Original article published by Thomson Reuters Foundation News available here.
AT A GLANCE
Haiti was the world’s first black republic and the first Caribbean state to achieve independence, but decades of violence, dictatorship, coups, debt and national disasters have left it the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere.
The country is still recovering from a massive earthquake which hit in January 2010, killing more than 200,000 people, destroying much of the capital and making 1.5 million homeless. The 7.0 magnitude tremor was the country’s worst in 200 years. For more, see our Haiti earthquake briefing.
A major cholera epidemic broke out in October 2010 and quickly spread across the country, killing thousands of people. It was Haiti’s first outbreak in decades.
About 60 percent of Haiti’s 10 million people scrape by on less than $2 a day, especially in impoverished rural areas. Parts of the country are at the mercy of well-armed gangs.
A U.N. peacekeeping force was sent to Haiti in 2004 after an armed uprising against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who fled into exile but returned in 2011.
In January 2010, a powerful earthquake destroyed much of the capital and surrounding towns, killing more than 200,000 people and making 1.5 million people homeless.
The government faced the daunting challenge of rebuilding the flattened capital and uniting the anarchic country where the rich and poor are bitterly divided, and unemployment rates in urban areas hover at 40 percent.
At the root of Haiti’s social problems is the huge wealth and education gap between the predominantly Creole-speaking blacks who make up about 95 percent of the 10 million population and the French-speaking mulattos who own the bulk of the country’s wealth.
Power in Haiti is heavily centralised in the capital Port-au-Prince, contributing to chronic political instability and violence that have plagued Haiti for decades.
Several towns and cities, including parts of Port-au-Prince, are at the mercy of armed gangs, some of them with links to political parties. Murder and rape are common.
Groups of former soldiers are funded by wealthy elites and operate in rural areas. They helped oust President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004.
Haiti’s criminal networks are often linked to powerful families.
A U.N. peacekeeping force has been in Haiti since 2004 to try to contain political and gang violence. But there has been public unease over the U.N. role in Haiti. Anger rose over allegations of rape, on top of allegations that poor sanitary conditions at a camp of U.N. troops from Nepal was responsible for introducing a cholera epidemic to the country.
The outbreak was Haiti’s first in decades and quickly spread across the country. It began in October 2010 and, by January 2011, it had killed 3,600 people.
By December 2014, more than 8,600 people had died and 712,300 people had been infected.
So far the U.N. has not been able to raise the $2.2 billion experts say is needed to build Haiti’s water and sanitation infrastructure, which is vital to eradicate the country of cholera.
The country has one of the highest rates of HIV infection outside sub-Saharan Africa.
Many basic health services, such as vaccination and child nutrition programmes, are provided by the international aid community. Haiti’s health sector is propped up by dozens of foreign non-governmental organisations and the U.S. government, through USAID, provides access to basic health services for around 50 percent of all Haitians.
KILLER QUAKES AND FLOODS
Haiti lies in the middle of a hurricane belt and experiences earthquakes.
A 7.0 magnitude quake in January 2010 was one of the worst catastrophes in Haiti’s history. More than 200,000 people were killed, according to U.N. figures. Another 1.5 million people were left homeless. Five years on, some 80,000 people are still living in camps. See our briefing on the quake.
Haiti’s abject poverty, lack of infrastructure or early warning system and its ecological degradation make it vulnerable to even the weakest of storms.
The mountainous country was once heavily wooded, but almost all of its forests have been chopped down for charcoal for cooking. This has left a nation of subsistence farmers vulnerable to soil erosion, devastating floods and mudslides.
In 2012, a combination of drought and hurricanes Sandy and Isaac destroyed more than 40 percent of Haiti’s harvest.
Gonaives city bore the brunt of Tropical Storm Hanna, the worst of four storms that hit in quick succession in 2008. Heavy rains poured down bare hillsides surrounding the city, swamping it with floodwaters and mud. Much of the city of 300,000 people was completely buried in mud.
The storms killed more than 800 people, left 1 million people homeless or in dire need of help, and caused nearly $1 billion worth of damage.
See our briefing on Haiti’s 2008 floods.
Haiti, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, is one the world’s most unequal countries and the poorest in the Western hemisphere.
Sixty percent of the population earns less than $2 a day and more than 2.5 million live on less than $1 a day. It is ranked 168 in the U.N. Development Programme’s Human Development Index.
The country’s history has been plagued by debt. Haitians defeated French forces and declared independence in 1804 but, in 1825, France demanded reparations of 150 million francs in gold – which some estimate is equivalent to 17 billion euros today. This was reduced to 60 million francs in the 1830s, but it was still far more than the country of former slaves could afford.
By 1900, Haiti was spending 80 percent of its national budget on repayments. The debt plus interest was finally paid off in 1947 – partly by taking out loans from the United States, Germany and France. Paying off the debt, however, left the country destitute, corrupt and politically volatile.
