The Republic of Haiti covers 10,700 square miles (about the size of Maryland) and occupies the western third of the Caribbean Island of Hispanolia, which it shares with the Dominican Republic. The land is mountainous and mostly uninhabitable because of the rough terrain; it’s generally semi-arid inland, more humid on the coast. Haiti has few paved highways and is mostly accessible by air and off-road vehicles. Temperature ranges from 75 to 95 degrees F. The capital is Port-au-Prince, which lies on the western coast of the island.
Ninety-five percent of Haiti’s 7.5 million people are descendents of African slaves brought to the New World to cut sugar cane; most of the rest are mulatto descendents of French settlers. About 70 percent are illiterate. Life expectancy is 54, one of every five Haitian children dies of malnutrition, dehydration and diarrhea. Both French and Creole are official languages, but most Haitians speak only Creole. Roman Catholic and Protestant religious exist alongside voodoo, a spirit religion.
Christopher Columbus discovered the island of Hispanolia for Spain in 1492. The French invaded in the 17th century and took possession of what became the biggest sugar producer and richest colony in the New World. A slave revolt led to independence in 1804, making Haiti the world’s first black-led republic. U.S. troops occupied the country from 1915 to 1934 after a long period of instability. Political turmoil ended in 1957 with the election of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who ruled until his death in 1971. He was succeeded by his 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc”, who fled to France in February 1986 in the face of a popular uprising. After a succession of short-lived governments, a Roman Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was elected president by a landslide and inaugarated in 1991 but was soon forced into exile by the military. Following a U.S – led agreement, his power was restored, then his leadership transferred through election to President Rene’ Preval in 1996. 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. 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. 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 protégé René Préval, very popular among the poor, was elected and is the current President.