By Evan Pye
This week I began to prepare for a trip I am planning to Haiti at the end of June by studying the country’s history. I have been interested in Haiti for a long time, having read Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder and Haiti: After the Earthquake by Paul Farmer. Most people probably associate Haiti with a high level of poverty and the earthquake that caused so much destruction in 2010. Yet, its history has been extremely rich and intriguing since before it even became a country in 1804. It’s a story full of violence, accomplishment, and misfortune; and it is very much in the middle of its own history today. My sources of information this week were Haiti: After the Earthquake, a BBC timeline, and a long article written by Paul Farmer in 2004.
To start with the present day, Haiti is in the midst of an election cycle which will have taken over a year to complete. President Michel Martelly completed his term in February 2016, but the first round of presidential elections in the previous October had been marred by fraud and corruption. He therefore was unable to welcome the new president and Haiti has appointed an interim President until they are able to re-do the contested elections, which are now scheduled for October 2016.
Haiti’s encounters with Europe began as early as 1492, when Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola during his first expedition to the Americas. The island was inhabited by a native people known as the Taino. The first European settlement in the Americas was the city of Santo Domingo in what is now Dominican Republic, a city which I have visited without realizing its historical significance. After only 100 years, all of the Taino people were wiped out by disease or violence, both on account of the European settlers. Spain controlled all of Hispaniola (little Spain), but ceded the western third of the island to France in 1697. France called this colony Saint Domingue, which would later come to be known as Haiti. France wasted no time bringing over slaves from Africa and had transported 30,000 of them via the Columbian Exchange by 1540. As a result, Haiti became an extremely brutal, efficient, and productive colony for France. It provided ⅓ of the tropical products to Europe and was the world’s leading exporter of coffee and sugar, making it more valuable to France than all of its other colonies combined.
In 1791, a freed slave named Touissant L’Ouverture led a rebellion that conquered the country that was 85% slaves by the point and declared himself ruler over all of Hispaniola. In response, Napoleon sent his brother-in-law Charles LeClerc with an armada of 40,000 troops to quell the uprising. L’Ouverture had already been captured and taken to France, where he died in prison. But Jean-Jacques Dessalines replaced him as leader of the rebellion, defeated Napoleon’s army, and declared Haiti an independent nation on January 1st, 1804.
Although Haiti had succeeded in freeing itself from France, the country was surrounded by hostile Caribbean colonies of European superpowers and America, which was afraid of the influence the slave revolt would have on the South. America wouldn’t recognize Haiti’s sovereignty until the 1860s. In 1825, France demanded reparations from Haiti for its lost land and property (meaning the slaves) of 150 million Francs. With its Navy surrounding Haiti’s water to threaten recapture, Haiti had to comply and begin paying the debt, which they would continue to pay until the 1950s. The total in today’s dollars would become $21 billion, and severely limit their their economic growth for more than a century.
In 1915, the United States invaded Haiti and occupied the country for 19 years, after disbanding the Haitian military and seizing control of the treasury. America’s reasoning for these actions were fears over the conflict between Haitian blacks in the North and mulattoes in the South. The US removed their troops from Haiti in 1934, but maintained fiscal control until 1947. It wasn’t long before more poor leadership would seize power in the form of a voodoo physician named Francois Duvalier, known as “Papa Doc”, in 1957. Duvalier was a corrupt and oppressive ruler. He was succeeded after his death in 1971 by his 19-year-old son, known as “Baby Doc.” Haiti finally kicked the Duvaliers out of power in 1986, and immediately drafted a new Constitution with changes such as making Creole the country’s official language.
After several failed and corrupt elections, Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the country’s first free and peaceful elections in 1990. He was ousted in a coup just one year later, but he would return in 2000 and be elected as president once more. He took over for Rene Preval, who served peacefully between 1995-2000. Aristide was a very pro-poor, socialist leader who President and Bush did not approve of. Bush decreased development aid to Haiti’s government and got the rest of the world to do the same. Haiti’s budget shrunk, leaving their education, health, and security systems to suffer. There was an increase in gangs and crimes, and Aristide was exiled in 2004 with the help of the Americans and the French. Aristide claims he was kidnapped by these foreign powers, who airlifted him to the former French colony, the Central African Republic. The rest of the 2000s were marked by gang violence, several contested elections, and deadly natural disasters. Rene Preval became president again in 2006, and was replaced by Michel Martelly in 2011. In January of 2010, the 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed nearly 300,000 people and led to an international pledge of $5.3 billion in aid money, most of which has not arrived or not been well-spent.