By 2008, it had racked up another $1.9 billion in debt. Much of the debt had been contracted during the 30-year Duvalier dictatorship which began in 1956. The Duvaliers allegedly embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars.
Most of Haiti’s debt was cancelled in 2009 through the Highly-Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) initiative, and donor countries cancelled the rest after the 2010 earthquake. But it rose again to over $1 billion in 2013, according to the CIA Factbook.
For years the Haitian diaspora have provided a lifeline to their families back home, sending annual remittances of roughly $2 billion, equivalent to nearly 20 percent of gross domestic product.
Before the January 2010 quake, donor policies on the economy focused on boosting Haiti’s textile industry and its export processing zones – areas where foreign companies can set up factories, free of taxes and government regulations on wages and working conditions.
The zones created thousands of jobs, but some experts say workers are so poorly paid that the zones have had limited impact on reducing poverty.
New zones have been built in and near the capital since the earthquake. The Caracol Industrial Park, built by the Clinton Foundation and opened in October 2012, provides up to 60,000 jobs in the textile garment industry.
While Haiti remains the poorest nation in the Americas, its economy has been recovering since the earthquake, and growth reached 4.3 percent in 2013, up from 2.8 percent in 2012.
Economic growth has been fuelled by a pick-up in farm output, as well as the construction and manufacturing sectors, according to the World Bank.
The government also wanted to improve the agriculture sector to boost food production and help create jobs for the tens of thousands who fled the devastated capital after the quake.
For many years Haiti has been heavily dependent on food imports, partly because farmers moved to the cities in the hope of better wages in factories, or were encouraged to shift away from subsistence farming to growing crops for export.
The lack of investment in rural areas worsened poverty in the countryside, home to most of Haiti’s poorest, says Yasmine Shamsie, associate professor at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University and co-editor of the book “Haiti: Hope for a Fragile State”.
“There were also terrible consequences for the environment, as desperate rural folk deforested the landscape,” says Shamsie. This in turn has made the country more susceptible to deadly floods and mudslides in the wake of hurricanes.
Cutting down trees to make charcoal to sell for fuel is a last resort for many rural Haitians who have no other income between harvests.
REFUGEES AND MIGRANTS
Violence and poverty have forced many Haitians to leave in recent decades, mostly to North America, the Dominican Republic and France.
Those in the neighbouring Dominican Republic, most of them illegal immigrants, work on cattle ranches and sugar plantations, or as domestic servants and construction workers in conditions that human rights groups say frequently approach slavery. An estimated 200,000 or more people of Haitian descent but born in the Dominican Republic are stateless.
The United States has imposed a sea blockade since the early 1990s to intercept refugee boats and stop Haitians reaching U.S. soil and claiming asylum. Although the U.S. relaxed some immigration rules for Haitians in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, it has continued sending those encountered at sea back to Haiti.
According to World Bank data, the Haiti diaspora sends home the equivalent of 20 percent of Haiti’s GDP in remittances. There were more than 1 million Haitians living abroad in 2010.
Although the country won independence from France in 1804, Haitians had to wait nearly two centuries before they got the chance to pick their own leader in a democratic election.
The most notorious period in recent history was the Duvalier dictatorship when tens of thousands were killed or exiled, and the treasury was looted. Voodoo physician Francois Duvalier, “Papa Doc”, who seized power in 1956, used his Tonton Macoutes paramilitary group to terrorise the population. He ruled until his death in 1971.
Papa Doc was succeeded by his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who fled to France in 1986 following an uprising.
An interim government, headed by General Henri Namphy, was supposed to oversee a two-year transition to democracy, but polls in 1987 were aborted after gunmen linked to the Duvalier government massacred at least 34 voters.
Most Haitians boycotted army-run elections in 1988 and the winner was toppled within months. After two more years of turmoil, Haiti held its first free elections in December 1990.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a fiery leftist Roman Catholic priest and a champion of Haiti’s poor, won by a landslide, raising hopes the country was finally on the road to stability.
Haiti’s first democratically elected president forced military leaders to retire, announced he would clean up Duvalierist corruption and promised to introduce democratic reform. But the military, supported by the wealthy elite, ousted Aristide just seven months later.
Coup leader Lt Gen Raoul Cedras headed a brutal regime, violently repressing Haiti’s grassroots movement.
More than 40,000 Haitians fled the country in rickety boats in 1991 and 1992. Many ended up at a refugee camp at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and were eventually sent back to Haiti.
After the United Nations imposed an oil and arms embargo against Haiti in June 1993, Cedras signed a U.N.-brokered pact with Aristide calling for the restoration of democracy.
But the military refused to step aside as promised, prompting the United Nations to authorise a U.S.-led invasion in September 1994.
