The island of Hispaniola was inhabited by the Arawaks prior to the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Disease, ill treatment, and execution by the Spaniards decimated the Arawaks, who gave Haiti (
land of mountains) its name. While establishing plantations in E Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic), however, the Spanish largely ignored the western part of the island, which by the 17th cent. became a base for French and English buccaneers. Gradually French colonists, importing African slaves, developed sugar plantations on the northern coast. Unable to support its claim to the region, Spain ceded Haiti (then called Saint-Dominque) to France in 1697.
Haiti became France's most prosperous colony in the Americas and one of the world's chief coffee and sugar producers. The pattern of settlement took the French south in the 18th cent. and society became stratified into Frenchmen, Creoles, freed blacks, and black slaves. Between the blacks and the French and Creoles were the mulattoes, whose social status was indeterminate. When French-descended Creole planters sought to prevent mulatto representation in the French National Assembly and in local assemblies in Saint-Dominque, the mulattoes revolted under the leadership of Vincent Ogé. This rebellion destroyed the rigid structure of Haitian society. The blacks formed guerrilla bands led by Toussaint Louverture, a former slave who had been made an officer of the French forces on Hispaniola.
When the English invaded Haiti in 1793 during the Napoleonic Wars, Toussaint maintained an uneasy alliance with the mulatto André Rigaud and cooperated with the remnant of French governmental authority. In 1795, Spain ceded its part of the island to France, and in 1801 Toussaint conquered it, abolished slavery, and proclaimed himself governor-general of an autonomous government over all Hispaniola. Napoleon sent his brother-in-law, Gen. Charles Leclerc, with a huge punitive force to restore order in 1802, but he was unable to conquer the interior.
A peace was negotiated, and Toussaint, taken by trickery, died in a French prison; but the revolt continued and forced the French troops, already ravaged by yellow fever, to withdraw. The rebels received unexpected aid from U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, who feared that Napoleon would use Saint-Dominque as a base to invade Louisiana. In 1804, Haiti became the second nation in the Western Hemisphere, after the United States, to win complete independence.
After independence the remaining French and Creoles were expelled, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, an ex-slave, proclaimed himself emperor. His assassination (1806) led to the division of Haiti into a black-controlled north under Emperor Henri Christophe and a mulatto-ruled south under President Alexandre Pétion. After their deaths Haiti was unified by Jean Pierre Boyer, who also brought (1822–44) Santo Domingo under Haitian control. Seeking to indemnify French planters, Boyer brought financial ruin to Haiti; he was exiled in 1843. Haiti's last emperor (1847–59) was Faustin Soulouque. Since the end of his reign, the country has been a republic. Political and social conflict persisted, intensified by the mulatto-black hostility, and Haiti's economy, which had never recovered from the violent struggle for independence, declined further.
After the dictator Guillaume Sam was killed in a popular uprising in 1915, the United States, troubled over its property and investments in the country and fearing Germany might seize Haiti, took the opportunity to invade Port-au-Prince. The Haitian congress was forced to accept an agreement permitting U.S. control over customs receipts; two years later the resident American naval commander dissolved the congress and dictated a new constitution. Although financial and general material progress advanced under American military occupation, Haiti protested against U.S. violation of its sovereignty, and a U.S. Senate investigation in 1921 found that the avowed purpose of preparing Haiti for responsible self-government had been ignored. In 1930 a U.S. presidential commission recommended that Haiti be allowed to elect a legislature that would, in turn, name a president. Sténio Vincent, a vocal opponent of U.S. military occupation, was chosen by the legislators. The marines were finally withdrawn in 1934, although U.S. fiscal control was maintained until 1947.
Political instability persisted in Haiti after World War II, and the country's future was clouded by rising turbulence in the Dominican Republic and by the emergence of a Communist Cuba. François (
Papa Doc) Duvalier, who was elected president in 1957, suppressed opposition through the creation of his paramilitary secret police, the tonton macoutes. In 1964 he proclaimed himself president for life. Upon his death in 1971 he was succeeded by his 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude (
Baby Doc), who also became president for life. After 15 additional years of corruption, repression, and inequality under the younger Duvalier, popular discontent became great enough to induce him to flee the country in 1986.
Starting in 1986 there were several brief attempts at civilian democracy, each terminated by a military coup. In Sept., 1991, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced to flee the country only nine months after becoming the first freely elected president in Haiti's history. The United States and the Organization of American States responded with a trade embargo, and in 1993 a UN-sponsored oil embargo was imposed. An accord in 1993 providing for Aristide's return was repudiated by the army, which used terrorist violence to maintain power.
In 1994 the United Nations approved a nearly total trade embargo, and later authorized the use of force to restore democratic rule. On Sept. 18, 1994, as U.S. forces were poised to invade the island, an accord was negotiated. Haiti's military leaders relinquished power under an amnesty, and U.S. forces landed to oversee the transition. Aristide returned on Oct. 15 as president; U.S. troops were largely replaced by UN peacekeepers in Mar., 1995. In the December presidential election that year, René Préval was elected to succeed Aristide. In Apr., 1996, the last U.S. troops left, except for a few hundred in the capital who remained until Jan., 2000; meanwhile, after a wave of political killings, the United States suspended aid to Haiti.
