Throughout its history, Haiti's relative isolation has constrained its foreign relations. Haiti achieved some prominence as a result of its successful revolution, but the governments of slaveholding countries either ignored or decried the country during the first half of the nineteenth century. In the United States, the question of recognizing Haiti provoked sharp debate between abolitionists, who favored recognition, and slaveholders, who vehemently opposed such an action. The advent of the Civil War, however, allowed President Abraham Lincoln to recognize Haiti without controversy. Haiti became a focus of interest for the great powers in the early twentieth century mainly because of the country's strategic location. Competition among the United States, Germany, France, and Britain resulted in the breaching of Haiti's sovereignty and the nineteen-year occupation by United States forces. Subsequent isolation stemmed from Haiti's cultural and linguistic uniqueness, its economic underdevelopment, and from international condemnation of the repressive Duvalier regimes.
Haiti has maintained a long-standing relationship with the United States. Haitians have perceived economic ties to the United States as vital. The United States was Haiti's primary trading partner for both exports and imports, its most important source of foreign assistance, and the primary target of Haitian emigration. A large number of private voluntary agencies from the United States functioned in Haiti. The assembly industry of Port-au-Prince was closely tied to the United States economy. In short, the economic and the political influence of the United States in Haiti was more powerful than the influence of any other country.
Still, contemporary American diplomatic interest in Haiti has been minimal. Washington's interest in Haiti arose chiefly because of the country's proximity to the Panama Canal and Central America. Haiti also controls the Windward Passage, a narrow body of water that could be easily closed, disrupting maritime traffic. In the nineteenth century, the United States considered establishing a naval base in Haiti. At about the time of World War I, the United States occupied Haiti along with a number of other countries in the Caribbean and Central America. Since the 1960s, Washington has viewed Haiti as an anticommunist bulwark, partly because of the country's proximity to Cuba. François Duvalier, exploiting United States' hostility toward the Cuban regime of Fidel Castro Ruz and United States fears of communist expansion in the Caribbean, deterred the United States government from exerting excessive pressure against his own dictatorship.
In the 1980s, the United States expressed a special interest in curbing illegal Haitian immigration. Washington also attempted to curtail shipments of illegal drugs to and from Haiti.
From the 1970s until 1987, United States assistance to Haiti grew. After the violently disrupted elections of November 1987, however, United States president Ronald Reagan suspended all aid to Haiti. In August 1989, President George Bush restored US$10 million in food aid because the Avril government had made progress toward holding free elections and had agreed to cooperate in efforts to control international drug trafficking.
The Dominican Republic was the second most important country to Haiti because the two nations shared a border, but the two countries were ambivalent toward each other. Haiti supplied cheap labor to the Dominican Republic, mostly to help harvest sugarcane. Under the Duvaliers, this arrangement involved an annual intergovernmental exchange of funds for the supply of cane cutters.
For generations Haitians had informally crossed the Dominican Republic's border in search of work. An estimated 250,000 people of Haitian parentage lived in the Dominican Republic. This perceived "blackening" of the Dominican population motivated dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina to carry out a notorious massacre of Haitians in 1937. The border has been an issue of contention in other respects as well. The Haitian economy has proved to be a desirable market for Dominican products, effectively undercutting Haitian production of certain commodities and reducing the domestic market for some Haitian goods. Also, exiled Haitian politicians have readily sought refuge in the Dominican Republic and have gained allies there in efforts to bring down Haitian governments.
Ties with other Caribbean nations were limited. Historically, Britain and France strove to limit contacts between their dependencies and Haiti, in order to discourage independence movements. Haiti's cultural and linguistic distinctiveness also prevented close relations in the Caribbean. As of mid-1989, Haiti did not belong to the Caribbean Community and Common Market (Caricom), and it had not been included in the Lomé Convention, although there had been some discussion with Caricom officials on both points. Haiti also maintained few productive relationships in Latin America.
Other countries important to Haiti included the primary donor countries for foreign assistance, especially France, Canada, and the Federal Republic of Germany. Haiti maintained special cultural ties to France, even though the two countries were not major trading partners. Haiti also enjoyed a supportive relationship with the Canadian province of Quebec, one of the few linguistically compatible entities in the Western Hemisphere; most Haitian émigrés in Canada lived in Quebec, and the majority of administrators of Canadian aid projects came from Quebec. Haiti's memberships in international and multilateral organizations included the United Nations and its associated organizations, the Organization of American States, the InterAmerican Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
In many ways, Haitians were proud of their history, particularly the accomplishments of such revolutionary figures as Dessalines and Toussaint. However, the nation has suffered both from its uniqueness and from its similarity to other less developed nations. Largely isolated in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti nonetheless has experienced political instability, repression, and impoverishment equal to, or exceeding that of, other Latin American states. As the 1990s approached, Haiti still could not count itself among the democratic nations of the hemisphere, despite the sincere desire of its people for some form of representative government.
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