Early History Haiti has a uniquely tragic history. Natural disasters, poverty, racial discord, and political instability have plagued the small country throughout its history. Before the arrival of Europeans, Arawak (also known as Taino) and Carib Indians inhabited the island of Hispaniola. Although researchers debate the total pre-Columbian population (estimates range from 60,000 to 600,000), the detrimental impact of colonization is well documented. Disease and brutal labor practices nearly annihilated the Indian population within 50 years of Columbus’s arrival.
Spain ceded the western third of the island of Hispaniola to France in 1697. French authorities quelled the island’s buccaneer activity and focused on agricultural growth. Soon, French adventurers began to settle the colony, turning the French portion of the island, renamed Saint- Domingue, into a coffee- and sugar-producing juggernaut. By the 1780s, nearly 40 percent of all the sugar imported by Britain and France and 60 percent of the world’s coffee came from the small colony. For a brief time, Saint-Domingue annually produced more exportable wealth than all of continental North America.
As the indigenous population dwindled, African slave labor became vital to Saint-Domingue’s economic development. Slaves arrived by the tens of thousands as coffee and sugar production boomed. Under French colonial rule, nearly 800,000 slaves arrived from Africa, accounting for a third of the entire Atlantic slave trade. Many died from disease and the harsh conditions of the sugar and coffee plantations. Statistics show that there was a complete turnover in the slave population every 20 years. Despite these losses, by 1789 slaves outnumbered the free population four-to-one⎯452,000 slaves in a population of 520,000.
By the mid-eighteenth century, Saint Domingue’s society had settled into a rigid hierarchical structure based on skin color, class, and wealth. At the bottom of the social ladder were the African-born plantation slaves; slightly above them were the Creole slaves, who were born in the New World and spoke the French Creole dialect; the two next highest rungs were made up of the mixed-race mulatto slaves and the affranchis, or mulatto freedmen, respectively. Whites constituted the top of the social structure but were broadly divided between the lower-ranking shopkeeper and smallholder class (petits blancs) and the high-ranking plantation owners, wealthy merchants, and high officials (grands blancs).
During the latter eighteenth century, the fabric of Saint-Domingue’s hierarchical society began to unravel. Slaves abandoned the plantations in increasing numbers, establishing runaway slave (maroon) communities in remote areas of the colony. The more militant maroon communities posed a threat to the plantations, subjecting them to constant harassment and facilitating slave revolts and mass escapes. Meanwhile, free blacks and mulattoes sought full citizenship and property rights— including the right to own slaves—and arable land for farming. During the 1790s, the dissolution of the Bourbon dynasty by the French Revolution and France’s embrace of an egalitarian ethos emboldened Saint-Domingue’s free people of color to press for their rights. In 1790 the National Assembly in Paris granted suffrage to landed and tax-paying free blacks. When the white planter-dominated colonial assembly refused to comply, Saint-Domingue became engulfed in violence. The breakdown in civil order prompted numerous slave revolts as well as Spanish and British military intervention. The conflict revolved around a struggle for control of the colony between French republican forces and Creole royalists backed by Spain and Britain. Both sides recruited indigenous armies of black slaves, free blacks, and mulattoes.
Emancipation and Independence In 1791 Toussaint Louverture emerged as a commander within the rebel army of black slaves led by Georges Biassou and Jean-François. Louverture, an educated former slave who had studied the military campaigns of Julius Caesar, provided the forceful leadership and organizational ability that had been lacking in previous uprisings. Louverture initially allied with Spain in its efforts to capture northern Saint-Domingue but switched his allegiance to France in 1794 when Paris declared the abolition of slavery. He eventually rose to become the commander in chief of all republican forces in Saint-Domingue. From this position, Louverture once again rebelled against the French and attempted to create an autonomous state free of European influence. After deposing the French commissioner, he captured the Spanish port of Santo Domingo in 1800, giving him control of the entire island of Hispaniola.
In October 1801, a break in the Napoleonic Wars enabled France to dispatch a new expedition against Louverture. The rebel general was eventually compelled to surrender to the French after his two top commanders, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henry Christophe, switched their allegiance to the French. However, the truce between black Creole and French forces was short- lived. In the summer of 1802, Dessalines, Christophe, and the mulatto general Alexandre Pétion joined forces and launched a new campaign to expel the French. By late 1803, French losses from yellow fever, malaria, and combat exceeded 52,000. The resumption of war in Europe compelled France to withdraw in November 1803. After 300 years of colonial rule, the new nation of Haiti was declared an independent republic. It was only the second nation in the Americas to gain its independence and the first modern state governed by people of African descent.
