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How Much Haiti’s Freedom Cost: Takeaways From a Times Series

When the American military invaded Haiti in the summer of 1915, the official explanation was that Haiti was too poor and too unstable to be left to its own devices. Secretary of State Robert Lansing made little effort to mask his contempt for the “African race,” casting the occupation as a civilizing mission intended to end “anarchy, savagery and oppression.”

But a hint of other motives had come the winter before, when a small team of Marines entered Haiti’s national bank and strolled out with $500,000 in gold. Within days, it was in the vault of a Wall Street bank.

“I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues,” the general who led the U.S. forces in Haiti, said years later, describing himself as a “racketeer for capitalism.”

National City Bank was the predecessor of Citigroup, and along with other powers on Wall Street, it pushed Washington to seize control of Haiti and its finances, according to decades of diplomatic correspondence, financial reports and archival records reviewed by The Times.

For decades to come, the United States was the dominant power in Haiti, dissolving parliament at gunpoint, killing thousands and shipping a big portion of Haiti’s earnings to bankers in New York while the farmers who helped generate the profits often lived near starvation.

Some historians cite tangible gains for Haiti during the U.S. occupation, like hospitals, 800 miles of roads and a more efficient civil service. But they also point to the American use of forced labor, with soldiers tying up workers in ropes, making Haitians build roads for no pay and shooting those who tried to flee.

For a decade, a quarter of Haiti’s total revenue went to paying debts controlled by National City Bank and its affiliate, according to nearly two dozen annual reports prepared by American officials and reviewed by The Times.

At times, the American officers who controlled Haiti’s finances spent more of its money paying their own salaries and expenses than on public health for the entire country of about two million people.

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