Aristide resumed office for the rest of his term and promptly disbanded the military. The constitution barred him from immediate re-election and he was succeeded in 1995 by his protege Rene Preval – the first leader in Haiti’s history to win a democratic election, serve a full term and hand over peacefully to a successor.
Aristide returned to power in 2001. However, his election victory was not recognised by the main opposition parties who had boycotted the presidential poll, accusing Aristide’s Lavalas party of fraud in earlier parliamentary polls that were criticised by international observers.
By 2003 the country was deeply divided between pro- and anti-Aristide camps. Aristide, once seen as a hero of democracy, was accused of despotism and corruption and fled in 2004 in the midst of an armed revolt and under intense U.S. and French pressure.
Aristide accused the United States of kidnapping him after his arrival in Central African Republic on a U.S.-arranged flight. But Washington said he had resigned.
After his departure an interim government took over and the United Nations sent a peacekeeping force to prevent the country descending into civil war.
Those behind the subsequent bloodshed included criminal street gangs, pro-Aristide supporters and “rebels”, former members of the army who played a key role in forcing Aristide out.
Gunfights and kidnappings prompted many aid groups to scale back their work in the capital’s most violent slum, Cite Soleil.
Cite Soleil and other shanty towns were the bedrock of Aristide’s grass-roots Lavalas movement that first swept him to the presidency.
The interim government, which blamed Aristide for fomenting violence from exile in South Africa, took a hard line against Aristide supporters, prompting an outcry from human rights groups.
Preval distanced himself from Aristide but did not rule out allowing him to return from exile.
The government threw down the gauntlet to the armed gangs in August 2006, telling them to lay down their weapons or be killed.
Preval won presidential elections in 2006. The following year U.N. troops launched a tough new offensive against armed gangs in Cite Soleil.
Violent protests against rocketing food prices and the rising cost of living erupted in the spring of 2008. Aid agency Oxfam said prices had doubled or tripled in the previous two months, leaving many Haitians hungry.
The riots began in the south of the country and spread to Port-au-Prince, pitting thousands of hungry Haitians against U.N. peacekeepers.
The U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which is widely despised in the capital’s slums, numbers about 4,965 troops and 2,290 international police.
Elections in November 2010 triggered violent protests across the country, with thousands saying the election results were rigged by the ruling coalition.
Responding to international concern over reported irregularities in the results, Preval requested help from the Organization of American States to verify the preliminary tally. Popular musician Michel Martelly won the second round in March 2011.
In January 2011, Duvalier returned from exile, facing corruption and human rights abuse charges. He was briefly detained and died aged 63 in October 2014.
In February 2012, Prime Minister Garry Conille resigned after just four months in post, causing political paralysis. He stepped down during political infighting over earthquake reconstruction contracts, and a parliamentary investigation into dual citizenship of government ministers, which is illegal under Haitian law.
Foreign Minister Laurent Lamothe became prime minister in May 2012 but was forced to resign in December 2014 over the failure to hold long overdue legislative elections and resolve the political impasse.
In December 2014, President Martelly faced increasing pressure from the U.S. Obama administration and the United Nations to hold parliamentary elections amid growing street protests.
Haiti’s government website is run by its embassy in Washington.
Information on current and past U.N. peacekeeping missions is available on the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti website in French. Here’s a slimmed-down version in English.
The British-based Haiti Support Group carries news and features from international and domestic sources. It was established in 1992 after Aristide’s overthrow and has focused on developing contacts with grassroots and community organisations. The site also contains information on campaigns and links to local groups.
The Grammy Award-winning Haitian hip hop musicians Wyclef Jean and Jerry Duplessis in 2005 set up the non-political Yele Haiti Foundation “to empower the people of Haiti and the Haitian diaspora to rebuild their nation”.
The World Food Programme’s Haiti page has useful information about hunger in Haiti.
For information on refugees, the best place to start is the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) website.
Human Rights Watch has reports on human rights violations and corruption in the justice system.
