Map of Haiti. Cite-Soleil is a densely populated shanty town located in Port-au-Prince.
During his first trip to the New World in 1492, Christopher Columbus made several landfalls throughout the Caribbean, including on the island now known as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He dubbed the land Hispaniola, or Little Spain, and it became the first outpost of the Spanish empire and a gateway to the rest of the Caribbean.
The island, which had come to be known as Santo Domingo, lost its place as the preeminent Spanish colony in the New World during the middle of the 16th century. The conquest of New Spain (Mexico) and the lack of mineral resources led to its neglect. By the end of the 17th century, Spain had ceded control of the western part of the island to the French, who called the area Saint-Domingue. Renewed interest, however, by the French caused the island to prosper, and by the end of the 18th century, Saint-Domingue produced about 60 percent of the world's coffee and about 40 percent of the sugar imported by France and Britain.
Essential to the productivity of Saint-Domingue was its extensive slaveholding system, which was said to have been particularly cruel and abusive. At the peak of the island's prosperity, the slave population totaled at least 500,000. (By comparison, only 32,000 whites and 28,000 free blacks lived on the island.) At the same time, violent conflicts between white colonists and bands of runaway slaves, called Maroons, were common. The Maroons entrenched themselves in the mountains and forests and, as their numbers grew into the thousands, began hit-and-run raids and attacks on the colony.
Their guerrilla style lacked organization and leadership, though, until 1791, when a group of former slaves led in part by Toussaint Louverture organized a full-fledged uprising that toppled the colony -- the first successful slave revolt in history. While the initial uprising was finally quelled, the events set in motion what would become the Haitian Revolution.
Over the next six years, Toussaint's tactical skill and charismatic leadership allowed him to take control over the entire island. A constitution approved by the new Colonial Assembly in 1801 granted Toussaint the title of "governor-general-for-life." His reign and the freedom of the island were brief, however, as France's Napoleon Bonaparte dispatched a large number of troops to wrest control of the island in 1802. Outnumbered and outmaneuvered, Toussaint finally surrendered on May 5, 1802, with the condition that there would be no return to slavery. Though France assured Toussaint that he would be allowed to retire quietly, he was instead captured and sent to the frigid dungeon of Fort-de-Joux in France, where he died of pneumonia less than a year later.
After seeing Napoleon restore slavery to neighboring Martinique, Toussaint's followers continued to fight against France. And when war between France and Britain began again in Europe during 1803 -- forcing Napoleon to pull back his troops -- Toussaint's army, led by one of his generals, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, overran the remaining French. In 1804, the country renamed itself Haiti, which means "mountainous," and declared its independence, with Dessalines as leader. Haiti became the first free black republic in the world, the first independent state in the Caribbean and the second independent state in the Western Hemisphere after the United States.
Although violence is declining, Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere.
In recent decades, Haitian history has been marked by economic hardship and political unrest. The trouble began in the 1950s with the ascension to power of the former voodoo physician Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. After coming to power in a military coup, Duvalier declared himself president for life and maintained control over the population through a secret police organization called the Volunteers for National Security, nicknamed the Tontons Macoutes, or bogeymen.
When Duvalier died in 1971, his 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, took over and continued his father's brutal reign. His widespread corruption -- which included drug trafficking, pilferage of development and food aid, illegal resale and export of subsidized oil, and manipulation of government contracts -- had extremely detrimental effects on the Haitian economy. Popular discontent forced Baby Doc out of power in 1986, and Haiti was governed over the next few years by a series of provisional governments.
Optimism grew in Haiti during the immediate aftermath of Baby Doc being deposed, as a constitution was ratified in 1987 that provided for an elected president and parliament. In 1990, a charismatic Roman Catholic priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide won 67 percent of the vote in what was deemed by international observers to be a fair and free election. But seven months into his term, Aristide was overthrown in a military coup and forced into exile in the United States.
After three years of economic collapse and repression at the hands of the military regime -- a time in which the U.S. Coast Guard rescued a total of 41,342 Haitians at sea, more than the previous 10 years combined -- the United Nations intervened. The U.S. government led a multinational force to carry out the U.N. mandate to facilitate the departure of Haiti's military leadership and to restore the island's constitutionally elected government to power. On September 19, 1994, a 21,000-member force touched down in Haiti. By October, Aristide and other elected officials had returned. In 1996, Aristide voluntarily stepped down and his top aide and former prime minister Rene Preval was elected President.
