African DiasporaAmericasHaiti

History of Haiti

The island of Hispaniola was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. It was then inhabited by two indigenous populations: the Arawaks and the Caribbean. Both will be quickly decimated by the forced labor (gold mining) to which the Spaniards subject them. To replace this labor, the settlers called on African slaves. Along with the Mulattoes (mestizos), they are the ancestors of the vast majority of Haitians.

In the mid-16th century, with the gold mine running out, the Spaniards concentrated their efforts on the western part of the island. Despite their efforts to repel them, it was then the French who settled on the land abandoned by the Spaniards. These new settlers also resorted to African slaves, this time to work on the sugar and coffee plantations.

In 1697, the Spaniards recognized the sovereignty of the French over the western part of the island. The latter founded their capital, Port-au-Prince, there in 1749. Of all the European colonies in the New World, the one then called “French Santo Domingo” became the most lucrative, even ahead of the United States. At the end of the 18th century, 700,000 black slaves were employed in the plantations, supervised by 30,000 whites.

The time of revolt

In 1791, the blacks began to revolt, led by their leaders, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe, Alexandre Pétion and Toussaint Louverture who, after briefly rallying to the French government, took up arms against France. The end of this war of liberation was marked by the surrender of the French army in 1803. Independence was proclaimed a few months later, making Haiti the first free black republic.

If the declaration of the Act of Independence drafted in 1804 stipulates the intention “… to assure forever to the natives of Haiti a stable government”, the facts will contradict it greatly. Between 1804 and 1957, out of 36 heads of state, 24 were assassinated or overthrown. The first of them, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, only remained in office for two years, until his assassination. The longevity record is held by Jean-Pierre Boyer who, after annexing the Spanish part of the island, ruled for 25 years.

In 1825, Charles X, King of France, finally recognized the country’s independence. But not for free. He demands the payment of compensation of 150 million gold francs. After negotiation, the sum is reduced to 90 million. Despite new taxes, as heavy as they are unpopular, it will take Haiti more than a hundred years to pay off this debt.

The U.S. period

As early as 1910, the United States began to settle in Haiti and take it over. They build railroads there and drive out peasants without title deeds. In 1915, using the pretext of the First World War, they militarily occupied the country. In fact, they are only defending the interests of one of their merchant banks. In 1918, to fight a general insurrection, Washington set up a government at its command while retaining a right of veto over government decisions. During this period, 40% of state revenues are controlled by Americans.

Haitians are, from the outset, very hostile to the occupier, who does not hesitate to shoot them by the hundreds when it feels necessary. The United States is nevertheless helping to modernize the country in terms of its infrastructure (telephone, roads, lighting, etc.). During the occupation, the American repression left at least 15,000 dead and caused the departure of nearly 250,000 peasants to Cuba and the Dominican Republic. The United States left Haiti under Roosevelt’s presidency in 1934. In the midst of the global economic crisis, political instability returned.

The Duvaliers

After a very turbulent period in which the army wielded power, François Duvalier, known as “Papa Doc”, was elected president. From the start of his mandate, he imposed a dictatorial policy: banning opposition parties, establishing a state of siege, using a paramilitary militia, the infamous “tonton macoutes”. With the help of this personal guard, he neutralized the army and, in 1964, proclaimed himself “president for life”. By modifying the Constitution, he designates his son Jean-Claude as successor.

In 1971, 19-year-old Jean-Claude Duvalier became president of the country. Because of his very young age, he is nicknamed “Baby Doc”. Like his father, he holds the country with an iron fist, but due to corruption and incompetence his regime is bogged down. He ended up being overthrown in 1986 by a popular uprising and took refuge in France. A military junta then resumed power, replaced by a coup d’etat by a general (Prosper Avril), forced to resign in 1990, which allowed the organization of elections under international control.

Glimmer of hope

At the end of these elections, a Catholic priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide is elected president. Whoever made himself the advocate of the poor gives some hope to the Haitian people. But less than a year after his election, he was overthrown by a military junta and took refuge in the United States. It was the return of great economic and political instability that decided the Americans to intervene militarily, in 1994. Aristide was then reinstated in his functions but, at the end of his mandate, gave way the following year to his former prime minister. , René Préval.

The new president tries to put some order in the institutions of the country but he manages to form a coalition government only in 1998, after several political assassinations. In 2000, Aristide’s controversial return to the helm of the country. His election is indeed marked by many irregularities which plunge the country into yet another period of unrest. Fearing a new coup, “Titid” as he is called, tightens the screw and becomes as authoritarian as many of his predecessors. He resigned in 2004, just before the arrival of an international force sent by the UN to restore order in the capital. In February 2006, after a chaotic counting of the votes, René Préval was once again elected to the presidency. He is followed by Michel Martelly (2011-2016) and Jovenel Moïse (since 2016)

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