Haiti - Encyclopedia Information
Official name Republic of Haiti
Formation 1804 / 1884
Population 10.2 million / 959 people per sq mile (370 people per sq km)
Total area 10,714 sq. miles (27,750 sq. km)
Languages French Creole*, French*
Religions Roman Catholic 55%, Protestant 28%, Other (including Voodoo) 16%, Nonreligious 1%
Ethnic mix Black African 95%, Mulatto (mixed race) and European 5%
Government Presidential system
Currency Gourde = 100 centimes
Literacy rate 62%
Calorie consumption 1848 kilocalories
On December 6, 1492, Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) discovered Hispaniola, the island referred to as Quisqueya (name in use even now) and Ayti or Hayti (“land of mountains”) by its Taino and Carib inhabitants, related to the Arawak Indians.
Columbus renamed it La Isla Ispanola (“the Spanish Island”), which was subsequently abbreviated to Hispaniola.
Columbus’s expedition had established a settlement, but when the Spaniards returned they found it destroyed by the Caribs, the native people. Hispaniola was finally colonized in the late 15th century, and the spread of new diseases introduced by the Spaniards, in conjunction with the harsh treatment the Spanish meted out, led to the near-annihilation of the Carib population within 25 years. The menace of French and British pirates in the 1630s, however, led the Spanish to cede the western third of the island to France in 1697. Spain had named the entire island Santo Domingo, and the French adapted it to Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti).
Under French rule the country was known as the “pearl of the Antilles,” and it flourished with sugar and coffee plantations as well as logging. The labor for these ventures was made possible by the large number of African slaves brought to the island. Between the white colonists and the African slaves, there was another social stratum—the mulattos, the offspring of the two. People of mixed African and European ancestry have remained a minority, and Africans continue to dominate the population mix.
News of the French Revolution of 1789 inspired revolts by the slaves when they realized that the new rules of equality being promoted in France would not apply to them. Free Africans on the island, however, were able to claim French citizenship under the Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man. Dutty Boukman, a Vodun priest and a slave, was the hero of the major slave revolt of 1791, even though the French decapitated him hoping, thereby, to discourage the rebels. In 1793 slavery was abolished, largely to enlist the slaves’ help in fighting off British invaders.
Once the British had been turned back, there were indications that slavery was about to be reenforced.
The ensuing rebellion culminated in the declaration of independence in 1801 by Pierre- Dominique Toussaint l’Ouverture (1745–1803), a Haitian revolutionary, and the defeat of French forces by troops led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines (? 1758–1806) on November 18, 1803. Dessalines declared Saint-Domingue independent and renamed it Haiti on January 1, 1804. This was the world’s first black republic and the first to be led by a person of African ancestry. Jacques Dessalines’s assassination in 1806 triggered major political unrest in Haiti, and the country has never enjoyed a stable political climate.
Throughout the 19th century Haiti was politically isolated and left to its own resources except for the economic interest shown by Western capitalists.
Since its independence early in the 19th century, a succession of opportunistic dictators has left the populace destitute and without direction. This isolation provided a pretext for the U.S. invasion of Haiti in 1915, and the country became a colony again, if not in name certainly in practice. Jean Vilbrun Guillaume- Sam (d. 1915), for example, the fifth president in as many years, lasted only six months as president of Haiti. Guillaume-Sam had led the revolts that brought assassinated President Cincinnatus Leconte (1854–1912) to power and the one that brought down President Oreste Zamor (1861–1915). He became president when his predecessor Joseph Davilmar Thйodore (1847–1917), was forced to resign when he could not pay the cacao workers of his militia in the overthrow of Zamor.
In his turn, Guillaume-Sam faced a revolt led by Rosalvo Bobo (1873–1929), but reacted so violently that he enraged the wealthier mulatto population, who revolted. Guillaume-Sam fled to the French embassy, but the rebels seized the embassy and found him hiding in a toilet. They threw his limp body over the embassy’s iron fence, where it was impaled. His body was then ripped apart, and the pieces were paraded through the capital. When news of the murder reached Washington, President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), with the United States embroiled in World War I, ordered the Marines to seize the capital, claiming that the turmoil could provide Germany with an opportunity to gain a foothold in the hemisphere. The U.S. occupation of Haiti lasted 19 years, and the country was governed by U.S. Marines. Representatives from the United States wielded veto power over all governmental decisions in Haiti, and Marine Corps commanders served as administrators in the provinces.