During the early years of independence, Haiti’s cohesion, autonomy, and finances remained precarious. The new “black republic” was diplomatically and economically isolated and faced a continuing threat of foreign intervention. France did not recognize Haitian independence and sought to establish a protectorate over its former colony. The plantation system—the engine of the Haitian economy—lay in ruins after years of warfare. Despite the egalitarianism of the new revolutionary regime, Haitian society remained hierarchical, with deep disparities in wealth between the mixed-race mulatto freedmen and newly emancipated blacks. Following the departure of most of the French Creoles, the mulatto minority took their place as the new elite within Haitian society. Rural laborers resisted efforts by mulatto landowners to rebuild sugar plantations, preferring instead to work the land independently.
Upon independence in 1804, Louverture’s lieutenant, Dessalines, became Haiti’s first head of state. An autocrat who ruled mainly through force, Dessalines declared himself Emperor Jacques I. His despotic rule, which the mulatto elite resisted, ended with his assassination in October 1806.
Partition Following the death of Dessalines, a bitter power struggle developed between two of the surviving leaders of the independence movement, Henry Christophe and Alexandre Pétion. A constitutional scheme whereby Christophe and Pétion would jointly govern the country quickly fell apart, leading to a territorial partition that lasted from 1811 to 1820.
Reunification and Annexation of Santo Domingo In 1820, following the deaths of both Christophe and Pétion, forces from the southern half of Haiti led by General Jean-Pierre Boyer, a mulatto, invaded the north and reunited the country. During his two decades as president, Boyer vigorously defended Haitian sovereignty through a combination of military confrontation and negotiation with the European powers. In 1822 Boyer invaded Santo Domingo, expelling the Spanish and imposing a 22-year occupation of the neighboring nation. Toward the end of his tenure, Boyer negotiated a payment to France of 150 million francs (later reduced to 60 million francs) as indemnity for the loss of the colony. In exchange, France recognized the Republic of Haiti and restored trade relations. Although the indemnity helped secure Haiti’s political independence, it imposed a crushing economic burden that weighed heavily on future generations. Boyer held office until his overthrow in 1843 by a conspiracy of reformist mulattoes. In February 1844, a band of Dominican nationalists took the opportunity of Boyer’s ouster to attack the Haitian garrison in Santo Domingo and declare an independent Dominican Republic.
Presidential Rule Throughout the nineteenth century, Haiti’s political institutions were subject to the whims of the Haitian head of state. Successive presidents drafted and abolished the nation’s constitutions at will, treating the documents as their own personal charters. The Haitian republic itself was suspended from 1849 to 1859 during the rule of “Emperor” Faustin I. Economic stagnation plagued the country, as governments repeatedly subdivided agricultural lands, causing yields to plummet. The indemnity to France also dragged down Haiti’s struggling economy. Political solutions rarely overcame the deep-seated hostility between blacks and mulattoes. Elite mulattoes, for the most part, either held the presidency or managed to install puppet black presidents who served their interests.
Coups and assassinations became commonplace. One president died when the presidential palace was blown up, another was hacked to pieces by an angry mob, and a third was poisoned. In the midst of this political chaos, only three Haitian presidents enjoyed relatively stable and effective tenures. General Nicholas Geffrard (1859−67), during a generally peaceful and progressive administration, succeeded in gaining recognition for Haiti from the United States in 1862. Louis Lysius Félicité Salomon (1879−88) implemented populist reforms and established a national bank, telegraph system, and rural school system. Florvil Hyppolite (1889−96) created the Ministry of Public Works, which built much-needed bridges, docks, and public buildings throughout the country.
U.S. Occupation, 1915−34 During most of the nineteenth century, the United States maintained a distant relationship with Haiti. The U.S. government withheld recognition of Haiti until 1862, when wartime necessity compelled it to establish cordial relations with the strategic Caribbean nation. During the early twentieth century, Haiti’s chronic political instability, its precarious finances, and the threat of European encroachment provoked numerous brief interventions by the U.S. Navy. In July 1915, civil unrest surrounding the assassination of President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam provided a pretext for intervention. U.S. Marines were dispatched to Haiti, ostensibly to protect U.S. financial interests and citizens. Rather than withdrawing after a show of “gunboat diplomacy,” as had previously been the case, the U.S. military came to stay in 1915. Marines seized control of the country, disbanding the Haitian military and installing Phillippe Sudre Dartiguenave, a mulatto, as president (1915−22). In 1916 the United States expanded its occupation to the entire island of Hispaniola when it intervened in the neighboring Dominican Republic. During its nearly two-decade occupation, the United States amended the Haitian constitution, stabilized the economy, and made improvements in infrastructure. U.S. Marines also trained a new Haitian National Guard (Garde d’Haïti), a security unit that harassed and even killed opponents of the occupation.
