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Haiti is obsessed by invasion in 1915

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Odette Caidor was there the last time the United States invaded Haiti -- 79 years ago, when she was 10 years old.

And for all the powerful suspicion and hostility the invasion has bred here, she has strangely sweet memories of the July day that U.S. troops landed on the docks of her southern home town of Jeremie.

"We'd never seen so many white faces -- we were not afraid, we were curious, we stared," says the retired teacher mimicking the frank, open-mouthed gawk of the children that day.

She and her playmates ran to greet the soldiers. One of those playmates was little Gaby Rocourt, who would later give birth to Raoul Cedras, the military strongman who rules Haiti today.

"We met them in the streets, and they were kind -- they gave us money when we all were saying 'Give me 10 cents!' " smiles Madame Caidor, her long, graceful fingers reaching as if for a dime.

The relatively peaceful U.S. takeover was followed over the next 20years by huge projects to improve the health, highway and drinking water systems as well as iron-fisted social controls.

But even though the last invasion happened long ago, Madame Caidor still exercises a Haitian brand of careful political discretion when she's asked about it.

"You know, if you talk, they take you away," she says, declining to say what she liked or disliked about the Americans with a slicing motion of her finger across her throat.

The fact that she's afraid to discuss long-gone politics says muchabout the sensitivity of the wound that U.S. occupation still inflicts on the Haitian psyche.

Haitian obsession

The Haitian obsession with this chapter of its history should not be lost on U.S. officials who think a new invasion will help set things right, say many Haitians.

Everyday reminders of the U.S. occupation include such things as running water, important landmarks like the Palace of Justice built by the Marines, and a stubborn streak of conspiracy theories that attribute almost all developments -- including the weather -- to a grand U.S. plan.

Most people are less inhibited than Madame Caidor about their passionate distaste for intervention as they wait for an expected U.S. invasion to re-install democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The U.S. occupation from 1915 to 1934 has become a combustible factor in the Haitian world view, a Third World mixture of poverty and wealth, voodoo, and racial sensitivity.

A proud people whose country is the product of the world's only successful slave rebellion, the Haitian struggle to forge their own destiny has been cruelly foiled by poverty, political chaos, greed and ultimately, many believe, by ham-fisted U.S. policy.

Can't forgive

"We can neither forgive nor forget the occupation," says Dr. Georges Michel, a local radiologist known for his prolific research and writing about the occupation.

Dr. Michel, a tall, loud man who spends much of his spare time in the Library of Congress in Washington plowing through long-forgotten documents, embodies the Haitian anxiety over intervention.

He is unable to finish a historical thought without gesturing hugely and adding emotionally that an invasion will be "Clinton's political tomb" because the United States will not get out as easily as it gets in.

"Imagine the Russians trying to get Alaska back or the French seizing Louisiana or the Mexicans mounting an army to occupy seven states -- that's what [the occupation] felt like," Dr. Michel says, offering these as parallels to the 1915 invasion ordered by President Woodrow Wilson to keep the unstable Caribbean nation out of German hands after President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was torn limb from limb by a mob.

"Americans consider everything they do as innocent," he says.

330 Marines

The initial invasion at Port-au-Prince was carried out in daylight by 330 Marines and involved an exchange of fire that killed two Marines and one Haitian.

The Haitian military largely cooperated with the United States.

But the legacy of the U.S. occupation -- which involved 500 troops at a low and 3,000 at its peak -- still stings, Dr. Michel says.

The highway system, for example, undermined the cheaper transit of railways for Haitian peasants, he says. It also centralized the focus of production on Port-au-Prince, draining provincial capitals of vitality.

And nothing can make up for what the summary executions, beatings and general racism of the occupation meant to Haitian self-esteem, he says.

Among its victims was Charlemagne Peralte, who was executed after leading a peasant rebellion in 1918 and who became an enduring anti-American martyr.

Ironically, Father Aristide invoked Peralte and anti-Americanism heavily in his 1989 campaign, winning a decisive majority.

This historic anti-interventionism is visible across the political spectrum.

Even some Aristide supporters say they will not support him if he comes back behind a wave of U.S. troops.

Film of invasion broadcast

The national television station repeatedly airs footage of U.S. troops blasting their way into Panama in 1989.

Haitians don't hesitate these days to remind visiting Americans of the "disgusting" occupation and to suggest that today's crisis is the product of some grand conspiracy hatched in the first invasion.

Haitians often suggest that the American military has long had its sights set on Mole Saint-Nicolas -- a northern Haitian port believed to be as strategically important to military control of the Caribbean as the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Voodoo spells

A military officer at the Port-au-Prince docks, who calls himself simply "Peterson," fiercely shakes a finger, slams his hand on a desk and says that Haitian voodoo spells now being cast will blind U.S. troops and confuse them.

Similar spells were used in the Haitian slave rebellion of 1801 to confound Napoleon's forces and win independence as the world's first black republic, he says.

Francois Benoit, a former Olympic-level sharpshooter for the military who lived in U.S. exile for many years after his family was massacred by former dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier's thugs, says that Americans -- so fortunate and powerful a people -- have never empathized with the depth of emotion brought on by its occupation of Haiti.

"It's quite repulsive and repugnant to have foreign intervention on our soil," says Mr. Benoit, who briefly served as foreign minister after Father Aristide was overthrown in 1991.

"On the other hand," he says, echoing what many Haitians feel is the crux of today's intervention question, "when you see the other force here behaving just like an occupation force. . . ."

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