– Christopher Columbus lands on and names island Hispaniola
– Spain cedes western part to France; this becomes Haiti
– Haiti becomes independent
– U.S. invades following black-mulatto friction, which it thought endangered its property and investments in Haiti
– U.S. withdraws its troops but maintains fiscal control until 1947
– Voodoo physician Francios “Papa Doc” Duvalier seizes power in military coup and is elected president a year later
– Duvalier declares himself president for life
– Duvalier dies and is replaced by son Jean-Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc)
– Duvalier forced into exile by uprising. Army chief Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy named to oversee two-year transition to democracy
– Gunmen linked to Duvalier government and army halt elections, killing at least 34
– Political scientist Leslie Manigat elected president in army-run elections, but overthrown by Namphy shortly afterwards
– Namphy overthrown. Replaced by former Duvalier aide Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril
– Avril resigns. Supreme Court Justice Ertha Trouillot sworn in as acting president
– Populist priest Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide is landslide winner in presidential elections, Haiti’s first democratic poll
– Aristide inaugurated. Rene Preval becomes prime minister, promising to uproot corruption
– Military ousts Aristide in bloody coup
– U.N. imposes oil and arms embargo
– Aristide and coup leader, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, sign U.N.-brokered pact that calls for Aristide’s return. But Cedras later refuses to step down and U.N. tightens sanctions
– A multinational force arrives to restore democracy
– Aristide returns as president
– U.N. peacekeeping force replaces multinational troops
– Preval, from Aristide’s Lavalas party, elected president to succeed Aristide
– U.N. peacekeeping force ends armed mission
– Parliamentary and local elections held after numerous postponements
– Aristide wins presidential election, which is boycotted by main opposition parties because of dispute over parliamentary polls. Opposition proclaims provisional government with a “parallel president”
– Aristide succeeds Preval
– Gunmen storm Haiti’s National Palace in apparent coup attempt
– Thousands march against Aristide. Gunmen seize the city of Gonaives. Armed revolt spreads across Haiti. U.S. sends Marines to protect its facilities. Dozens killed in escalating violence. Foreigners flee the country. Rebels warn of imminent attack on capital
– U.S. flies Aristide out of country. Aristide later says he was kidnapped. Washington says he resigned
– An interim government is appointed with former U.N. official Gerard Latortue as prime minister
– U.N. stabilisation force replaces U.S.-led multinational force that moved in when Aristide left
– Donors pledge over $1 billion in aid. Interim government later complains less than half was disbursed
– Tropical Storm Jeanne hits northern Haiti, killing about 3,000 people
– U.N. force’s mandate extended as gang violence continues to escalate
– U.N. force commander commits suicide and two U.N. peacekeepers killed in gang violence.
– Elections to replace interim government
– Preval declared winner of presidential poll
– Preval takes office
– Donors pledge $750 million to help fund economic recovery
– U.N. peacekeeping mission’s mandate extended for another six months. Prime Minister Alexis says gang leaders who do not disarm under a U.N. scheme will be arrested or killed, after a July upsurge in violence
– Alexis asks the U.S. to end its weapons embargo to allow the government to rearm police force
– U.S. agrees to partially lift its 15-year arms embargo
– Two U.N. peacekeepers killed in ambush attack near Cite Soleil. Police report a sharp spike in child kidnappings. Haiti is declared eligible for HIPC (Heavily Indebted Poor Countries) debt relief
– U.N. launches government-approved anti-gang raid and anti-kidnapping operations. Alexis links recent violence with criminals deported from the U.S. The U.N. launches appeal for $98 million
– President Rene Preval cites drug trafficking as primary cause of instability, accusing U.S. and other “drug-consuming” states of failing to tackle drug trade
– U.N. Security Council extends U.N. peacekeeping mandate until 15 October. Peacekeepers launch major operations to strengthen grip on Cite Soleil slum.
– Flooding triggered by torrential rains kills more than 30
– Haitians riot over rising food prices, clashing with U.N. security forces. Government falls when lawmakers fire PM
– Four storms smash into the country in one of Haiti’s worst catastrophes. Hundreds killed and about 1 million badly affected
Haiti gets new government headed by Michele Pierre-Louis as PM, ending long impasse between Preval and lawmakers
– Former U.S. President Bill Clinton becomes U.N. special envoy to Haiti
– World Bank and IMF cancel $1.2bn of Haiti’s debt – 80 percent of the total
Jan – A 7.0 magnitude quake hits Haiti – its worst tremor in 200 years. Haitian authorities estimate over 200,000 killed and more than 1 million are made homeless. Those figures later rise to 250,000 dead and 1.5 million homeless
Mar – Donors pledge $5.3 billion in aid
Oct – Major cholera epidemic breaks out
Nov – Presidential and parliamentary elections
Dec – Results from presidential poll trigger violent protests. A run-off vote is scheduled for Jan. 2011
Jan – Former president Jean-Claude Duvalier returns from exile
Death toll from cholera epidemic hits 3,600
Mar – Michel Martelly wins presidential run-off vote
Oct – Garry Conille becomes prime minister
Feb – Conille resigns
Cholera death toll rises to more than 7,000 people, and 500,000 had been infected
May – Foreign Minister Laurent Lamothe becomes prime minister
Dec – United Nations launches appeals to fight the cholera epidemic
Feb – U.N. formally rejects compensation claims by victims of cholera outbreak
Oct – A U.S.-based rights group, Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, files a lawsuit against the U.N. on behalf of cholera victims in Haiti. The lawsuit maintains the cholera epidemic was caused by U.N. peacekeeping troops brought to Haiti from Nepal
Oct – Duvalier dies
Dec – Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe resigns