Area: 10,714 square miles, about the size of Maryland
Population: (2014 estimate) Haiti: 9,997,000
Port-au-Prince (city): 1.2 million; (metro area): 2.5 – 3.0 million
Terrain: Rugged mountains with small coastal plains and river valleys, and a large east-central elevated plateau
Climate: Warm, semiarid, high humidity in many coastal areas
The People: Haiti’s population is concentrated most heavily in urban areas, coastal plains and valleys. About 95 percent of Haitians are of African descent. Approximately half of the population lives in rural areas.
French is one of two official languages, but is spoken fluently by only about 10 percent of the people. Most Haitians speak Creole, the country’s other official language. English and Spanish are increasingly used as second languages among the young and in the business sector.
The dominant religion is Roman Catholicism. Increasing numbers of Haitians have converted to Protestantism through the work of missionaries active throughout the country. Much of the population also practices voudou (voodoo), recognized by the government as a religion in April 2003. Haitians tend to see no conflict in these African-rooted beliefs coexisting with Christian faith.
Access to quality education remains a key obstacle to Haiti’s social and economic development. Although public education is supposed to be free, the cost is still high for Haitian families who must pay for uniforms, textbooks, supplies and other inputs. Due to weak state provision of education services, private and parochial schools account for over 80% of primary schools, and only 65% of primary school-aged children are actually enrolled. At the secondary level, the figure drops to around 20%. Surveys indicate that approximately 35% of Haitian youth are unable to read, and the average Haitian child spends less than four years in school. Though Haitians place a high value on education, few can afford the costs. The Government of Haiti has made free and universal education a key priority. During the fall of 2011, the Government of Haiti’s Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training began the rollout of an operational plan to get 1.5 million students in school by 2016, improve curricula, train teachers, and set standards for schools.
Source: U.S. Department of State “Background Note: Haiti” and USAID Program Fact Sheets.
The island called Hispaniola was Christopher Columbus’ first stop in the region in 1492. While it became the first colony, it was soon neglected by the Spaniards as more gold and silver were found in central and southern America. The indigenous population of Arawks and Caribs were virtually exterminated by disease and abuse, reduced from about one million people to fewer than 500 survivors by 1548. French pirates established refueling camps and hideouts on the western part of the island, and a French colony with more permanent French settlers evolved. Spain formally ceded to France the western third of Hispaniola in 1697. Under the name “St. Domingue” it soon became the most prosperous colony in the New World, with its sugar, coffee, cocoa, indigo and cotton produced by slave labor imported from Africa.
A general slave revolt in1791 in the northern areas evolved into a liberation war that resulted in the abolition of slavery and the reunification of the island in 1801 under General Touissant L’ouverture, a former slave. In 1802 France attempted to restore its dominance by sending an elite expeditionary force. It was eventually crushed, and the former colony proclaimed its independence on January 1, 1804. This revolution has been considered the only successful slave revolution in modern history.
Recent Political History: The Republic of Haiti has known a turbulent history marked by numerous military dictatorships, political instability and violence. This instability provided the pretext for a U.S. military occupation of the country between 1915 and 1934, purportedly to protect its economic interests. In recent years, after almost 30 years of dictatorship under Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier (1957-1986), Haiti again went through a series of ruthless and corrupt military rulers. In December 1990, free elections brought to the presidency a Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But after only seven months in office, he was overthrown by the military in a bloody coup during which 3,000-5,000 people were killed. After three years of international embargo, a blockage and a U.S.-led international military intervention, the coup leaders eventually relented and Aristide was returned to office. In December 1995 new elections were organized and Mr. Rene Preval was elected president and served his 5-year term. In 2000 Aristide was reelected, but ousted from his presidential office again in March 2004. After a nearly two-year intervention by international peacekeepers, Preval ran again in the February 2006 presidential election and was declared the winner after some ballot counting controversy. He was elected for a five year term. In January 2010 Haiti experienced a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake, killing over 200,000 people and leaving well over a million people homeless. The earthquake caused massive destruction in Port-au-Prince with most buildings crumbled, including the Presidential palace. Presidential and parliamentary elections were held in November 2010 with controversial results and a subsequent runoff election. In April 2011 Michel Martelly was declared the winner, taking office in May 2011. A former musician and businessman popularly known as “Sweet Mickey”, Martelly appointed Laurent Lamothe as prime minister in 2012. Elections for one third of the Senate and various municipal posts were to have been held in late 2011 but have been postponed many times due to disputes over elections law. Those elections are currently scheduled for November 2016.
Source: Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Haiti Brochure; various news articles