Local institutions, however, continued to be run by Haitians, as was required under policies put in place during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.
In the 1950s Franзois “Papa Doc” Duvalier (1907–71), a medical doctor, teamed up with a powerful union leader Daniel Fignolй (1914–86) to form the Mouvement Ouvriers Paysans (MOP) party.
Both men wanted to be president, but Fignolй was elected in 1957. He occupied his office, however, just 18 days, before Duvalier overthrew him and began his nearly 30-year reign. By 1964 Papa Doc was Haiti’s dictator. When he suddenly died in 1971, his 19-year-old son Jean-Claude Duvalier (“Baby Doc”) took over. Although there was some easing of government control, there were no radical changes, and Haiti muddled along as an isolated nation.
In 1986 with increasing public dissatisfaction and unrest, Baby Doc fled to France in 1986, leaving the country still impoverished and without commercial development. The United States installed a military regime after Duvalier’s departure, with General Henri Namphy (b. 1932) at its head. Once again, however, the promised constitution failed to materialize and the process of democratization was never begun. When Namphy stepped down in 1990, Jean- Bertrand Aristide (b. 1953) became president, the first to be elected in a free democratic election. After proposing an increase in the minimum wage, starting a vigorous literacy campaign and reducing human rights violations, a military coup funded by Haiti’s wealthy elite succeeded in overturning the Aristide government.
Again the United States intervened, and Aristide was returned to the presidency in 1994. But there was not much of a country remaining. There was no infrastructure, the economy was in chaos, and more than 4,000 people had been killed. Unable to run immediately for reelection, Aristide stepped aside and started a new political party, Fanmi Lavalas (the Family Lavalas Party; FLP). Although the FLP won more than 50 percent of the vote in 2000, the opposition parties protested the results and refused to take part in runoff elections. Aristide won easily again, but the opposition refused to grant legitimacy to his administration.
Aristide took office again in 2001, but he was overthrown in 2004 in a coup supported by the United States, France, and Canada and driven into exile again. An interim coalition government then took over, but the political climate remains volatile.
A UN peacekeeping force has failed to mediate the situation, and human rights activists point to what seems, by now, permanent features of the Haitian landscape—violence, rape, and extortion—that continue to mar Haiti’s international image.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
The beauty and the contrasts of the land seem perfectly matched to the country’s checkered history. It shares the West Indies island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. Haiti is a country of many contradictions— river valleys where the rivers are not navigable; the black sands and gingerbread houses of Jacmel, the white sands of Port Salut, and the ruined English fort on the tiny river island at Aquin; a fertile sunny tropical climate and a cloud forest at Macaya National Park; mountains that block the trade winds, resulting in the arid eastern part.
Haiti’s share of Hispaniola consists of two peninsulas separated by the Gonвve Gulf, and five mountain ranges cross the country: the Chaоne du Haut Piton; the Massif de la Selle, where Pic la Selle, the highest point in Haiti, reaches a height of 8,793 feet; the Massif de la Hotte at the western end of the southern peninsula; the Massif des Montagnes Noires; and Chaоne des Cahos. In spite of these mountainous regions, several large inland plains— the Plaine du Nord, the Artibonite River valley, and the Cul-de-Sac Plain—provide Haiti with its most productive agricultural terrain.
Haiti’s climate is tropical but variable due to its geographical contrasts. The average temperature at Port-au-Prince, located at sea level, is 81°F, one of the highest average annual temperatures in the West Indies, but Kenscoff, just south of Port-au-Prince, at 4,700 feet, averages 60°F. The country lies in the hurricane belt, making it vulnerable to severe storms between June and October as well as occasional flooding. In September 2004 Jeanne, a category 4 hurricane, struck the cities of Gonaпves, Port-de- Paix, and the area of Chansolme, leaving the affected areas devastated and more than 3,000 people dead.
There are also occasional droughts, and the area is also prone to earthquakes.
Haiti is the least-developed country in the Western Hemisphere and the second poorest country in the world. Eighty percent of the population lives in abject poverty, and almost 70 percent depends on subsistence farming. There has been virtually no commercial development since the mid-1990s, and the country’s inability to agree with international sponsors has resulted in a lack of much-needed economic assistance.
