Country Guides - News and Background Notes
flag
map

Haiti

h´tät´, Fr. Hati

Land and People

The country is mostly mountainous, but about one third of the land is arable. Once covered by forest, the country has been heavily logged for wood and fuel and to clear land for farming, and is now largely deforested. In addition to the capital, other important cities include Cap-Hatien and Gonaves. Haiti is the most densely populated country in Latin America and has the lowest per capita income, with about two thirds of the people unemployed and three quarters living in poverty. Prolonged economic inequality, political instability and repression, and a near total lack of medical care continue to be serious problems. The economic and political situation have caused numerous Haitians to seek work in the neighboring Dominican Republic, and others to emigrate, especially to the United States and the Bahamas.

About 95% of the inhabitants are descendants of African slaves who still follow West African cultural patterns. Since the mid-19th cent., however, Haiti has been dominated by the mulatto minority, which clings to the French cultural tradition. French and Haitian Creole, a French dialect, are the official languages of Haiti. Roman Catholicism is the predominant religion, but African nature gods are still worshiped, and vodun (voodoo) rites are practiced and are an officially recognized religion.

Economy

Agriculture is the principal economic activity in Haiti. Subsistence crops include cassava, rice, sugarcane, sorghum, yams, corn, and plantains. Most Haitians own and farm tiny plots of land, and great population density has caused rural poverty and is also a factor in the country's extensive deforestation, which has contributed to the degradation of agricultural land. Haiti's major exports are light manufactures and coffee; other exports include oils, cocoa, mangoes, sugar, sisal, and bauxite. The United States is the country's leading trading partner. Industry in Haiti consists largely of light assembly of imported parts and the manufacture of textiles. There is also sugar refining and flour milling, and other foodstuffs are produced. Some bauxite and copper are mined, but other mineral deposits have barely been tapped. Remitttances from Haitians working abroad are also extremely important. Economic sanctions imposed by the United States and others to force a military regime to return power to the elected government, and again later because of the government's inability to meet aid conditions, further damaged the impoverished economy during the 1990s and early 2000s.

Government

Haiti is a republic, and is governed under the constitution of 1987, which was suspended and reinstated several times between 1988 and 2006, when the country returned to constitutional rule. The president is the chief of state and the prime minister is the head of government, but most power resides with the president. Haiti has a bicameral legislature with a 30-seat Senate, whose members are elected to six-year terms, and a 90-seat Chamber of Deputies, whose members are elected to four-year terms. Administratively, the country is divided into 10 departments.

History

Early History to Independence

The island of Hispaniola was inhabited by the Arawaks prior to the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Disease, ill treatment, and execution by the Spaniards decimated the Arawaks, who gave Haiti (land of mountains) its name. While establishing plantations in E Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic), however, the Spanish largely ignored the western part of the island, which by the 17th cent. became a base for French and English buccaneers. Gradually French colonists, importing African slaves, developed sugar plantations on the northern coast. Unable to support its claim to the region, Spain ceded Haiti (then called Saint-Dominque) to France in 1697.

Haiti became France's most prosperous colony in the Americas and one of the world's chief coffee and sugar producers. The pattern of settlement took the French south in the 18th cent. and society became stratified into Frenchmen, Creoles, freed blacks, and black slaves. Between the blacks and the French and Creoles were the mulattoes, whose social status was indeterminate. When French-descended Creole planters sought to prevent mulatto representation in the French National Assembly and in local assemblies in Saint-Dominque, the mulattoes revolted under the leadership of Vincent Ogé. This rebellion destroyed the rigid structure of Haitian society. The blacks formed guerrilla bands led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, a former slave who had been made an officer of the French forces on Hispaniola.

