Haiti is a small, densely populated nation in the West Indies. It occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola. It shares the island with the Dominican Republic, a country very different in culture and heritage. Haiti is the second oldest independent country in the Western Hemisphere, after the United States, having proclaimed its independence from France in 1804. It is the only modern nation created by a slave revolt.

The People
Ancestry, Language, and Religion
More than 90 percent of Haitians are descended from black Africans. They were originally brought to the island as slaves. The rest of the population consists mainly of mulattoes, or persons of mixed black and European (mainly French) ancestry. French and Creole are the official languages. Creole, the common language of nearly all the people, is a French dialect. It is mixed with African expressions and some Spanish, Indian, and English words. Most Haitians are Roman Catholics. But voodoo, a folk religion from Africa, is also widely practiced.

Way of Life
The African influence is very strong in the rural areas, where about 70 percent of the country's inhabitants live. Much of the music, art, folk dances, and customs are African in origin. Well-to-do Haitians, however, chiefly mulattoes, cling to the Catholic-French tradition dating from colonial times. Haiti is a poor country, perhaps the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. The majority of the people earn a meager livelihood cultivating small plots of land and gardens. Education, outside the cities, is hampered by a lack of funds. Only about one-quarter of Haitian children attend primary and secondary school.

The Land

Haiti is an Indian name meaning "mountainous land". About two-thirds of the country is mountainous or hilly. The mountains, separated by valleys and plains, extend along the two peninsulas enclosing the Gulf of Gonâve. They reach their highest elevation at Pic La Selle, in the southeast. Pic La Selle rises to 8,793 feet (2,680 meters). The rugged terrain limits the available good farmland and makes transportation difficult. Port-au-Prince, situated on the gulf, is the capital, largest city, and chief port. On the northeast is Cap-Haïtien. It is the second largest city and former colonial capital.

Climate and Natural Resources
The climate is tropical, with an average annual temperature of 80°F (27°C). While places close to sea level are quite hot, the higher elevations are much cooler. Rainfall varies from about 20 inches (510 millimeters) along the coast to about 100 inches (2,540 millimeters) in the mountains. The region is subject to violent hurricanes in the fall of the year.

Some stands of trees remain, but most of the dense tropical rain forests that once covered the mountain areas have been cut down. They were cut down to provide timber and fuel and to clear the land for farming. This has led to serious erosion, or washing away of topsoil, on the treeless slopes.

Bauxite (aluminum ore) is Haiti's most important mineral resource. It also has deposits of copper, limestone, and marble.

The Economy

Haiti's economy is based largely on agriculture. But the large plantations typical of much of Latin America are the exception in Haiti. There, crops for export as well as basic food crops are usually grown on small farms. Coffee is cultivated on the cool mountain slopes. Sugarcane is produced in irrigated lowland areas. They are the main commercial crops. Cacao (cocoa beans) and sisal, used in making twine, are also exported. The chief food crops are corn, rice, sorghum, and beans.

Haiti has little industry. Because labor costs were low there, a number of companies set up plants to assemble products for export to the United States, including baseballs, toys, and electronic products. These plants shut down when international sanctions were imposed on Haiti from 1991 to 1994 in an effort to force political change. Only a few have reopened. Tourism, traditionally an important source of income, has declined dramatically due to political turmoil.

Haiti's government is based on a 1987 constitution. The head of state is the president, who is elected for five years. The president appoints and shares power with the prime minister, who heads the majority political party in the legislature. The legislature, or National Assembly, consists of two houses, the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies.

Hispaniola was originally inhabited by the Arawak Indians. Christopher Columbus claimed the island for Spain in 1492. He established the first Spanish settlement in the Americas near the site of Cap-Haïtian. Spanish soldiers, missionaries, and colonists soon followed. By the mid-1500's, the Indians had all but died out from disease. France gained control of the western third of Hispaniola (then called Saint-Domingue) in 1697. With the forced labor of nearly 500,000 West African slaves, Haiti became France's richest colony in the Western Hemisphere.

Revolution and Independence

In 1791, Toussaint L'Ouverture, a soldier and former slave, led a long and bloody revolt to free the slaves from the French. But in 1802, the French sent troops to restore order. Toussaint was captured and taken to France. (See the biography of Toussaint L'Ouverture .) Jean-Jacques Dessalines, another former slave, took up the fight. He restored the Indian name of Haiti and declared it independent in 1804. After his death, Haiti was divided between two rulers, but the country was later reunited under Jean-Pierre Boyer, who ruled until his death in 1844.

Intervention and Dictatorship
Since its independence, Haiti has had numerous governments. In the early 1900's, the country was disorganized and bankrupt. It could not pay its debts to France and Germany, who threatened to send troops to protect their investments. In order to enforce the Monroe Doctrine against European intrusion into the Americas and to secure its own interests, the United States in 1915 sent Marines to Haiti where they remained until 1934. Finances, sanitation, education, and transportation were greatly improved during this time. But Haitians had little say in their government.

After a brief period of reform, the country then returned to its old pattern of dictatorship under François Duvalier. Elected president in 1957, he used violence to enforce his rule. And he was criticized for human rights abuses. In 1964 a new constitution made Duvalier president of Haiti for life. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to overthrow him before he died in 1971. He was succeeded as president for life by his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier.

Fall of Duvalier: Recent Events
The long rule of the Duvaliers in Haiti ended in 1986, when, after widespread protests, Jean-Claude Duvalier and his family fled the country. A provisional (temporary) government was established under General Henri Namphy. A new constitution was approved in 1987, but elections for the presidency had to be canceled, following bloody street riots. New elections were held in 1988, in which Leslie Manigat was declared the winner. But he was soon ousted by Namphy, who himself was deposed by the military.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest, was elected president in 1990. In 1991, Aristide, too, was ousted by the army. But the threat of a U.S. invasion in 1994 forced the military to back down, and Aristide, aided by U.S. troops, was restored to office. In 1995 he was succeeded by René Garcia Préval.

In 1999, after almost two years of political deadlock, Préval formed a new government by decree. Elections were finally held in 2000. Aristide and his Lavalas Family Party won. But political opponents said the election was rigged. Amid increasing turmoil, a rebel army sought to oust Aristide. He resigned on February 29, 2004, claiming the United States had forced him out. A U.S.-backed commission chose an interim president and prime minister until democratic elections could be held. A force of 6,700 United Nations soldiers took over peacekeeping duties for the United States in June. Meantime, a series of floods and hurricanes caused further upheaval. Thousands of people were killed, and many more were left homeless and starving.

In 2006, former president Préval was reelected president. As the candidate of his own party, Lespwa (Hope), he pledged to restore order and rebuild the devastated country. His work was complicated by rising world food prices, which sparked riots among the poor in 2008.

Another catastrophe befell Haiti in January 2010. A 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, the capital. Entire sections of the capital were destroyed, including hospitals, schools, and government buildings. The Red Cross estimated that the death toll could reach 50,000. It was Haitis most devastating earthquake in 200 years. Nations and nongovernmental organizations around the world rushed aid to the stricken country.

John F. Lounsbury
Arizona State University