THE LAND: Haiti covers 10,700 square miles, an area slightly larger than the state of Maryland. Most of the land is arid and mountainous, deeply eroded and treeless, an infertile environment that allows little more than subsistence farming. On the west, Haiti faces Cuba and the Caribbean Sea. To the east is the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic, which covers the eastern, and more fertile two-thirds of the island.
THE PEOPLE: Ninety-five percent of Haitians are descendants of African slaves brought to the New World to cut sugar cane. A great slave revolt led by former slave Toussaint L'Ouverture eventually led to victory over Napoleon's troops and independence from France on Jan. 1, 1804. Haiti was the world's first black republic. Today, it is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Life expectancy is 54 years, per capita income $379 a year, and 85 out of every 100 Haitians live in absolute poverty. Only 13 out of 100 have access to potable water. Thousands, including an estimated 15,000 abandoned or orphaned children, live and sleep in the streets without shelter, sanitary facilities, or other basic necessities. Only about 60,000 of the country's 6 million people live what would be considered in the industrialized West a middle-class lifestyle. These privileged few, mostly lighter-skinned mulattos, own about 46 percent of the national wealth.
HISTORY: Following independence, Haiti ruled the entire island of Hispaniola from 1818-39. A long period of political violence led to U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915-34. After World War II, a 10-year post-war boom brought foreign investment, tourism and public works on a grand scale, although little was done to increase public services for the poor. Another period of political turmoil ended in 1957 with the election of President Francois Duvalier, a country doctor who declared himself president-for-life in 1964. He was succeeded upon his death in 1971 by his son, Jean-Claude. The Duvalier family created the notorious Ton-Tons Macoute, a private militia responsible for 29 years of arbitrary arrests, torturings and killings of Duvalier opponents. Food riots grew into massive unrest in 1986 that forced Jean-Claude Duvalier to flee to France. A military-civilian junta headed by Maj. Gen. Henri Namphy promised to hold elections and turn the government over to a new president on Feb. 7, 1988, two years to the day after the fall of the Duvalier regime.