When the English invaded Haiti in 1793 during the Napoleonic Wars, Toussaint maintained an uneasy alliance with the mulatto André Rigaud and cooperated with the remnant of French governmental authority. In 1795, Spain ceded its part of the island to France, and in 1801 Toussaint conquered it, abolished slavery, and proclaimed himself governor-general of an autonomous government over all Hispaniola. Napoleon sent his brother-in-law, Gen. Charles Leclerc, with a huge punitive force to restore order in 1802, but he was unable to conquer the interior.

A peace was negotiated, and Toussaint, taken by trickery, died in a French prison; but the revolt continued and forced the French troops, already ravaged by yellow fever, to withdraw. The rebels received unexpected aid from U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, who feared that Napoleon would use Saint-Dominque as a base to invade Louisiana. In 1804, Haiti became the second nation in the Western Hemisphere, after the United States, to win complete independence.

The Struggles of Nationhood

After independence the remaining French and Creoles were expelled, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, an ex-slave, proclaimed himself emperor. His assassination (1806) led to the division of Haiti into a black-controlled north under Emperor Henri Christophe and a mulatto-ruled south under President Alexandre Pétion. After their deaths Haiti was unified by Jean Pierre Boyer, who also brought (1822–44) Santo Domingo under Haitian control. Seeking to indemnify French planters, Boyer brought financial ruin to Haiti; he was exiled in 1843. Haiti's last emperor (1847–59) was Faustin Soulouque. Since the end of his reign, the country has been a republic. Political and social conflict persisted, intensified by the mulatto-black hostility, and Haiti's economy, which had never recovered from the violent struggle for independence, declined further.

After the dictator Guillaume Sam was killed in a popular uprising in 1915, the United States, troubled over its property and investments in the country and fearing Germany might seize Haiti, took the opportunity to invade Port-au-Prince. The Haitian congress was forced to accept an agreement permitting U.S. control over customs receipts; two years later the resident American naval commander dissolved the congress and dictated a new constitution. Although financial and general material progress advanced under American military occupation, Haiti protested against U.S. violation of its sovereignty, and a U.S. Senate investigation in 1921 found that the avowed purpose of preparing Haiti for responsible self-government had been ignored. In 1930 a U.S. presidential commission recommended that Haiti be allowed to elect a legislature that would, in turn, name a president. Sténio Vincent, a vocal opponent of U.S. military occupation, was chosen by the legislators. The marines were finally withdrawn in 1934, although U.S. fiscal control was maintained until 1947.

Political instability persisted in Haiti after World War II, and the country's future was clouded by rising turbulence in the Dominican Republic and by the emergence of a Communist Cuba. François (Papa Doc) Duvalier, who was elected president in 1957, suppressed opposition through the creation of his paramilitary secret police, the tonton macoutes. In 1964 he proclaimed himself president for life. Upon his death in 1971 he was succeeded by his 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude (Baby Doc), who also became president for life. After 15 additional years of corruption, repression, and inequality under the younger Duvalier, popular discontent became great enough to induce him to flee the country in 1986.

Starting in 1986 there were several brief attempts at civilian democracy, each terminated by a military coup. In Sept., 1991, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced to flee the country only nine months after becoming the first freely elected president in Haiti's history. The United States and the Organization of American States responded with a trade embargo, and in 1993 a UN-sponsored oil embargo was imposed. An accord in 1993 providing for Aristide's return was repudiated by the army, which used terrorist violence to maintain power.

In 1994 the United Nations approved a nearly total trade embargo, and later authorized the use of force to restore democratic rule. On Sept. 18, 1994, as U.S. forces were poised to invade the island, an accord was negotiated. Haiti's military leaders relinquished power under an amnesty, and U.S. forces landed to oversee the transition. Aristide returned on Oct. 15 as president; U.S. troops were largely replaced by UN peacekeepers in Mar., 1995. In the December presidential election that year, René Préval was elected to succeed Aristide. In Apr., 1996, the last U.S. troops left, except for a few hundred in the capital who remained until Jan., 2000; meanwhile, after a wave of political killings, the United States suspended aid to Haiti.

