Haiti, in the West Indies, occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic. About the size of Maryland, Haiti is two-thirds mountainous, with the rest of the country marked by great valleys, extensive plateaus, and small plains.
Republic with an elected government.
Explored by Columbus on Dec. 6, 1492, Haiti's native Arawaks fell victim to Spanish rule. In 1697, Haiti became the French colony of Saint-Dominique, which became a leading sugarcane producer dependent on slaves. In 1791, an insurrection erupted among the slave population of 480,000, resulting in a declaration of independence by Pierre-Dominique Toussaint l'Ouverture in 1801. Napoléon Bonaparte suppressed the independence movement, but it eventually triumphed in 1804 under Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who gave the new nation the Arawak name Haiti. It was the world's first independent black republic.
Despite Intervention, Haiti's Infrastructure Remains in Tatters
Throughout the 1990s the international community tried to establish democracy in Haiti. The country's first elected chief executive, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a leftist Roman Catholic priest who seemed to promise a new era in Haiti, took office in Feb. 1991. The military, however, took control in a coup nine months later. A UN peacekeeping force, led by the U.S.—Operation Uphold Democracy—arrived in 1994. Aristide was restored to office and René Preval became his successor in 1996 elections. U.S. soldiers and UN peacekeepers left in 2000. Haiti's government, however, remained ineffectual and its economy was in ruins. Haiti has the highest rates of AIDS, malnutrition, and infant mortality in the region.
In 2000, former president Aristide was reelected president in elections boycotted by the opposition and questioned by many foreign observers. The U.S. and other countries threatened Haiti with sanctions unless democratic procedures were strengthened. Aristide, once a charismatic champion of democracy, grew more authoritarian and seemed incapable of improving the lot of his people. Violent protests rocked the country in Jan. 2004, the month of Haiti's bicentennial, with protesters demanding that Aristide resign. By February, a full-blown armed revolt was under way, and Aristide's hold on power continued to slip. The protests, groups of armed rebels, and French and American pressure led to the ousting of Aristide on Feb. 29. Thereafter a U.S.-led international force of 2,300 entered the chaos-engulfed country to attempt to restore order, and an interim government took over. In September, Hurricane Jeanne ravaged Haiti, killing more than 2,400 people. Lawlessness and gang violence were widespread, and the interim government had no control over parts of the country, which were run by armed former soldiers.
Political Turmoil Continues
After numerous delays, Haiti held elections on Feb. 7, 2006. The elections, backed by 9,000 United Nations troops, were seen as a crucial step in returning Haiti to some semblance of stability. Former prime minister and Aristide protegé René Préval, very popular among the poor, was seen as the favorite. But when the election count indicated that Préval's lead over the other candidate was dropping and that he would not win an outright majority, Préval contested the election and charged that “massive fraud and gross errors had stained the process.” On Feb. 14, the interim government halted the election count, and the following day, after the votes were retabulated, Préval was declared the winner.
In April 2008, Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis was removed from office by the Senate, which held him responsible for the poor economy. President René Preval designated Ericq Pierre as the new prime minister, but the lower house of Parliament rejected Pierre. In July, Parliament approved the nomination of Michèle Pierre-Louis for prime minister and she became the second woman prime minister of Haiti.
The Senate voted in November 2009 to oust Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis, who was considered by international donors as a competent leader who could efficiently and effectively use aid to improve the infrastructure of Haiti and boost the economy. The Senate, however, claimed that she had not done enough to lift Haiti out of its near constant state of misery. She was replaced by Jean-Max Bellerive.
Devastating Earthquake Exposes Weaknesses in Infrastructure
The beleaguered country was dealt a catastrophic blow in January 2010 when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck 10 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, the country's capital. It was region's worst earthquake in 200 years. The quake leveled many sections of the city, destroying government buildings, foreign aid offices, and countless slums. Assessing the scope of the devastation, Prime Minister Préval said, "Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed." He called the death toll "unimaginable." Fatalities were reported to be around 230,000 by early February.
Since then the numbers have been revised. According to a draft report commissioned for the United States Agency for International Development, the number of fatalities were between 46,000 and 85,000 people. The United Nations mission in Haiti was destroyed, 16 members of the UN peacekeeping force in Haiti were killed, and hundreds of UN employees were missing. International aid poured in, and the scope of the damage caused by the quake highlighted the urgent need to improve Haiti's crumbling infrastructure and lift it out of endemic poverty—the country is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.
Already a victim of regular hurricanes, this earthquake-devastated country quickly faced another challenge: cholera. In November, the Haitian government said that the death toll had reached 1,034, with 16,799 people treated for cholera or symptoms of the disease.
The country was thrust into further disarray following November's presidential election. There were widespread allegations of irregularities, such as ballot-box stuffing, people casting multiple votes, discarded ballots, vandalized polling stations, and voter intimidation. Opposition candidates called for a revote, but their requests were rebuffed. On December 7 2010, the country's electoral commission announced that Mirlande Manigat, the top vote getter, and Jude Célestin, the hand-picked candidate of Pré val, would face off in the second round of voting. These results seem to contradict what election observers conducting exit polls had expected. Michel Martelly, a popular singer, was a favorite among the urban poor and early results had him coming in second, behind Manigat. The results set off protests throughout Haiti.
