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Haiti means “the high land” in the language of the Taino Indians, whom Columbus met when he arrived on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola on his maiden voyage in 1492. He established the first permanent European settlement in the Americas on the north coast of the island. Less than 30 years later (1520), the first African slaves were brought in to work the sugar and coffee plantations, and the island’s increasing wealth was fought over by Spain, France, and England, until the treaty of Ryswick (1697) gave the western third of the island to France and leaving the rest to Spain.
Once the “world’s richest colony” and the “Pearl of the Antilles,” Haiti burnt to the ground in the only successful slave revolution the planet has ever known, when half a million slaves took on the French, British and Spanish armies simultaneously, and won. The war for independence grew out of the French Revolution in 1791 and culminated in the coastal village of Arcahaie on May 18, 1803, when the Haitian General Dessalines took the French “Tricolor” flag, ripped out the central white stripe to symbolize the expulsion of the white colonials, sewed the blue and red stripes back together, and declared Haiti an independent nation – only the second in the Americas after the United States.
For a variety of reasons, Haiti never recovered from the devastation wrought by colonialism and a 14-year war. The newly formed republic was a pariah on the international scene. To recognize Haiti as a country was to recognize the right of slaves to revolt, and this was obviously anathema to the colonial powers, all of which feared others would follow the Haitian example. “The existence of a Negro people in arms, occupying a country it has soiled by the most criminal of acts is a horrible spectacle for all white nations,” wrote a French minister. France refused to recognize Haiti until 1833 and then only after Haiti agreed to pay crippling reparations. U.S. recognition didn’t come until the end of the civil war in 1862.
Shunned diplomatically, Haiti was also dealing with severe internal problems. Haitian leaders tried to maintain the cash-producing plantation system, but the newly liberated slaves understandably refused to participate, preferring to tend small family plots – a practice that continues to this day. The peasants may have been happy, but this system was not economically beneficial in the long term and pressing social issues continued to rock the country. During the war, blacks and mulattos had joined forces, but once the war was over, the colonial divisions of class and color quickly reappeared. In the colony, mulattos were free, educated and property-owning. Despite the fact that they made up less than 10% of the population, they were able to use these advantages to establish themselves as the ruling class and reinforce a caste-like system based largely on color. Post-revolutionary rulers, dark or light, used the power to tax solely for their personal benefit, a tradition that persisted well into the 1980s.
Brutal, corrupt, careless and unstable government has been the long-standing rule in Haiti. The upper class mulattos ran most governments until 1957, when Dr. François Duvalier was elected on a black power platform. Far from a reformist, Duvalier soon established himself as the most ruthless dictator in the country’s history, with the aide of his private paramilitary force, the “Tonton Macoutes.” After François’s death in 1971, power passed to his son Jean Claude, an 18 year old with little interest in government. Popular demonstrations resulted in Jean Claude’s flight to France in 1986; the resulting power vacuum led to instability and political violence, which included several coups and elections marred by violence.
The 1990 US-sponsored elections (perhaps the first free elections in Haiti’s history) resulted in the landslide election of former parish priest Jean Bertrand Aristide, who immediately started an ambitious program of social and economic reforms. These reforms threatened the interests of the entrenched ruling class, who responded with yet another military coup in September 1991. Following three years of coup government during which an estimated 5,000 people were killed, Aristide was returned to power by the force of a US military invasion.
The November 1995 elections ended in the victory of René Préval, Aristide’s former Prime Minister who had a rocky term but ended up as the first President to serve his full term and leave office at the appointed time. In 2000, Aristide was re-elected but after barely three years in office, he abdicated, following several months of popular demonstrations and pressure from the international community. After two years of unpopular interim government, René Préval was elected to a second term, which ends in 2011.