In Jan., 1999, following a series of disagreements with Haitian legislators, Préval declared that their terms had expired, and he began ruling by decree. Parliamentary elections were finally held in May–June, 2000. They gave Aristide's Lavalas Family party an overwhelming majority in both houses, but the method of counting the votes, in which only those won by the four leading candidates were tallied and candidates thus did not need to win an actual absolute majority, was widely criticized.

In Nov., 2000, Aristide was again elected president, winning nearly 92% of the votes cast, but turnout for the election was light. The following year Amnesty International said that human rights and the rule of law had diminished in Haiti, citing harassment of opposition politicians and attacks on journalists. There was an apparent coup attempt against Aristide in Dec., 2001, although it was unclear who was behind it. The political stalemate with the opposition led to the freezing of foreign aid and ongoing economic hardship in Haiti.

Violence between supporters and opponents of the president increased in 2003, and several of Aristide's cabinet ministers resigned bu the end of the year. Parliamentary elections failed to be held, resulting in the dissolution of parliament in Jan., 2004, leaving Aristide to rule by decree and sparking recurring anti-Aristide opposition demonstrations in the streets. In February an armed uprising began in Gonaves, and by the end of the month armed rebels consisting of disaffected gangs formerly allied with the government, former soldiers, paramilitaries, and police, and others, were on the verge of entering the capital.

Under pressure from the United States and France, Aristide resigned and went into exile, subsequently accusing U.S. and French officials variously of duping, coercing, or kidnapping him. U.S., French, Canadian, and Chilean forces arrived to maintain order, and an interim government headed by Gérard Latortue, a former foreign minister, was established. The Caribbean Community, however, refused to recognize Prime Minister Latortue, and called for a UN investigation into Aristide's resignation. Subsequently, CARICOM decided not to readmit Haiti until after the reestablishment of a democratically elected government. In April Latortue announced that general elections for a new government would be held in 2005, but they were subsequently postponed several times during 2005 due to inadequate preparation. A UN peacekeeping force led by Brazil began replacing U.S., Canadian, and French forces in June, 2004.

Flooding from heavy rains in May killed some 1,700 in the south near the Dominican Republic, and in September Tropical Storm Jeanne caused additional deadly flooding, especially in the area around Gonaves, where some 2,500 died. The September flooding also caused significant agricultural damage. Unrest and lawlessness on the part of Aristide supporters and opponents continued to be a problem in the country, despite the presence of foreign peacekeepers. In Nov., 2005, the much delayed 2005 national elections were postponed into 2006.

When the presidential election was held in Feb., 2006, René Préval handily led all other candidates (there were more than 30) but appeared to be falling short of the majority required to avoid a runoff. The former president and his supporters charged that there was electoral fraud, an accusation seemingly supported by an unusually high number of blank ballots and by the discovery of charred blank and Préval ballots in a dump near the capital. Amid demonstrations and mounting tension, election officials agreed to assign the blank ballots proportionally to the candidates, giving Préval nearly 51% of the vote. Parliamentary elections were held at the same time, but the investigation of electoral complaints delayed the second round into April, and Préval was not sworn in until May. The following month Haiti was readmitted to CARICOM.

Armed gangs remain a significant problem in Haiti, and in Oct., 2006, the United States partially lifted an arms embargo against Haiti so that the government could buy weapons and other equipment for the Haitian police. In Feb., 2007, the mandate of the UN peacekeepers was again extended; the Security Council called on UN forces to move more strongly against Haiti's criminal gangs. Although UN forces had successes against a number of urban gangs, some relocated to rural areas where they were less likely to be confronted by peacekeepers.

Country background notes: The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia Copyright © , Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved. Except as otherwise permitted by written agreement, the following are prohibited: copying substantial portions or the entirety of the work in machine readable form, making multiple printouts thereof, and other uses of the work inconsisten with U.S. and applicable foreign copyright related laws.
© The Washington Post Company