The US Occupation of Haiti and the Hispanic Caribbean

June 2016

The years between World Wars I and II were key to the development of what has come to be seen as the Caribbean’s modern literature and politics.1 Scholars have noticed the important part Haiti plays in anticolonial projects of this period.Haitian culture explicitly inspired the recuperation of black culture by Alejo Carpentier in Cuba and Luis Palés Matos in Puerto Rico, while Haitian history became a way to imagine revolution and nation building during the decolonization era in plays such as C. L. R. James’s Toussaint Louverture (1936), Derek Walcott’s Henri Christophe (1949) and Drums and Colors (1958), Edouard Glissant’s Monsieur Toussaint (1961), and Aimé Césaire’s La tragédie du roi Christophe (1963). Haiti’s privileged position in the development of anticolonialism has become well known in Caribbean studies.

While much has been written about how important Haiti was for the rest of the Caribbean in acknowledging its Africanness or in imagining decolonization by looking back to the region’s first independent state, little scholarship engages with a key fact: at precisely the moment that modern Caribbean anticolonialism was being founded through narratives of Haiti, Haiti itself was occupied by US Marines from 1915 to 1934. The interwar years were not just a period of (colonial) endings and (nationalist) beginnings; for Haiti, these decades marked an interruption to the supposed teleology of independence following from colonial domination.3 In paying attention only to the revolution (and to some extent, to migrations of Haitians to other parts of the region), scholars have overlooked how the occupation of Haiti was also a regional event whose significance reverberated throughout the twentieth century just as the Revolution had in the nineteenth.4 Foregrounding the occupation sheds new light on the Hispanic Caribbean by showing, first, how references to Haiti by Hispanic writers during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s were not identical to the planter anxieties about the Haitian threat that Sibylle Fischer and Ada Ferrer so insightfully document: in the occupation period, the shadow of Haiti was also the shadow of US imperialism.5 Second, the discourses about Haiti that circulated in the United States and internationally via US culture industries during the occupation—of the Caribbean as site of black superstition, irrationality, danger, and threat, embodied in images of voodoo and zombies—shaped how Caribbean people themselves viewed Afro-Caribbean culture. In this short piece, I will only suggest how emphasizing the occupation as context creates new lenses for reading the engagement with Haiti by writers such as Carpentier and Palés Matos; my forthcoming book, American Imperialism’s Undead: The Occupation of Haiti and the Rise of Caribbean Anticolonialism, develops this argument in more detail.

The US occupation of Haiti began in 1915.6 While initially overshadowed by the world war in international headlines, attention came especially when the military operation in Haiti became an issue in the US presidential election of 1920 and when Haitian protests were violently suppressed in 1929. Examining the coverage of the occupation in Cuban and Puerto Rican newspapers and journals illustrates the political anxieties it produced in the region. Two Cuban periodicals that were key to the development of negrismo and afroantillanismo, Diario de la Marina and Revista de Avance, both show the impact of the occupation. Diario de la Marina, Cuba’s widest circulated newspaper, became a central institution in the region’s literature’s developing interest in Afro-Caribbean culture through its weekly “Ideales de una raza” section, which between 1928 and 1931 introduced its large readership to writers such as Nicolás Guillén, Carpentier, and Palés Matos. As early as September 1920, Diario featured articles critiquing the occupation.7 News of the occupation continued to appear periodically in the paper, with sensational headlines like “2,500 Haitianos muertos desde la ocupación americano.”8 Stories about Haiti ran consistently throughout 1922 with coverage of the US Senate commission investigating the occupation. The December 1929 uprisings, where marines fired on protesters in the town of Aux Cayes, killing more than twenty and wounding dozens, produced headlines in Diario for much of the month, including a number of front-page stories featuring Port-au-Prince bylines that expressed revulsion at Haitian deaths and criticism of the occupation.9 This sympathy for what Haitians were experiencing may seem surprising in a newspaper rightly considered “conservative” that generally favored US business interests and that frequently deployed hostile and even racist rhetoric against Haitian immigrants.10 The antioccupation coverage demonstrates how even for the wealthy Cuban elite whose viewpoints Diario represented, fear of imperial threats to political sovereignty lay just below the surface of openness to US trade.

In this context of interest in Afro-Caribbean culture but anxiety over how black self-rule in Haiti had invited US occupation, Revista de Avance included the story “El zar negro” by the French writer Paul Morand in the January 1929 issue. Avance, published by a Cuban avant garde that included Carpentier (who had once translated a Morand story for a Cuban periodical), even more than Diario sought to deploy Afro-Caribbean culture as a defense against the threat of US imperialism.11 “El zar negro,” set in occupied Haiti, illustrates the exoticizing lens toward the Caribbean that the occupation promoted. Yet after explaining the decision to translate and publish Morand’s story because of “la simpatía antillana y el espíritu de antimperialismo que lo animan,” the editors insist on Cuban distinctiveness:

