Last week, the world shook twice. The first shock hit Haiti, when a 7.2 magnitude earthquake erupted beneath the island’s southern peninsula. Homes, churches, and hotels crumbled in the cities of Les Cayes and Jérémie and in nearby villages. More than 2,189 people have perished; that toll is expected to rise.
The next disaster struck a few hours later and eight thousand miles away. After 20 years of war, the Taliban entered Kabul, as the U.S.-backed government and the Afghans who depended on it for protection fled for their lives. Video captured civilians clinging to the side of a U.S. Air Force transport plane, preferring to risk falling to their death rather than face the horrors that awaited them.
At first blush, these situations could not have seemed more different to Americans, watching events unfold on our devices from far away. But there is a deep and indelible connection between the two crises: an American one. Both Haiti and Afghanistan owe their sorry conditions to decades of direct U.S. control. Looking closely at the links between the two is essential for understanding how to respond to each in ways that help, rather than do more harm.
The longest continuous U.S. military occupation, until the record was surpassed in Afghanistan last year, had been in Haiti, which unlike other places the U.S. invaded and held for longer, was never formally colonized. (The start and end dates of the U.S. occupation of Nicaragua were technically further apart—beginning in 1912 and ending in 1933—but the force was reduced to just a hundred Marines in the capital for much of that time.)
Marines invaded the Black Republic in 1915, on the pretext of restoring order after a presidential assassination. The occupation, as the Wilson administration officially called it, would last 19 years. Its real goals were openly talked about in Washington: keeping out European influence, securing the route to the just-opened Panama Canal, and ensuring payments to U.S. creditors—especially the National City Bank of New York (now Citibank). At the same time, the Americans promised humanitarian dividends for the Haitian people: new roads and schools, public health, improved agriculture, and democratic development. Those same promises were dusted off 86 years later when George W. Bush justified the invasion of Afghanistan.