Haiti is a country, capital Port-au-Prince, covering the western part of Hispaniola, a Caribbean island that it shares with the Dominican Republic. Most of the population of Haiti have African roots, a legacy of colonialism and slavery that also accounts for the two major languages: French is one official language, alongside Haitian Creole, a language which emerged through contact between people of diverse linguistic backgrounds. Today, the population of Haiti is about 10 million and the country is a democracy that has seen significant political instability over the years; this situation has been exacerbated by the 2010 Haiti earthquake, which claimed up to a quarter of a million lives.
Haiti is a republic with a president and prime minister. In 2010, these offices were held by René Préval (born 1943; held office 1996-2001 and from 2006) and Jean-Max Bellerive (born 1958; entered office 2009) respectively, both part of the Lespwa party ('hope' in Haitian Creole).
Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island but have distinct cultures and histories, with their differences arguably rooted in geography and climate as well as the activities of colonial France and Spain. The Dominican Republic benefits from more frequent rain falling on eastern Hispaniola, and while Haiti's colonial economy was more developed in the nineteenth century, with a much bigger population than on the Spanish side, over time the west was stripped of resources such as timber and well-managed agricultural land. The result is a higher modern population in Haiti than the Dominican Republic, and in turn a higher population density.
Haiti has seen several earthquakes over the centuries, including disasters in 1770 and 1842 which destroyed Port-au-Prince and other settlements. Large parts of the capital were again devastated in 2010, with reconstruction expected to take many years.
Haiti was the first republic led by people of African ancestry, formed in 1804. A symbol of hope for many slaves in the United States of America, Haiti also became a bone of contention for the U.S., which delayed recognition of the state until 1862 and considered invading and occupying Hispaniola during the office of President Andrew Johnson. In 1915, the U.S. finally did invade Haiti, President Woodrow Wilson opting to protect what were seen as U.S. national assets. Until 1934, the U.S followed a strongly militaristic policy in Haiti, presiding over much political instability at the time. Between 1888 and 1915, for example, not a single president of Haiti completed a full term.
Haiti's history also records the notoriety of François 'Papa Doc' Duvalier (1907-1971; president, 1957-1971) and his son Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier (born 1951; ruled 1971-1986); the Duvaliers repressed Haiti for decades, forcing thousands to flee the country. In 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was popularly elected, only to be ousted a year later. The U.S. under Bill Clinton intervened to restore Aristide to power, raising an invasion force that entered Haiti unopposed and remaining for two years. Aristide remained in office until 2004, when he left the country through U.S. intervention, following successive terms of office marked by allegations of corruption and drug trading. Aristide insisted that his removal was part of a U.S. plot, a claim strongly opposed by the U.S. government.
- BBC News: 'Why did so many people die in Haiti's quake?'. 14th February 2010.
- Guardian: 'A divided island: the forces working against Haiti'. 15th January 2010. Discussion by Jared Diamond.
- BBC News: 'The long history of troubled ties between Haiti and the US', 16th January 2010; 'Country profile: Haiti', 19th January 2010.