New Independence In 1930 the United States allowed Haiti to resume free elections. The president-elect, Sténio Vincent (1930−41), was a former senator with populist tendencies, and his election set Haiti on the path to reestablishing its autonomy. Vincent engaged in an ambitious program of infrastructure improvement, while insisting that the U.S. Marines end their active occupation. As a show of nationalism, he delivered his state addresses in Creole, rather than in French. Like many of his predecessors, however, Vincent also resorted to using the presidency to increase his own wealth and power. In 1935 he pushed through the Haitian Congress a new constitution that allowed the president to disband the legislature and reorganize the judiciary. Ultimately, Vincent succeeded in reestablishing Haiti’s independence, but he also strengthened the country’s legacy of dictatorial leadership.
After the ineffective administration of Élie Lescot (1941−45), which installed mulattoes in virtually every post of the government, black voters turned out en masse and elected a sympathetic National Assembly. Additionally, after years of mulatto rule, the 1946 presidential election, often referred to as the Revolution of 1946, was contested by three black candidates. Dumarsais Estimé (1946−50) won the election, garnering especially strong support from the emerging middle class of blacks in the northern region of the country. Colonel Paul Magloire followed Estimé in 1950 and held the presidency for six corrupt, if stable, years.
The Duvalier Era François Duvalier (1957−71) won a suspiciously large victory in the presidential election of 1957. Duvalier came from a modest black family in Port-au-Prince. His platform consisted of pro-black nationalism, strong support from the military, and state acceptance of the voodoo religion. The army disqualified Duvalier’s most popular rival, Daniel Fignolé, and likely tampered with ballots. Amidst the controversy, Duvalier officially assumed the presidency in 1957, backed by a majority in both houses of the legislature. As a candidate for office, Duvalier had been known as “Papa Doc” because of his paternalistic concern for poor and sick Haitians. During his 14-year reign, however, Duvalier focused more on controlling his people than caring for them. His dictatorial methods were harsh even by Haiti’s standards. In 1961 he discarded the bicameral legislature in favor of a unicameral one and then secured for himself the title of president for life. In order to control the military, Duvalier frequently shuffled the leadership, bringing young black soldiers to command positions until they too became threatening to the administration. Duvalier also created the Presidential Guard and the Volunteers for National Security (Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale⎯VSN), or makout as they were known, for the express purpose of averting attempted coups. The VSN functioned as a secret paramilitary group, using blackmail and terror to control Haiti’s citizenry. Largely through his brutal tactics, Duvalier held the presidency until his natural death in 1971. His son, Jean-Claude (1971−86), assumed leadership of Haiti at the age of 19. After initially deferring to his ambitious mother, Jean-Claude, referred to as “Baby Doc,” adopted many of his father’s leadership tactics. He lived lavishly, siphoning off funds from the governmentally controlled tobacco industry, while Haiti descended further into poverty. The administration relied heavily on intimidation to maintain power. A visit from Pope John Paul II on March 9, 1983, saw the pope echoing the people’s cries for improved access to food, water, education, and employment. It proved to be the beginning of the end for Jean-Claude. On February 7, 1986, Haitian citizens revolted against the corruption-rife administration. Threatened by rioting crowds and pressured by the United States, Duvalier gave up the presidency and went into exile in France.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the Struggle for Democracy Duvalier had hastily named a National Council of Government (Conseil National de Gouvernement⎯CNG) to serve as an interim government. Although the CNG initially dismantled some vestiges of the Duvalier era, it too eventually slipped into the mode of repressive governance. Brigadier General Prosper Avril assumed the presidency in September 1988 and governed for two tumultuous years before a wave of assassinations and widespread public protests led to his resignation in March 1990. Following Avril’s departure, an independent Permanent Electoral Council announced a presidential election for December 16, 1990.
Despite widespread violence, Haiti’s presidential election of December 1990 proved to be a landmark event. International observers declared the election to be free and fair. Outspoken anti- Duvalierist and former Roman Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide won a landslide victory with 67 percent of the vote. A fiery populist who elicited fanatical support from the poorest sectors of Haitian society, Aristide pledged to rid Haiti of the ethnic, racial, and economic hierarchy that had defined the country. He became a polarizing figure opposed by much of the country’s elite and the armed forces. During his first months in office, Aristide circumscribed the military’s power by establishing a separate presidential security force, closing military facilities, and reducing the armed forces budget. He also antagonized the economic elite by collecting back taxes and by appearing to endorse violence against his opponents. After only seven months in office, Aristide was ousted by a military coup on September 29, 1991. A junta led by Brigadier General Raoul Cédras seized control of the government. The military government engaged in systematic repression of dissidents and Aristide supporters, including numerous extrajudicial killings. In the midst of severe repression and a worsening of already dire economic conditions, tens of thousands of Haitians attempted to flee to Florida by boat. The U.S. Coast Guard rescued more than 40,000 Haitians at sea during 1991 and 1992. Thousands more may have perished at sea. The United States condemned the coup and pledged to see Aristide restored to office. Additionally, the United Nations (UN) Security Council refused to recognize Haiti’s new leaders and imposed multilateral economic sanctions.