Extreme poverty has created a situation of desperation, and Haiti is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation and forced labor. But the majority of trafficking in Haiti involves the internal movement of children for forced domestic labor, called restaveks. The restavek tradition is widespread in Haiti, and involves situations in which poor mothers give custody of their children to more affluent families, hoping that this will give them access to an education and economic opportunities. The reality though is more a situation of severe mistreatment, abuse, and long hours of uncompensated hard labor. The interim government estimates that 90,000 to 120,000 children live and work in coercive conditions as restaveks, but UNICEF’s estimate is much higher: between 250,000 and 300,000.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
Spanish and French influence resulted in Roman Catholicism becoming the major religion although half the population continues to believe in Vodun, which was declared an official religion of Haiti in 2003. Before its official recognition Vodun was practiced clandestinely and the imposed Catholicism simply meant that Christian symbols were grafted onto traditional beliefs. Holidays like Christmas and All Saints’ Day coexist with Vodun festivals like Casse Canarie, Papa Ogou, and Simbi Blanc.
Spirituality permeates everyday Haitian life. It is an integral part of the culture, and satisfying the iwa (nature spirits and the souls of ancestors) is central.
While offerings often include toys and sacrificial animals, there are also the wonderful veve—patterns that represent a particular iwa and function as a symbol of him or her. Each spirit (iwa, or loa) has its own symbol or symbols and colors. These patterns can be painted on the walls of the prayer room or created on the altar with flour, cornmeal, charcoal, ash, gunpowder, chalk, or powdered red brick before a ceremony.
These patterns get wiped away by the ritual dancing. The spectacular prayer flags, known as Drapo Art, are spiritual flags worked with sequins and beads in veve patterns. They are stored in the altar rooms of temples when not in use and taken out for Vodun ceremonies and processions. They rank as the country’s finest form of art.
The music, drumming, and dancing associated with Vodun rituals have become an important part of Haitian culture. Percussion instruments, such as the rada and petro drums, are integral to Vodun rites: Rada is the gentle, healing, positive aspect of Vodun while petro represents the negative, aggressive aspect. Vodun songs continue to be sung in Kreyol and Langai, the languages of the ancestral religions.
Even the curiously named Vodun Jazz employs these ancient melodies. Traditional Rara music, which is played during Carnival, shares the drumming techniques and possession trances of Santerнa, and those possessed by guйdйs (members of a particular family of nature spirits) can reprimand spectators as they see fit.
Haiti’s cuisine is varied, ranging from seafood, as in accrats (breaded and fried codfish) and conch (a gastropod mollusk), to fresh seasonal vegetables, including pumpkins, the main ingredient in soupe au joumou. Haitian cooking uses many herbs, particularly basil. The more common dishes include riz djon-djon (rice and black mushrooms) and the legume (vegetable and meat stew) that can feed a family at very low cost.
When a child is born in a Haitian family, the parents try to please Hestia, the Greek goddess of the hearth. The house is her symbol, and it is traditional for the newborn to be carried around the house before being received into the family. Food, animal sacrifices, and gifts are offered to the goddess following the birth of a child. In return she is expected to provide health, protection from evil spirits, and good fortune to the newborn.
Haitians have to register with the ministry of Religious Affairs before solemnizing a Vodun marriage.
After a ceremony before a civil judge the wedding ceremony is conducted by a Vodun practitioner.
Music and dance are key elements of any Vodun marriage, and people wear white clothing. The ceremonial dance is an expression of spirituality and of connection with the divine and the spirit world.
Guests present gifts to the couple, but gifts of money are not appropriate. The wedding cake is cut at the couple’s home. Food at the reception includes conch, fried pork, and black rice prepared in the Creole style.
Haitian beliefs do not consider death to be the end of life but the beginning of a new phase. Death rituals accomplish a number of functions in the Vodun religion.
The most important is to send the gros-bon-ange (one part of the soul, understood as the life force) to Ginen (the cosmic community of ancestral spirits), after which family members can worship it as an iwa.
If the journey is not completed the gros-bon-ange can be trapped on Earth and bring misfortune to the family members. To avoid the hovering of the ti-bonange (the second part of the soul) on the dead body, a ritual called the nine nights is performed to ensure that the ti-bon-ange stays in its grave.