Haiti (Haitian Creole: Ayiti, French: Haïti) is a Caribbean country that occupies the western third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. The eastern two-thirds of Hispaniola is occupied by the Dominican Republic. To the north lies the North Atlantic Ocean, while the Caribbean Sea lies to the south. Haiti is a country with a revolutionary, exciting past and its future still remains uncertain. Though Haiti has faced hard times during the past decades, Haiti’s tourism industry which bustled in the 60s to the 80s is returning. Resorts and investments are transforming this misunderstood gem into a Caribbean tourist spot once again.
Though Haiti—the first and only nation to take its freedom as a result from a slave revolution—is a beautiful nation, it is poor as well. For those with patience, revolutionary spirit and an open mind, Haiti reveals a rich culture that is unique among post-colonial nations. If you are planning on taking your family with you, it’s best to stay in resorts, but try to go to richer areas such as Pétion-Ville (if you’re in the Port Au Prince area).
It is extremely helpful when travelling in Haiti to have a local contact, through a church, a hotel, or just through making friends with someone. Experiences like dining locally, riding on a tap-tap, or strolling through one of the insanely crowded outdoor markets are great fun and very worth doing but are much safer and easier if you have a trusted Haitian to go along as a guide and interpreter.
Haiti was inhabited by the native Taino Indians when Christopher Columbus landed on 6 December 1492 at Mole St Nicolas. Columbus named the island Hispaniola. The Taino were a branch of the Arawak Indians,a peaceful tribe that was weakened by frequent violent invasions by the cannibalistic Carib Indians. Later, Spanish settlers brought smallpox and other European diseases to which the Taino had no immunity. In short order, the native Taino were virtually annihilated. There is no discernible trace of Taino blood on Haiti today. The current inhabitants have exclusively African and/or European roots.
In the early 17th century, the French established a presence on Hispaniola and in 1697 Spain ceded the western third of the island to France. Through the development of sugar and coffee plantations, the French colony of Saint-Domingue flourished, becoming one of the wealthiest in the Caribbean. Enslaved Africans were brought to Haiti to work on these French plantations. Work conditions for slaves on Haiti were the harshest imaginable, as sugar and coffee plantations required intensive labour. The French imported an enormous slave labour force, which ultimately vastly outnumbered the French planters 10 to 1.
In August 1791, many of Saint-Domingue’s nearly 500,000 slaves revolted, burning many plantations to the ground and killing many whites. After a bloody 13 year struggle with the French slaveholders, poorer French whites, free mulattos, and certain free blacks, the former slaves ousted the Napoleonic French, Spaniards & English armies and created Haiti, the first black republic, in 1804. It needs to be understood that Haiti is the second-oldest country in the Americas, 28 years younger than the United States. After independence and with encouragement from the British looking to drive a wedge between the French and the former colony, all the whites were killed and whites were banished from the island for decades to come. France imposed a crushing indemnity on Haiti in 1825, forcing the small island nation to pay the equivalent of 12.7 billion 2014 dollars to France for lost property due to the revolution.
Once the wealthiest colony in the world, the civil war that led to independence and French indemnity payments left the country isolated and utterly devastated. Since its revolution, Haiti has had at least 32 coups and a series of military dominations that focused on maintaining power and extracting wealth from a large peasant base. A lack of government and civil unrest led to the American occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934.
While order was brought about and much infrastructure was developed in Haiti by the United States, Haitians resented the occupation of their country. The withdrawal of Americans by President Roosevelt in 1934 left a power vacuum that was filled by Haitian military elite. The Forbes Commission in 1930 accurately noted that “the social forces that created [instability] still remain–poverty, ignorance, and the lack of a tradition or desire for orderly free government.”
The following 20 years saw ruthless struggles for power that ended with the ascension of François (Papa Doc) Duvalier. Duvalier’s brutal dictatorship lasted nearly thirty years, with his son, Jean-Claude (Bébé Doc) Duvalier assuming power after Papa Doc’s death in 1971. Bébé Doc was ousted in 1986, followed by more bloodshed and military rule that culminated in a new Constitution in 1987 and the election of former priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president in 1990.
After a coup, Aristide went into exile. Most of his term was usurped by a military takeover, but he returned to office in 1994 after Haitian General Raoul Cedras asked the United States to intervene, negotiating the departure of Haiti’s military leaders and paving the way for the return of Aristide. His former prime minister, René Préval, became president in 1996. Aristide won a second term as president in 2000, and took office early in 2001. However, accusations of corruption were followed by a paramilitary coup that ousted Aristide in 2004. Since then, Haiti has been occupied by UN peacekeeping troops (MINUSTAH). In 2010, an earthquake struck Haiti’s capital.