Haiti was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1492. His original landing was in the vicinity of Cap Haitien on the north coast, on the feast of St. Nicholas (according to the Church Calendar). The handful of men he left behind soon died out… but not before infecting the natives with enough European diseases to virtually exterminate the population within a century. Subsequently, the French colonized the nearly uninhabited land, and repopulated it with black slaves from Africa.
Shortly after the revolution in the British colonies in North America resulted in the formation of the United States, Haiti became the second “free” nation in the western hemisphere. The slaves revolted and expelled their French masters, establishing an independent republic in 1804. The French did not take kindly to their defeat, and Napoleon sent an invasion force of 30,000 to retake their “property”. It was defeated. Before the French finally gave up, at least 100,000 French soldiers died in the attempt.
A century later, however, Haiti became once again a colony, of the United States. The country was invaded by the United States in 1919, and operated under US military rule until 1934, mostly for the benefit of US economic interests.
The US withdrawal was followed by a series of dictatorships culminating in the horror years of the Duvaliers (father and son), which provided grist for innumerable magazine articles… the backbone of what little many people know about Haiti.
So where is Haiti? About the same distance from Miami as Miami is from Atlanta… about 500 miles south, a bit past Cuba. Haiti occupies the western portion of the island of Hispaniola, the eastern (and far larger) portion of which is known as the Dominican Republic. Haiti is about the same size as Maryland, shaped a bit like a crab’s claw. The distances are not terribly great, but the going is very slow: to travel by truck from St. Nicholas at the western end of the northern peninsula, to Jérémie at the western end of the southern peninsula, would require at least four or five exhausting days — in the unlikely event that the vehicle succeeded in making the trip without a breakdown or encountering a totally impassable road.
Impassable roads are only one of the more visible problems besetting a country which for most of this century has been run either for the benefit of foreign exploiters, or of native power-brokers whose primary concern has been their own comfort. The Duvaliers were particularly grotesque, but they had plenty of company in their misrule. Their era ended with the flight of “Baby Doc” from the country in 1986… to enjoy the approximately $600 million he had stolen from his countrymen. Several years of rule by military force followed, ending with the election in 1990 of the country’s first popularly elected president in modem history, Jean-Baptiste Aristide.
Aristide’s determination to mitigate the gross inequities of Haitian life (virtually all the national resources were, and for the most part remain, the personal possessions of a tiny handful of people) were displeasing to the United States, and President Aristide was overthrown in a CIA-initiated military coup after only seven months in office. The perpetrators of the coup ruled by decree with utter disregard for human rights until 1995 when, following yet another invasion by the United States military, another “free” election, very poorly attended, put a caretaker government (or rather lack thereof, many would say) in place. A skeleton US military force remained in place for many years in an incredibly ugly installation next to the international airport, a daily reminder that the country is governed under the watchful eye of “big brother”
So it was in 1999. Subsequently, Aristide was re-elected to a second (non-consecutive) term, governed for a little over three years before again fleeing the country (with US help? force?) in the disorders of 2004, the true origin and nature of which remains, perhaps, to be discovered.
After an “interregnum” under UN and US supervision, yet another election was held, placing in office President René Préval, who may be the first president in modern Haiti to be elected and complete his term — we shall see.
UN presence continues, but much more light-handedly than during the disorders of the past years. There are some encouraging signs perhaps the first time ever the country may in time have a functioning popularly-elected government (the Duvalier governments were “effective”, but…!).
The current population of the country is unknown, but may reasonably be estimated to be about 9 million people, of which well over a quarter live in Port-au-Prince, the capital city.
Update coming soon; please be patient.
Suggested reading — if you have the stomach for it:
Haiti: Best Nightmare on Earth; Herbert Gold; Transaction Publishers; New Brunswick & London, 2001
Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American; Jean-Robert Cadet; University of Texas Press, 1998
Lone Survivor: Judge, Jury and Executioner; Louis Bernard Antoine, MD; Vantage Press, 1998
In the Parish of the Poor: Writings from Haiti; Jean-Bertrand Aristide; Orbis Books, Maryknoll NY, 1993
All Souls’ Rising; Maidson Smartt Bell; Penguin Books, 1995
Written in Blood: The Story of the Haitian People, 1492-1995; Robert Debs & Nancy Gordon Heinl; University Press of America; Lambeth, Londan & New York; 1996
The Haitian People; James G. Leyburn; Institute of Haitian Studies, University of Kansas, 1998
And, on a little less grave note (and reaching well beyond Haiti), one of the best books I’ve read:
Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Story of a Man Who Would Cure the World; Tracy Kidder; Random House, 2004. Available in both hard-cover and paperbound from the St. John of Kronstadt Press. If you buy the paper, you’ll wish you had bought the hard-cover!