Haiti occupies the western one-third of the Caribbean Island of Hispaniola which it shares with the Dominican Republic. It is slightly smaller than the state of Maryland and has a population of 8,706,497. Haiti's official languages are Creole and French, its capital and largest city is Port-au-Prince, and its currency is the gourde.
Haiti has a tumultuous history. Christopher Columbus landed on the Island in 1492 and found it inhabited by the native Taino Amerindians. Within 25 years, the native inhabitants were virtually annihilated by Spanish settlers. The French soon after settled on Hispaniola, and in 1697 Spain ceded to them the western third of the island, which later became Haiti. The French based colonies engaged in forestry and sugar-related industries which enabled them to become one of the wealthiest colonies in the Caribbean but only with the back-breaking work of slaves imported from Africa.
In the late 18th century, Toussaint L'Ouverture lead nearly a half million slaves in a revolt. Napoléon Bonaparte suppressed this movement, but it eventually triumphed in 1804 under Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Haiti became the world's first independent black republic. Since declaring independence, Haiti has largely endured a history of very little international support and violent political turbulence.
In recent history, a move toward democracy has emerged. After a particularly brutal dictatorship under François Duvalier, nicknamed "Papa Doc," in 1957 and then his son Jean-Claude, "Baby Doc," historic democratic elections took place. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest, was democratically elected and took office in February 1991. The military, however, took control in a coup nine months later. A UN peacekeeping force arrived in 1994 and restored Aristide to office. The following elections took place in 1996 and resulted in René Préval as his successor. Then again in 2000, Aristide was re-elected president but the elections were boycotted by the opposition and questioned by many foreign observers. Protests and instability ensued and in February 2004, protests, groups of armed rebels, and French and American pressure led to the ousting of Aristide. An interim government took over to restore order and after several delays, Haiti held elections on February 7, 2006. The elections resulted in René Préval once again taking office.
The history of Haiti has resulted in impoverishment and hardship for Haiti. Not only has it taken its toll on the people of Haiti but also on its environment. A once beautiful and lush country, deforestation has lead to extensive environmental damage and has exacerbated the already severe living conditions of the Haitian people. The people of Haiti have largely cleared the forests for the purposes of making land available for agriculture and for making wood into charcoal for fuel due to a lack of other resources. As a result, soil erosion has lead to less agricultural potential and a lack of potable water compounding the already compromised health and well being of Haitians.
Haiti's history of exploitation, violence and unrest has left it as the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere. 80% of the population lives under the poverty line and 54% live in abject poverty. Unemployment and underemployment is widespread. More than two-thirds of the labor force do not have formal jobs. Most Haitians depend on the agriculture sector and the informal market for income.
Despite the sometimes insurmountable struggle of the Haitian people and their lack of material goods, Haitians have an abundance of gifts that they so readily share with the world. Haitians lavishly share their love of life, of people and of relationships; they share the colorful lens through which they view life which is reflected in their music, art and dance. Most importantly Haitians share their lived experience of spirituality and a sense that God can and will take care of their needs. The world has much to learn from the Haitians' sense of hope and joy.