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A brief history of Haiti

The Republic of Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic a mountainous Caribbean island that Christopher Columbus christened “Española” or Hispaniola. Arawaks and Caribs were the main ethnic groups inhabiting the island which they called Ayiti, Kiskeya and Boiyo. In the 11 years that followed the Spanish conquest, the indigenous population was exterminated and reduced from about 1 million to merely 60,000 people by 1503 and to fewer than 500 survivors by 1548.

This first European colony of the New World was quickly neglected by the Spaniards as more gold and silver were found on the central and southern mainland. After French pirates established refueling stations and hideouts on the western part of the island there evolved a small French colony with more permanent French settlers. Spain formally ceded to France the western third of Hispaniola in 1697, which under the name of St. Domingue soon became the most prosperous colony of the New World, with its sugar, coffee, cocoa, indigo and cotton cultivated by an abundant slave labor imported from Africa.

A general slave revolt in 1791 in the western areas evolved into a systematic liberation war, which resulted in general abolition of slavery and the reunification of the island in 1801 under General Toussaint Louverture, a former slave. An attempt by France in 1802 to restore its hegemony by sending an elite expeditionary force was eventually crushed and the former colony proclaimed its independence on January 1, 1804, under the original Arawak name of Haiti.The Republic of Haiti has known a turbulent history marked by numerous military dictatorships, political instability and violence, rather typical of most young Latin American nations that emerged in the 19th century. In morerecent years, after almost 30 years of dictatorship under the Duvaliers, from 1957 until 1986, Haiti went again through periods of ruthless and corrupt military rulers until the general election of December 1990 when a Catholic priest, Jean Bertrand Aristide, was overwhelmingly elected president. Only seven months into office he was overthrown by the military in a bloody coup. After three years of an international embargo, a blockade and the threat of a U.S. military invasion, the generals eventually relented and Aristide was restored into office under the protection of a strong U.S.–led United Nations military presence.

Although the circumstances of its independence have set it as a castaway in the midst of surrounding slave-holding nations, early on Haiti sought to express its solidarity with other Latin American peoples struggling for their independence. Culturally Haiti has consistently affirmed its affinity with Latin America. The continuous movement of populations across the Haitian/Dominican border has resulted in a symbiotic mix of the two peoples. Not withstanding the Latin character of French itself, the Haitian creole, the national language of Haiti, combines a vocabulary rich with 17 th-century French, Spanish, indigenous languages with West African syntax and dialects. Although Haitian sacred music is marked by African drums, common popular music is itself more closely linked to the Dominican “merengue”and other Cuban rhythms.

Haiti’s economy is dilapidated both by years of mismanagement and especially by the embargo and the blockade of 1994. In addition, the return of Aristide hinged around his acceptance of an international plan to implement strict economic adjustment policies, which did not improve the general situation. Poverty has increased for poor people in the country as basic commodity prices increased multifold. In the meantime local food production has stagnated or even decreased while unemployment runs at more than 50 percent. Deforestation, soil erosion, lack of fertility, and overpopulation threaten the sustainability of the country. Mr. Rene Preval, a former prime minister in the first Aristide government of 1991, elected president in 1995, was faced with the daunting task of bringing about rapid improvements in the conditions of the majority of the population, and of steering the country towards healing and reconciliation.

Preval was succeeded again by Aristide in 2001. [Read more]

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