Thursday, April 2, 2009


Continuing my series of posts on the nations of the world, today we visit Haiti, which occupies half of an island in the Caribbean Sea.

Population: 8,121,622
Total Area: 10,714 sq. mi. (slightly smaller than Maryland)
Language: French (official, but only spoken by about 20% of the population), Creole
Religion: 80% Roman Catholic, 16% Protestant, Voodoo is also very common
Monetary Unit: gourde
President: René Préval (since 2006)

The island has been occupied by Arawak Indians since prehistoric times, and was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492, who renamed it Hispaniola. In the next century, many of the native Arawak were worked to death or killed by disease. The western half of the island was also subject to frequent raids by French pirates.

Some of the earliest incidents of Haitian history surround the general Toussaint L'Ouverture, called "The Precursor". He assisted French forces in forcing a British withdrawal (1798), and by 1801 ruled the entire island. Toussaint strongly resisted French efforts to reestablish slavery on the island, for which he was eventually captured and later died in a prison in France. The island was declared independent of French rule in 1804, and in 1844 the eastern part of the island declared its own independence, now the Dominican Republic. The subsequent history of Haiti was characterized by a series of bitter struggles for political power between the blacks and the mulattoes, and increasing US dominance of Haitian commercial and political affairs.

Disorder persisted, leading finally to a US intervention in 1915. Order was briefly restored, but insurrections against US authority occurred due to Haitian hostility to outside influences.

Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier took power in 1957 and ruled Haiti with a stern hand. Fear of his political rivals led Duvalier to declare several of them outlaws, and replace the bicameral legislature with a unicameral one, filled with his own supporters. This new body authorized him to rule by decree.
A new constitution was declared in 1964, allowing Duvalier to rule as president for life, and amended in 1971 so that he could appoint his 19 year old son "Baby Doc" as his successor. By the end of his rule, Duvalier had executed more than 2000 of his political enemies, and sent countless others into exile.

An exodus during the early 1980s, fleeing to Florida and the Bahamas, brought international attention to the political oppression and widespread poverty under the Duvalier regime.

In 1986, the military ousted Baby Doc, and after a period of rule by military strongmen, Haiti held its first democratic election ever in 1990. The winner was a 37 year old catholic priest called Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Unfortunately, he was ousted by a military coup only seven months into his five year term.
Aristide fled to the US, which refused to recognize the junta and suspended aid to Haiti. This move only intensified the problems of the Haitian poor, while the ruling elite was propped up by money from illegal drug trafficking. After months of threats, US troops invaded in October of 1994, forcing the junta's resignation and restoring Aristide to power.

Uprisings by armed groups opposed to Aristide's rule continued, taking control of several cities and threatening to kill Aristide, who fled to Africa. Troops from four countries entered the country. Elections scheduled for October of 2005 were cancelled due to widespread violence. In May of 2006, René Préval was elected president in a peaceful election overseen by UN forces, which helped to contain the worst of the violence.

The UN has spent over $5 billion on peacekeeping operations in Haiti since 2004. Last year food riots toppled the government, and a series of hurricanes killed hundreds and ruined the already battered economy. 46 million people are expected to fall into poverty as a result of the current worldwide economic recession. An additional 200-400,000 infants will die every year for the next six years for lack of food and basic medical treatments. This month, the UN Secretary General visited Haiti, hoping to bring international aid to this, one of the world's most impoverished nations.

For my previous posts on the Nations of the World, click here.

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