough enough” to ride the Cresta, they should watch the achievements of Lizzie Yarnold, Williams, and Shelley Rudman. If that is not enough, they should consider RAF officer Alex Coomber, who slid the course at Salt Lake City with a broken wrist, which she’d injured just 10 days earlier in training, and took the bronze.