Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Credibility, Domestic Politics and Presidential Decision-Making: William J. Clinton's 1994 Invasion of Haiti

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Credibility, Domestic Politics and Presidential Decision-Making: William J. Clinton's 1994 Invasion of Haiti

Article excerpt


On 19 September 1994, 3,000 U.S. troops landed in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, preparing the ground for a 20,000-troop invasion force. Sgt Damon Arnett barely had time to step out of his helicopter before he was interviewed live on Cable News Network (CNN). "Emotions were running high," he said. "Going over the shoreline, we didn't see much but of a city that we were unfamiliar with. Then, when we landed over here, I saw a bunch of press, which was good. I assumed, if the press was here, then the enemy probably wasn't." Arnett's assumption was correct. Thanks to a last-minute diplomatic effort, the United States had just reached an agreement with the military junta headed by Lt.-Gen. Raoul Cédras. Not even Haiti's 7,000-man army stood in the way of the United States' second invasion of Haiti in the twentieth century (the first one lasted from 1915 to 1934).

Not having to fight their way into the island, U.S. forces were able to move on to their other objectives: lessening political tensions, training a new police force and, on 15 October 1994, allowing the peaceful return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the country that had elected him president four years before. The 1994 U.S. intervention in Haiti was probably U.S. President William J. Clinton's greatest foreign policy achievement up to that point. Breaking away from a long tradition of unsavoury U.S. interventionism in the Caribbean, the United States had worked to restore democracy. Still, one question remains unanswered: why did the United States get there in the first place?

Just about everything militated against U.S. intervention. The U.S. crusading instinct had suffered a heavy blow less than a year before, when U.S. soldiers were ambushed and killed in Mogadishu. A majority of the U.S. Congress was opposed to an intervention in Haiti. So were the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), as well as leading newspapers and a majority of Americans and many Latin American governments. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, and U.S. economic interests in the island were negligible. Haiti's sole strategic interest, that of lying along the Windward Passage, was of little use now that America's Soviet enemy was gone. Haiti is poor and underdeveloped, with much of its land infertile, and with low-pay assembly work as the main economic prospect for its rapidly growing population. Why would an already embattled president risk his political career and U.S. lives to bring an anti-American Aristide back to an island many Americans would not even be able to locate on a map?

In the quasi-absence of declassified documents, one must approach this issue with caution, avoiding the Charybdis of official justifications and the Scylla of unproved conspiracy theories. Along with public documents from the United States, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations (UN), as well as interviews and leaked documents, logic will be the main analytical tool used in this endeavour. This essay will attempt to discover which factors prompted Clinton to intervene by testing various hypotheses and determining whether they fit with the complex twists and turns of U.S. policy in Haiti. As this study will show, domestic politics and international credibility played a large role in convincing President Clinton to intervene.

A Summary of Events

Once nicknamed the pearl of the Antilles by its French colonial masters, Haiti's fate since the country obtained independence in 1804 has been one of instability and economic decay. The vast majority of its black, Creole-speaking population came under the domination of a small elite that controlled its economic and political life. Stricken by dictatorship, internal strife and the legacy of colonialism, the country sank ever deeper into abject poverty.

On 7 February 1986, a popular revolt forced dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier (nicknamed "Bébé Doc") into exile. Years of instability followed his departure to France, until free elections were held on 16 December 1990. …

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