Sr. Morand—al igual que muchos otros escritores europeos—se refiere a cuestiones de política Americana que no son de su especialidad. Esto no significa que “1929” quiera ignorar el control ecónomica que los Estados Unidos ejercen sobre una zona Americana y control en cual, en más de una ocasión, no hemos pronunciado. Pero, sin negar esa influencia, bueno es recordarle al Sr. Morand que Cuba, pueblo libre y con soberanía propia, nunca ha padecido la abyecta condición que el Sr. Morand describe y por consiguiente, no cabe aludirlo como término de su comparación.12

This preface suggests the anxiety Haiti’s occupation posed for Cubans. Morand’s anti-imperialism is attractive in light of the Avance group’s concerns with US power, but as in Diario de la Marina, the reality of occupation hits too close to home in a nominally independent Cuba. The inclusion of Morand’s story shows the complex dynamics of the desire to turn to Haiti as primary site for recuperating Afro-Caribbean culture, considering the fear of all that Haiti represents, culturally as well as geopolitically.

That Cubans might have seen in Haiti’s occupation a threat to their own homeland’s political status becomes clearer when Diario’s coverage is contrasted with the trivialization of the 1929 uprising in newspapers of other islands still under colonial control. Puerto Rico’s El Mundo, for example, rarely mentioned the occupation, never letting the story onto the front page and taking the perspective of the official response. Articles on Haiti appear at the top of page two of El Mundo on 6, 7, 11, and 13 December, but Haitian deaths are not mentioned. The series of articles closes with a 17 December piece headlined “La hija del presidente de Haiti contrajo matrimonio con un ingeniero” that begins, “Anoche se olvidaron las recientes dificultades,” before going on to describe the wedding.13 The euphemistic language combined with the emphasis on the return to normalcy is a remarkable rendition of what Michel-Rolph Trouillot describes as trivialization.14

Carpentier’s and Palés Matos’s engagements with Haiti, which developed from the context of the occupation, reflect the fascination with and anxiety about Haiti the occupation produced. Carpentier’s connection to occupation discourse is most easily seen through the influence of William Seabrook on Carpentier’s work. In December 1931, Carpentier wrote an article in the Cuban journal Carteles about US journalist and travel writer William Seabrook, calling his narrative about Haiti, The Magic Island, “uno de los libros más hermosos que se escrito en tiempos actuales.”15 In 1936, Carpentier wrote the script for a documentary titled Le vaudou that credited Seabrook as its source.16 The Magic Island is perhaps the best embodiment of US fascination with Haiti during the occupation: the travel narrative was selected as a book of the month by the Literary Guild, and its representation of what the occupation helped popularize in the US as voodoo would become inspiration for the first zombie film, White Zombie (1932). US audiences thus responded with great enthusiasm to this intrepid adventure-writer’s “discovery” of Haiti’s supposedly premodern African soul. Carpentier’s foundational statement of the marvelous real as a New World aesthetic in the preface to El reino de este mundo similarly locates the discovery of this aesthetic in Haiti and imitates many of Seabrook’s strategies for positioning Haitian culture as an antidote to Western modernity.

If Carpentier’s turn to Haiti’s Afro-Caribbeanness as a way of reinvigorating Cuban culture thus traces paths laid down by the US occupation, Palés Matos had perhaps an even more complicated relationship with the discourses about Haiti. Puerto Ricans were at once US citizens and victims of US imperialism. Mary Renda discusses Pedro del Valle, a middle-class Puerto Rican who served as a US Marine in Haiti, while Bruce Calder details how US occupation forces in the Dominican Republic “recruited and hired Puerto Ricans, usually for middle-status jobs of a kind which demanded native Spanish speakers but which few Dominicans could be persuaded to carry out, such as collecting the unpopular new taxes, spying, and interpreting.”17

Palés Matos occupies a similarly in-between status vis-à-vis Haiti. Like Carpentier, he was substantially influenced by US representations of Haiti. Both writers focused especially on Henry Christophe, the figure from the Haitian Revolution who also attracted the most attention of US writers. White Americans like Eugene O’Neill in The Emperor Jones or Arthur Burks in his sensationalistic short stories used Christophe to tell tales about the pathologies of black leadership; African Americans like James Weldon Johnson, meanwhile, were drawn to Christophe’s citadel as evidence of black accomplishment.18 Palés Matos’s contemporaries saw his poetry through the lens of Seabrook and O’Neill.19 In this context, Palés Matos’s poem “Majestad negra” appears to translate the title of the popular biography of Christophe by John Vandercook, Black Majesty, that was published in 1928 and became another Literary Guild selection during the occupation.20 The circulating discourses that made images of Haiti available to Palés Matos and conditioned how he would be read were crucially shaped by the occupation. I therefore want to suggest how rereadings of hispanophone writers like Carpentier and Palés Matos need to account for the ways literary and cultural engagements with Haiti from this time period were complex mediations of multiple forms of imperialism and exoticization. The full dimensions of the networks from which negrismo and afroantillanismo emerged cannot be understood without keeping the occupation of Haiti in mind.