In a leaked report reviewing the November 2010 presidential election, the Organization of American States found that Michel Martelly, a popular musician, had obtained more votes than Jude Celestin, the candidate of the outgoing government. The report said that Martelly, not Celestin, should face Mirlande Manigat, a former first lady, in the March 2011 run-off election. Following strong pressure from the United States, a member of the ruling party said its candidate, Jude Celestin, would withdraw from a run-off election for the presidency. Celestin's withdrawal was seen as a sign of the end of Haiti's political impasse.
In April 2011, it was announced that Martelly, also known as Sweet Mickey or Tet Kale (bald head), won the run-off election against Manigat in a landslide, receiving 68% of the vote. Martelly took office the following month and named Daniel Gerard Rouzier, a U.S. educated businessman, as Prime Minister. The new government continued to deal with the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake, including an ongoing cholera outbreak and the 66,000 Haitians still living in tent cities.
Former Dictator Returns to Haiti Where He Passes Away Three Years Later
In January 2011, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, a former dictator, returned unexpectedly to Haiti, where he was questioned by prosecutors who charged him with embezzlement and corruption before releasing him. He remained in Haiti while the courts sorted through all the pending corruption charges and human rights charges against him. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former president of Haiti, also returned. He returned home to Haiti from exile in South Africa. The return of both men coincided with a dispute over the result of the 2010 presidential election. Both Duvalier and Aristide claimed that they were interested in national reconciliation.
Duvalier would remain in Haiti for the rest of his life. On Feb. 28, 2013, he pleaded not guilty to the charges of corruption and human rights abuse. The following year, on Oct. 4, 2014, Duvalier died of a heart attack. He was 63 and living in at his home in Port-au-Prince at the time.
President Martelly Struggles to Form Government
By late August 2011, President Martelly had spent his first 100 days in office without completing his first objective: forming a government. Parliament, led by opposition, turned down his choice for prime minister twice. This left Haiti without a functioning government a year and a half after an earthquake devastated the country, stalling reconstruction efforts.
Other nations, who responded to the earthquake by offering the country aid, have grown impatience. For example, the neighboring Dominican Republic has started deporting Haitian refugees and turning others away at the border. In October 2011, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) received over 450 complaints from people in the Dominican Republic who said their citizenship had been revoked. The complaints came from people who have been recognized as citizens for decades. The IACHR condemned the policy, but on December 1st, the Dominican Republic's Supreme Court rejected a Dominican-born male's request for a birth certificate so he could relocate to the United States. The new policy could affect some 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian origin.
On October 5, 2011, Garry Conille was appointed prime minister by the Haitian Parliament. His confirmation came months after Jean-Max Bellerive's resignation from the position and after the Senate rejected the nominations of Bernard Gousse and Daniel Rouzier. Conille became the 16th and youngest Prime Minster since the country's 1987 Constitution.
Prime Minister Resigns, Causing More Political Chaos
In late February 2012, just four months after he assumed office, Prime Minister Garry Conille resigned. The resignation came after weeks of tension with President Martelly. Conille was Martelly's third choice for the position after Parliament rejected his first two nominees. Conille decided to resign after he called a meeting with his cabinet ministers and none of them attended. Conille's exit came at a time when Haiti was still recovering from the devastating 2010 earthquake. In early 2012, half a million Haitians were still living in tents. Also in early 2012, seven Haitian police officers were convicted in the prison massacre that happened a week after the 2010 earthquake. The officers were charged with murder, attempted murder, along with various other crimes. They received sentences ranging from one to 13 years in prison.
On April 12, 2012, cholera vaccines began, eighteen months after the outbreak of the disease. More than 7,000 Haitians have been killed and more than 530,000 have been infected with the disease. The delay in the vaccine was largely political. Finally, a national bioethics committee approved the vaccination plan, which will reach only about 1 percent of the population and uses the cheapest cholera vaccine available. A second round of vaccines was scheduled for late April. Organizers of the vaccine were racing against the seasonal rains, which spread the disease. On May 3, 2012, Laurent Lamothe was approved as Haiti's new prime minister by the Chamber of Deputies. The vote was 62-3 in favor of Lamothe.
In late August 2012, Tropical Storm Isaac hit Haiti with rains and winds that caused flooding and mudslides. According to the civil defense authorities, at least four people were killed, including a ten-year-old girl who died when a wall collapsed in Thomazeau. The storm did not cause the kind of widespread damage initially feared. However, the storm was the latest obstacle for a nation still recovering from the devastating 2010 earthquake.
Years After Earthquake, Haiti Still Struggles to Recover
Two and a half years since the January 12, 2010 earthquake hit Haiti, the nation was still knee-deep in recovery mode. Despite billions of dollars in aid, many people were still without safe, permanent housing in the fall of 2012. In fact, hundreds of thousands were still living in tent camps while tens of thousands were staying in buildings badly damaged during the earthquake.
Prime Minister Lamothe resigned due to personal reasons in December 2014. Former Democratic United Committee president Evans Paul became Haiti's new prime minister the following month.
With a runoff presidential election indefinitely postponed, President Michel Martelly's term ended and he left office on Feb. 7, 2016, without his replacement chosen. Parliament would elect an interim president by mid-Feb. In the meantime, Prime Minister Evans Paul would act as head of state.
See also Encyclopedia: Haiti .
U.S. State Dept. Country Notes: Haiti