When Gringos Get It Right
When it comes to Iraq, what can the United States learn from its 20th century occupations in Latin America?
- The most important rule in an occupation is to leave before you get too comfortable.
- In Latin America, U.S. military troops ultimately succeeded by doing some good — even if in a circuitous manner. They earned the good-will of locals and helped these nations transform.
- Of all the reforms that U.S. troops tried to implement in Latin American occupations — education, road building, tax and land reform among them — only health avoided brickbats.
- No one can argue with a better health care system for everyone — rural and city folk, rich as well as poor.
- During its 20th century Latin American occupations, the United States learned the value of thrift. This lesson is helpful in Iraq today, where it seems half the occupation is run by U.S. corporations wasting taxpayer money.
Yes, occasionally gringos do get it right. Recent U.S. successes — if they stick — in winning over local leaders in Iraq may be the best news to come out of the troubled country in years. It doesn’t make up for the mismanagement of the war, but good news is good news.
And it’s not such a surprise. The United States military is the best educated, most well-equipped in history and can’t be blamed for their political leaders throwing forces into situations that are extremely questionable politically. For the U.S. military, then, the operational question is whether it should run occupations better than it has.
Some of the best case studies are the U.S. occupations of Latin America in the early 20th century. Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic had to contend with the presence of U.S. troops.
Thousands of Latin Americans died opposing the U.S. presence, while U.S. casualties were remarkably limited to a few dozen per occupation. Others endured torture at the hands of U.S. Marines and their local henchmen, unfair trials by biased military courts and censorship of the press and in political meetings.
But in these cases, U.S. military troops ultimately succeeded by doing some good — even if in a circuitous manner. They earned the good-will of locals and helped these nations transform into orderly, responsible societies that defended themselves against Europe and traded with the United States.
So if a superpower really must occupy a weaker country, here are four “do’s” that worked in the past and might work again:
First, improve the health infrastructure. This should be a no-brainer. It’s the reason that Doctors Without Borders is so popular. No one can argue with a better health care system for everyone — rural and city folk, rich as well as poor.
Of all the reforms that U.S. troops tried to implement in Latin American occupations — education, road building, tax and land reform among them — only health avoided brickbats.
Haiti saw perhaps the greatest success. After the occupation began in 1915, U.S. doctors took over the Service d’Hygiène to improve sanitation. This was crucial in a country where it was estimated that 70% of citizens had either syphilis or yaws, while a few hundred hospital cots served the entire nation.
Fifteen years later, in 1930, U.S. doctors directed the building of 11 modern hospitals and 153 rural clinics, where 1.3 million Haitians sought treatment each year. U.S. forces also inspected markets and houses, removed garbage, cleaned streets and eliminated mosquito-breeding by draining, filling and spraying.
Even the pigs were healthier. One marine reported that inhabitants near Port de Paix wanted their hogs inoculated by the U.S. military’s vets after noticing that un-vaccinated hogs were dying.
Eventually, even some in the ever-angry intellectual class of Haitians came around. In 1930, a Baltimore Sun reporter found among this group “almost universal criticism of everything except health work done in Haiti by the American occupation.”
One of those critics, a Haitian newspaperman, made an exception when it came to the Service d’Hygiène, which, he said, saved Haiti from the plague. “The sanitary defense of the world,” he was now convinced, “should increasingly be a collective endeavor.”
Second, take down petty tyrants too. U.S. occupations have often aimed to take down autocrats who terrorized their people and threatened U.S. interests — such as in the case of Iraq.
Similarly, the occupation of Nicaragua in 1909 took down an anti-U.S. tyrant named José Santos Zelaya. In the Dominican Republic, the occupation in 1916 aimed to neutralize the threat of a rising Desiderio Arias, who had taken the capital.
But simply taking these men down was a mere palliative. Others would soon take their place if the network of petty local tyrants, on which they counted, was not dealt with.
As is proven once again in Iraq today, unseating local big-wigs is anything but a no-brainer. It is a very risky maneuver. One Dominican provincial governor described the power of these local chiefs:
“The high number of rural authorities . . . is the main cause of all the evil of the peasants and the frequent conflicts between authorities. These authorities are the bosses of the towns: the gambling houses belong to them . . . They administer Justice and they are sometimes surveyors. To be an authority is for them something like a pirate flag.”
Still, when it works, the payoff is considerable. U.S. Marines forged ahead in the early 20th century to replace mayors, town councilors and chiefs of police in dozens of small towns within the Dominican Republic. In response, Dominicans thanked them for putting men in power who were honest and hardworking.
In Nicaragua, the marines performed a similar task in 1928 and 1932 when they supervised clean elections. They replaced the locals not because they were partisan but because they rejected a free vote. Notably, the election of 1928 ushered in a party with an anti-occupation record.
Third, don’t squander money. This lesson could be especially helpful in Iraq today, where it seems that half the occupation is run by U.S. corporations wasting U.S. taxpayers’ hard-earned money.
In the Latin American occupations of a century ago, Washington spent frugally — about $10 million for all three occupations together. There were some abuses, especially in Haiti, where U.S. officials drew astronomical salaries for doing little.
But overall, U.S. administrators were honest and transparent, thereby revealing these virtues to Dominicans, Haitians and Nicaraguans who had never witnessed honesty in government before. As a Haitian proverb went, “Robbing the state is not robbing.”
And finally, leave before you get too comfortable. The greatest temptation may not be to leave an occupation when the going gets tough, but to stay when the good times roll.
Several years into the Dominican occupation, guerrillas disbanded and patriots were silenced. Just then, the U.S. Military Governor, a virtual dictator, opened a school with a speech. This speech conveyed his hope that the occupation would be around until the present generation of schoolchildren grew old enough to manage the country responsibly.
The comment prompted consternation among Dominicans: Now that the United States had brought order, they wanted to stay? What happened to promises of leaving as soon as it was practical? What happened to “mission accomplished”?
Thankfully, the State Department had a different idea. It pressured the Navy to usher in free elections a few years later and a withdrawal two years after that.
The quick departure should have taught U.S. officials next door in Haiti a valuable lesson, but it didn’t. In the “Black Republic,” they stayed 15 years after the resistance shattered. Racism, no doubt, was the key difference.
All in all, there is always room for scoring “brownie points” in an occupation. But that can never be an argument for getting in. Iraq has been, at best, a massively destabilizing mistake.
The Latin American occupations also began with a misleading rationale — to save the region from European aggression — and ended in disrepute, with local dictators taking over the “orderly” processes begun by U.S. officials.
Nevertheless, once in, nothing stops U.S. troops from doing the right thing, even if only once in a while.