In Jan., 1999, following a series of disagreements with Haitian legislators, Préval declared that their terms had expired, and he began ruling by decree. Parliamentary elections were finally held in May–June, 2000. They gave Aristide's Lavalas Family party an overwhelming majority in both houses, but the method of counting the votes, in which only those won by the four leading candidates were tallied and candidates thus did not need to win an actual absolute majority, was widely criticized.
In Nov., 2000, Aristide was again elected president, winning nearly 92% of the votes cast, but turnout for the election was light. The following year Amnesty International said that human rights and the rule of law had diminished in Haiti, citing harassment of opposition politicians and attacks on journalists. There was an apparent coup attempt against Aristide in Dec., 2001, although it was unclear who was behind it. The political stalemate with the opposition led to the freezing of foreign aid and ongoing economic hardship in Haiti.
Violence between supporters and opponents of the president increased in 2003, and several of Aristide's cabinet ministers resigned bu the end of the year. Parliamentary elections failed to be held, resulting in the dissolution of parliament in Jan., 2004, leaving Aristide to rule by decree and sparking recurring anti-Aristide opposition demonstrations in the streets. In February an armed uprising began in Gonaïves, and by the end of the month armed rebels consisting of disaffected gangs formerly allied with the government, former soldiers, paramilitaries, and police, and others, were on the verge of entering the capital.
Under pressure from the United States and France, Aristide resigned and went into exile, subsequently accusing U.S. and French officials variously of duping, coercing, or kidnapping him. U.S., French, Canadian, and Chilean forces arrived to maintain order, and an interim government headed by Gérard Latortue, a former foreign minister, was established. The Caribbean Community, however, refused to recognize Prime Minister Latortue, and called for a UN investigation into Aristide's resignation. Subsequently, CARICOM decided not to readmit Haiti until after the reestablishment of a democratically elected government. In April Latortue announced that general elections for a new government would be held in 2005, but they were subsequently postponed several times during 2005 due to inadequate preparation. A UN peacekeeping force led by Brazil began replacing U.S., Canadian, and French forces in June, 2004.
Flooding from heavy rains in May killed some 1,700 in the south near the Dominican Republic, and in September Tropical Storm Jeanne caused additional deadly flooding, especially in the area around Gonaïves, where some 2,500 died. The September flooding also caused significant agricultural damage. Unrest and lawlessness on the part of Aristide supporters and opponents continued to be a problem in the country, despite the presence of foreign peacekeepers. In Nov., 2005, the much delayed 2005 national elections were postponed into 2006.
When the presidential election was held in Feb., 2006, René Préval handily led all other candidates (there were more than 30) but appeared to be falling short of the majority required to avoid a runoff. The former president and his supporters charged that there was electoral fraud, an accusation seemingly supported by an unusually high number of blank ballots and by the discovery of charred blank and Préval ballots in a dump near the capital. Amid demonstrations and mounting tension, election officials agreed to assign the blank ballots proportionally to the candidates, giving Préval nearly 51% of the vote. Parliamentary elections were held at the same time, but the investigation of electoral complaints delayed the second round into April, and Préval was not sworn in until May. The following month Haiti was readmitted to CARICOM.
Armed gangs remain a significant problem in Haiti, and in Oct., 2006, the United States partially lifted an arms embargo against Haiti so that the government could buy weapons and other equipment for the Haitian police. In Feb., 2007, the mandate of the UN peacekeepers was again extended; the Security Council called on UN forces to move more strongly against Haiti's criminal gangs. Although UN forces had successes against a number of urban gangs, some relocated to rural areas where they were less likely to be confronted by peacekeepers. Rising food prices led to antigovernment and anti-UN protests and riots in a number of Haitian cities in Apr., 2008; in Port-au-Prince rioters attempted to storm the presidenital palace. The riots led the Senate to dismiss the prime minister; two nominees for the post were subsequently rejected by Haiti's legislature before Michèle Pierre-Louis was elected in July. A series of hurricanes during Aug.–Sept., 2008, caused widespread devastation, especially in the area around Gonaïves; some 800 people died, and damage was estimated at $1 billion.
In Apr. and June, 2009, elections to fill 12 vacant Senate seats that had originally be scheduled for 2007 were finally held; Préval's Lespwa party run a plurality, giving the party a plurality in the Senate. Lavalas Family candidates were barred from running on technical grounds, and the vote was marred by poor turnout and allegations of fraud. By mid-2009 an increase in size in, and improvements in the training of, the Haitian police force had significantly reduced crime. In Oct., 2009, the Senate voted to remove Prime Minister Pierre-Louis; Jean-Max Bellerive, an economist and former planning and external cooperation minister, succeeded her.