In mid-1994, after two and a half years of economic sanctions, the UN Security Council approved the deployment of a multinational force to restore civilian authority in Haiti. With a United States-led military invasion looming, the junta agreed to step down in return for amnesty for themselves and the rest of the army. On September 9, 1994, U.S. troops entered Haiti unopposed, restoring Aristide to office. Aristide’s principal achievement during the remainder of his term was the abolition of the Haitian army and its replacement by the United States-trained Haitian National Police.
Political Chaos In 1995 Aristide completed his term, and Haiti had its first transition between two democratically elected presidents. Constitutionally barred from a consecutive term, Aristide picked his political ally and former prime minister, René Préval, as his successor. Préval’s tenure was characterized by partisan rancor and executive-legislative deadlock. Elections in 1997 for one-third of the Senate and communal assemblies were plagued with allegations of fraud and were not certified by international observers. During a prolonged constitutional crisis, the Préval government was unable to organize a second round of local and parliamentary elections due in late 1998. In January 1999, Préval dismissed legislators whose terms had expired—the entire Chamber of Deputies and all but nine members of the Senate—and governed by presidential decree. When legislative, local, and municipal elections were finally held in May 2000, Aristide and Préval reportedly pressed the Provisional Electoral Council to exclude nearly a quarter of the votes cast, using a formula that violated two articles of Haiti's constitution. In the summer of 2000, in response to credible evidence of government corruption, election fraud, and widespread human rights violations, Haiti’s foreign donors suspended all development assistance. The presidential election held in November 2000 was boycotted by the opposition and the Organization of American States (OAS) observer mission, which considered the results to be heavily tainted by fraud. So low was confidence in Haiti’s government that only 5 to 15 percent of the electorate is believed to have voted. The disputed election returned Aristide to office by a wide margin.
Aristide’s second tenure as president (2001–4) saw an intensification of political violence, an economic recession, and a breakdown of government institutions and the rule of law. Haiti’s economy experienced a sharp recession following the cutoff of foreign aid. Beginning in 2001, real gross domestic product (GDP) growth turned negative—a trend that would continue for the next three years. Political violence intensified as pro- and anti-Aristide militants battled in the streets. In December 2001, 30 armed men attempted to seize the National Palace in an apparent coup attempt. The government blamed former army officers for the failed raid. In retaliation, throughout 2002 and 2003 the government orchestrated attacks on opposition demonstrations by police and government-supported gangs known as chimères. In turn, the opposition Democratic Convergence alliance called for Aristide’s removal and announced plans for a transitional government. In March 2003, a high-level joint delegation of the OAS and Caribbean Community and Common Market (Caricom) presented specific demands to President Aristide to restore public security and create the confidence necessary to move toward elections. However, little in the way of progress was achieved. In January 2004, during celebrations of the Haitian bicentennial, crowds frustrated by the government’s ineffectiveness rioted in the city of Cap Haïtien. The rioting quickly spread across the country, escalating into a full-scale rebellion when former members of the armed forces, the police, and gang members joined the fray. By late February 2004, armed rebels demanding Aristide’s ouster controlled many of the country’s towns and were closing in on the capital of Port au Prince. Unable to quell the rebellion, and facing an imminent threat to his safety, Aristide resigned the presidency in late February and was airlifted out of the country by U.S. armed forces. Boniface Alexandre, president of Haiti’s Supreme Court, assumed the presidency in accordance with the constitution.
Responding to an emerging humanitarian crisis, a United States-led Multilateral Interim Force made up of troops from the United States, Canada, France, and Chile, was dispatched to secure Haiti’s ports and restore the flow of food and medical supplies into the country. In April 2004, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1542, creating the UN Stability Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). The Stability Mission was authorized at 6,700 troops and 1,622 civilian police. Brazil contributed the largest contingent of troops to MINUSTAH.
During 2004 and 2005, MINUSTAH and the interim Haitian government struggled to restore law and order and lay the groundwork for national elections. After several postponements, the first round of elections for president and the National Assembly took place on February 7, 2006. Turnout was estimated at approximately 60 percent of registered voters. Former President Préval won the presidential contest with 51.15 percent of the vote. The election was marred by controversy when the Electoral Council posted partial results indicating that Préval had not won a majority of the votes cast. However, following demonstrations in Haiti and expressions of concern by the international community, the Electoral Council reversed its decision to count large numbers of blank ballots and declared Préval the first-round winner.
In the spring of 2006, Haiti’s future under a second Préval administration remained uncertain. The new administration faced numerous challenges, including the need to rein in endemic criminality and gang violence, restore public services, and foster economic growth and poverty reduction. Whether Haiti’s current generation of political leaders would be able to negotiate in good faith and reach political solutions to national problems remained to be seen.
Source: Library of Congress