Haiti, which is the size of Maryland, is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and one of the most densely populated. The vast majority of its 6 million inhabitants barely eke out a living tilling poor soil in the mountainous interior or working at scarce, low-paying jobs in the capital.

The nation is located 600 miles southeast of Florida on the western third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.

The Dominican Republic occupies the rest of the island, which was visited by Columbus during his first voyage to the New World in 1492.

About 95 percent of Haiti's citizens are blacks. They are the descendants of slaves brought to the island by the French colonial regime in the 17th and 18th centuries to work sugar and coffee plantations.

Following a slave rebellion led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, Haiti declared its independence in 1804. It was only the second nation in the Americas, after the United States, to do so.

The country's political history has been marked by chronic instability and violence, and by tension between the black majority and the wealthy mixed-race elite.

A succession of 22 dictators ruled the nation from 1843 until 1915, when U.S. troops occupied the nation to protect U.S. lives and property.

The U.S. forces left in 1934 as part of Franklin Roosevelt's "Good Neighbor" policy, but instability continued until Francois Duvalier was elected president in a 1957 plebiscite. Duvalier, a black physician known as "Papa Doc," promised to put economic and political power in the hands of the black masses but instead established a dictatorial regime. He made himself "president for life" in 1964, and, upon his death in April 1971, his son Jean-Claude came to power with the same title.

Haiti's official language is French, but most citizens speak Creole. Various voodoo cults flourish in the nation alongside the official religion of Roman Catholicism.