Haiti is a small, densely populated nation in the West Indies. It occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares 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.
Ancestry, Language, and Religion. More than 90 percent of Haitians are descended from black Africans who 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, mixed with African expressions and some Spanish, Indian, and English words. Although most Haitians are Roman Catholics, 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, and 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, and only about one-quarter of Haitian children attend primary and secondary school.
Features. Haiti is an Indian name meaning "mountainous land," and 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, which 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, 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.
Although some stands of trees remain, most of the dense tropical rain forests that once covered the mountain areas have been 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.
Agriculture. Haiti's economy is based largely on agriculture. But the large plantations typical of much of Latin America are the exception in Haiti, where crops for export as well as basic food crops are usually grown on small farms. Coffee, cultivated on the cool mountain slopes, and sugarcane, produced in irrigated lowland areas, 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.
Industry. 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 was traditionally one of Haiti's most important sources of income. It has declined dramatically due to political turmoil, contributing to high unemployment.
Early History. Hispaniola was originally inhabited by Arawak Indians. Christopher Columbus claimed the island for Spain in 1492 and established the first Spanish settlement in the Americas near the site of Cap-Haïtien. Spanish soldiers, missionaries, and colonists soon followed. By the mid-1500's, the Indians had all but died out. To supply labor, blacks from West Africa were brought to work as slaves on the plantations.
France gained control of the western third of Hispaniola (then called Saint-Domingue) in 1697. With the forced labor of almost 500,000 slaves, what is now Haiti soon became the richest French colony in the Western Hemisphere.
Revolution and Independence. In 1791, inspired by the French Revolution, the slaves rose against their masters. Toussaint L'Ouverture, a soldier and former slave, led a long and bloody revolution to free them. But in 1802 the French sent troops to restore order. Toussaint was captured and taken to France.
Jean-Jacques Dessalines, another former slave, took up the fight. He restored the Indian name of Haiti to Saint-Domingue and declared it independent in 1804. After his death, Haiti was divided between two rulers. 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, which 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.
There were a number of social reforms during the presidency (1946-50) of Dumarsais Estimé. But the country then returned to its old pattern of dictatorship. François Duvalier, who was elected president in 1957, used violence to enforce his rule and was frequently criticized for his abuses of human rights. 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 military leader General Raoul Cédras 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. New elections, finally held in 2000, were won by Aristide and his Lavalas Family Party.
The government is based on a constitution approved in 1987. 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 Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.