An earthquake in Jan., 2010, the strongest to hit Haiti in more than 200 years, caused extensive destruction in the capital and other parts of S Haiti. Estimates of the dead ranged from as low as 46,000 to more than 310,000; some 300,000 were injured, and an estimated 1.5 million people lost their homes. The destruction of much of the limited infrastructure in the area made the massive relief efforts mounted by foreign nations and international aid groups difficult. The United States and the United Nations, both with forces in the thousands, led the effort, and attempted to facilitate aid distribution and help maintain order. The United Nations subsequently estimated that $11.5 billion in aid would be needed over the next decade for reconstruction efforts. International donors pledged more than $5 billion in reconstruction aid in Mar., 2010, to the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, but the promised aid was slow in coming. As late as Oct., 2011, the United Nations estimated that only half of the rubble from the earthquake had been removed. Some 50,000 remained in temporary camps seven years after the earthquake.
A cholera epidemic that began in N Haiti in Oct., 2010, killed more that 4,500 by the following March. Although the spread of the disease slowed, it was endemic in subsequent years, and by early 2016 some 770,000 Haitians had been sickened and some 9,200 had died. The source of the disease, which spread to the neighboring Dominican Republic, was traced to some of the UN peacekeepers. The epidemic also contributed to the disorganization of the first round of the earthquake-delayed presidential election in Nov., 2010. Preliminary results from that vote, released in December, showed that former first lady Mirlande Manigat and ruling party candidate Jude Célestin had placed first and second, the latter narrowly beating popular singer Michel Martelly. Most candidates accused the government of fraud, and there were violent street protests. A final determination of the top vote-getters was delayed into early 2011, and the election's second round, scheduled for Jan., 2011, was postponed.
A review of the election by the OAS and CARICOM was delivered to Préval in Jan., 2011; it recommended that, based on its verification of the poll, the runoff should be between Manigat and Martelly. The electoral council ultimately decided that they would be the candidates in March, and Martelly won the runoff with two thirds of the vote. In the legislative elections, the preliminary results in 18 races were reversed by the election commission when the final results were published, with the changes overwhelmingly favoring Préval's party. Meanwhile, in February, Préval's expiring term was officially extended until May; former president Aristide returned to Haiti from exile in March.
In office Martelly struggled to get a prime minister approved by lawmakers. Ultimately his third choice for the office, Garry Conille, was approved in October, but he resigned in Feb., 2012, citing a lack of support. In May, Laurent Lamothe, the foreign minister, was confirmed as Conille's successor. Senate elections scheduled for that month were postponed, and the delay continued into 2014 as the president and legislators failed to agree on an election law. A new postponement in Oct., 2014, led to sometimes violent antigovernment protests in December.
With the terms of all remaining legislators due to expire in Jan., 2015, Lamothe resigned (one of several measures recommended by a presidential commission), but opposition in the senate to a new election law led to the dissolution of the legislature. Martelly, whose term was not affected, was able to rule by decree; Lamothe's nominated successor, Evans Paul, had not been approved by the parliament but was sworn in by Martelly.
The first round of the legislative elections was finally held in August, but only 18% of the electorate voted, and voting was canceled in about a sixth of the constituencies. In October, along with legislative elections, the first round of presidential election was held and turnout improved some. Jovenel Moïse, supported by Martelly, placed first; Célestin second. Célestin and other opposition presdential candidates accused the government of fraud. A subsequent evaluation commission ambiguously reported in Jan., 2016, that the Oct., 2015, elections had been marred by incompetence and grave irregularities akin to fraud; Célestin refused to run in the presidential runoff without further inquiry into possible fraud and electoral reforms. A compromise was finally negotiated that called for elections in April and appointment of an interim president after Martelly stepped down in Feb., 2016.
Senator Jocelerme Privert became interim president and, in March, Enex Jean-Charles, a law professor and presidential adviser, became interim prime minister. When Privert's three-month term expired in June, the legislature failed to extend it or replace him, but he remained de facto president. In Oct., 2016, Hurricane Matthew devastated parts of Haiti, especially on the Tiburon peninsula, killing hundreds of people.
The presidential election was rerun in Nov., 2016, and Moïse secured a victory in the first round, but turnout was low. Jack Guy Lafontant, a doctor and political outsider, was nominated as prime minister by Moïse in Feb., 2017, and confirmed in March. Hurricane Irma caused significant damage to agricultural in N Haiti in Sept., 2017. In October, the UN peacekeeping mission, which had begun in 2004, officially came to an end; a smaller UN presence focused on justice and police development, however, continued in the country.
Fuel price increases in July, 2018, part of reforms required to access international loans, sparked riots before they were suspended, and Lafontant resigned. A new government, headed by Jean Henry Céant, a nonpolitician close to the president and his predecessor, was not confirmed until September. Economic problems and antigovernment protests over corruption continued through into 2020, and led in Mar., 2019, to a vote of no-confidence in Céant and his resignation. Jean Michel Lapin was appointed to succeed him in April, but opposition lawmakers delayed his confirmation and he resigned in July, and Fritz William Michel was named prime minister; his confirmation also was delayed. Legislative elections due in October were not held, and in Jan., 2020, the terms of most legislators formally ended, leaving the president to rule by decree. In March, the president appointed Joseph Joute prime minister.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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