When you think about Haiti what are the images that come to mind? Do they match those that you saw in the media recently? No doubt, those images have synthesized into your impression of Haiti. These startling and troubling images, however, do not tell the complete story of this complex Caribbean island, home to ten million people.
Haiti is a country that has a rich history. Haiti grew from tremulous beginnings, racked by civil war and political unrest since 1791. The country received its Arawak name Haiti, meaning Mountainous Country, from Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Under his leadership in 1838, Haiti broke its ties to France and became the world’s first independent, black republic. This independence, however, came at a heavy cost to Haiti. In exchange for their freedom, they had to pay a financial indemnity of 150 million francs. Moreover Haiti was shunned by many nations including the United States for over 40 years. Other countries feared that the Haitian example of independence would cause unrest in other slaveholding countries. The United States finally granted Haiti diplomatic recognition in 1862.
In 1957, Haiti made several attempts to move forward and implement democratic elections. When these attempts failed they held a military controlled election, selecting Dr. François Duvalier, nicked named “Papa Doc” as the winner. Duvalier was widely regarded as a corrupt president and declared himself as ‘president for life’. He formed the infamous Paramilitary Tonton Macoute. “Papa Doc’s” dictatorship marked one of the saddest chapters in Haitian history with tens of thousands killed or exiled.
In 1971, “Papa Doc” died and left his son Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) as his successor. “Baby Doc” was considered by many to be more ruthless than his father and many Haitians fled to Florida. During the 1970’s to 1980’s, “Baby Doc” leveraged international assistance and sought after investments, which led to the establishment of textile-based assembly industries. His regime quickly crushed all attempts by workers and political parties to fight the dictatorship. Hundreds of human rights workers, journalists and lawyers were arrested and exiled from the country.
During 1984 and 1985, over 200 people were massacred after demonstrating for better access to land. Many anti-government demonstrations continued to take place around the country. The killing of four schoolchildren at one of the demonstrations elicited unified protest against the regime. Widespread protest against “Baby Doc” led to the United States arranging for Jean-Claude and his family to be exiled to France. According to, “Haiti The Long Road to Recovery,” it is estimated that President Duvalier “Baby Doc”, his wife and three other people took $504 million from the Haitian public treasury between 1971 and 1986.
In 1987, a new Constitution was approved. There was a general election in November of that year but it was stopped after soldiers and the Tonton Macoute in the capital city and around the country shot dozens of people.
In 1990, Aristide was elected president and was inaugurated on February 7, 1991. In September of that year President Aristide addressed the UN General Assembly. Three days after his return, military personnel unleashed a coup d’e´tat overthrowing President Aristide. Over 1,000 people were killed in the first days of the coup. An armed rebellion forced Aristide to resign and to leave the country in February of 2004. According to, “Aristide Development”, American Spectator Vol. 027, “The Haiti File” Aristide also stole millions from the country during his time in office. In 2006 the current president Rene Preval was elected.
Haiti is one of the poorest, and least developed of countries, with one of the world’s highest illiteracy rates. Regardless, Haiti has been able to maintain its culture—a mixture of French, African and native Taino with some influence from Spanish. Haiti is famous for its art, most notably paintings and sculptures. Its main cuisine is rice and beans, which is cooked in many different ways. Haiti celebrates its own festival, referred to as “Karnavel” in Creole or Mardi Gras. The festival starts in February when the cities fill with music and parade floats, and the streets spring with dancing and singing people. Carnival week is a time of all night parties and an escape from daily life.
On January 12, 2010 the earthquake that struck Haiti devastated the capital city Port-au-Prince and killed over 150,000 people. This occurrence has allowed Haitians to feel greater connectivity to the world, which has united us support them financially and emotionally.
Click here to donate to the Haiti relief efforts