Raphael Dalleo is associate professor of English at Bucknell University. He is author of Caribbean Literature and the Public Sphere (2011), coauthor of The Latino/a Canon and the Emergence of Post-sixties Literature (2007), editor of Bourdieu and Postcolonial Studies (2016), and coeditor of Haiti and the Americas (2013). His book about Pan-Caribbean responses to the occupation of Haiti, American Imperialism’s Undead: The Occupation of Haiti and the Rise of Caribbean Anticolonialism, will be published by University of Virginia Press in fall 2016.


1 Nigel Bolland describes the 1930s as “initiat[ing] a new period of modern politics” throughout the region. Nigel Bolland, “Labor Protests, Rebellion, and the Rise of Nationalism during Depression and War,” in Stephan Palmié and Francisco A. Scarano, eds., The Caribbean: A History of the Region and Its Peoples (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 466. For discussions of the 1930s as origin point for anglophone Caribbean literature, see Kenneth Ramchand, The West Indian Novel and Its Background (London: Heinemann, 1983); and Reinhard Sander, The Trinidad Awakening (New York: Greenwood, 1988).

2 Victor Figueroa, Prophetic Visions of the Past: Pan-Caribbean Representations of the Haitian Revolution (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2015); Philip Kaisary, The Haitian Revolution in the Literary Imaginary: Radical Horizons, Conservative Constraints (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014); A. James Arnold, “Recuperating the Haitian Revolution in Literature: From Victor Hugo to Derek Walcott,” in Doris L. Garraway, ed., Tree of Liberty: Cultural Legacies of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), 179–99; Jeremy Matthew Glick, The Black Radical Tragic (New York: New York University Press, 2016).

3 I address what Haiti’s occupation means for the teleology of anticolonialism in “‘The Independence so Hardly Won Has Been Maintained’: C. L. R. James and the US Occupation of Haiti,” Cultural Critique 87 (2014): 38–59.

4 As Kaiama Glover puts it, “Ever since its seizing of independence, [Haiti] has been perceived as an absolute anomaly—its past, present, and future readable almost exclusively through the lens of the seminal moment of its revolution.” Kaiama Glover, Haiti Unbound: A Spiralist Challenge to the Postcolonial Canon (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010), 15. In studies of Haiti’s place in the Hispanic Caribbean literary imagination, Elzbieta Sklodowska’s Espectros y espejismos: Haití en el imaginario cubano (Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2009) is an exception in terms of the attention it pays to the occupation.

5 Sibylle Fischer, Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); Ada Ferrer, Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

6 Hans Schmidt provides the best English-language history of the occupation. See Hans Schmidt, The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915–1934 (Rutgers University Press, 1971).

7 “Desde Washington,” Diario de la Marina, 4 September 1920, 3, and 7 September 1920, 3.

8 “2,500 Haitianos muertos desde la ocupación americano,” Diario de la Marina, 27 October 1921, 20.

9 Coverage of the uprising in Diario de la Marina began on 7 December 1929, with a brief story about two days of “malestar popular” (popular unrest; 13) before featuring front-page headlines on 8, 9, and 10 December.

10 Vera Kutzkinski, Sugar’s Secrets: Race and the Erotics of Cuban Nationalism (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993), 146.

11 See Francine Masiello, “Rethinking Neocolonial Aesthetics: Literature, Politics, and International Community in Cuba’s Revista de Avance,” Latin American Research Review 28, no. 2 (1992): 3–31.

12 “The Antillean sympathy and anti-imperialist spirit that animate it”; “Mr. Morand—like many other European writers—refers to American policy issues that are not his specialty. This does not mean [Avance] wants to ignore the control exercised by the United States over the American zone against which, on more than one occasion, we have pronounced. But, without denying this influence, it is good to remind Mr. Morand that Cuba, a free people with their own sovereignty, has never suffered the abject condition that Mr. Morand describes and, consequently, cannot be alluded to as a term of comparison.” “El zar negro,” Revista de Avance, no. 30 (January 1929): 20. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are mine.

13 “The Daughter of the Haitian President Marries an Engineer”; “Last night the recent difficulties were forgotten.”

14 Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Pasts: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon, 1995), 96. Similar trivialization can be seen in other colonial newspapers such as the Trinidad Guardian.

15 “One of the most beautiful books written in present times”; Carpentier, “Leyes del Africa,” Carteles, 27 December 1931, 46.

16 Jerome Branche, Colonialism and Race in Luso-Hispanic Literature (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006), 237.

17 Mary Renda, Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of US Imperialism, 1915–1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 61–62; Bruce Calder, The Impact of Intervention: The Dominican Republic During the US Occupation of 1916–1924 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984), 28.

18 Renda looks at how O’Neill, Burks, and Johnson represent Haiti and Christophe. See Taking Haiti, 187–88, 216, and 193–94.

19 Tomás Blanco, “Poesía y recitación negra,” Revista Bimestre Cubana, nos. 37–38 (1936): 29; Margot Arce, “Más sobre las poemas negros de Luis Palés Matos,” Revista Bimestre Cubana, nos. 37–38 (1936): 37.

20 The allusion is almost certainly intentional, since Vandercook was an influence on Palés Matos. See Branche, Colonialism and Race, 196.


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