The years after Preval was elected witnessed six years of economic growth. But that growth began to reverse in 2001, and an era of recession began. Aristide had been elected again in 2000 and violence and human rights abuses had become more prevalent. The unrest culminated in 2004, when celebrations marking 200 years of independence turned into a violent uprising against President Aristide, who was forced from the island and into exile in South Africa. Aristide, a leftist, accused the Bush administration of backing his ouster. United Nations peacekeepers were once again sent in to stabilize the country.
During the ensuing years, the situation has grown better, as Rene Preval was re-elected in 2006 and violence is decreasing. But Haiti remains the least-developed country in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world. In addition, organized crime "threatens to overwhelm Haiti," according to an International Crisis Group report from early 2007. Kidnappings, drug and human trafficking and violent assaults and rape are commonplace. Recently, The New York Times reported that after a surge in kidnappings of children, Preval gave U.N. peacekeepers orders to raid Cite Soleil, the largest slum in Port-au-Prince, and arrest gang leaders there. In addition, the U.S. State Department maintains a travel warning to Haiti, advising people of the "frequent kidnappings of Americans for ransom."
Sources: The Library of Congress, George Mason University Center for History and New Media, U.S. State Department, The New York Times and International Crisis Group.
From Our Files
Haiti: The Struggle for Water
FRONTLINE/World Fellow Shoshana Guy reports in the aftermath of Hurricane Jeanne, which left Haitians with contaminated, already-scarce water supplies.
The New York Times: New Routes and New Risks, As More Haitians Flee
Reporter Marc Lacey wrote in The New York Times about the increasing danger migrants faced following the death of approximately 90 Haitians in shark-infested waters off the nearby islands of Turks and Caicos. Hostile immigration officials and local police were accused of causing the sloops to capsize.
The New York Times: U.N. Troops Fight Haiti Gangs One Street at a Time
For The New York Times, reporter Marc Lacey writes about the U.N. peacekeepers raid of Cite Soleil, the largest slum in the capital of Port-au-Prince, as ordered by President Rene Preval. Fed up last December after a surge in kidnappings of children, Preval gave the order to arrest gang leaders.
BBC News: Haitian Gangs Defy President's Ultimatum
Gang leaders in Port-au-Prince called off a public ceremony, in which they were to officially lay down their arms. The public disarmament was in response to President Rene Preval's ultimatum to disarm or risk being killed. Gang members said their refusal to participate was in protest against raids by UN peacekeepers in Cite Soleil.
United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti
This United Nations Web site chronicles the U.N. missions in Haiti since 1993. It includes information about the leaders and the 8,889 uniformed personnel that comprise today's United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH).
Haiti Action Committee
The Bay Area-based Haiti Action Committee is a group of activists who have worked toward democracy in Haiti since 1991. The nonprofit's Web site reports critically against the United Nation's aggression in the slums of Port-au-Prince.
International Crisis Group: Haiti
As a nongovernmental organization (NGO), the International Crisis Group has monitored the longstanding economic, political and social challenges in Haiti from an office in Port-au-Prince since 2006. The nonprofit's Web site features extensive reports about the security situation and prospects for reform.
U.S. State Department
This Web page from the Bureau of Consular Affairs lists precautions and resources for U.S. travelers in Haiti.
Radio France Internationale Musique: Belo
This article is a biography about the young Haitian musician, Murat Jean Belony (aka Belo).
My Space: Belo
Belo's MySpace page has links to select songs and a music video.
Belo: Lakou Trankil
See the full video of Belo's song "Lakou Trankil" on YouTube. It's the second video from his debut album, also called "Lakou Trankil."
Yele Haiti is a non-profit foundation established by former Fugees member Wyclef Jean, himself a Haitian, dedicated to improving the lives of Haitians through educational, health, environmental and community development programs and to help bring hope back to the troubled nation.
-- Matthew Vree and Alison Satake