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Occupying the western portion of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, Haiti was the first black-led republic and the first independent nation in Latin America and the Caribbean. Its long history of political violence, economic instability and natural disasters have contributed, however, to its current status as the poorest country in the Americas, with the legacies of the 2004 coup and the 2010 earthquake still felt particularly keenly. The current situation is difficult to assess, but sexual violence, abuse of women and children, violations of rights by security forces and human trafficking are all known to continue.
Haiti is a Caribbean country, located on the western portion of the island of Hispaniola, part of the Greater Antillean Archipelago. Its immediate neighbour, occupying the larger portion of the island, is the Dominican Republic. Haiti is the third largest Caribbean country, behind Cuba and the Dominican Republic. In addition to its territory on Hispaniola itself, Haiti also includes several smaller coastal islands, including the famous isle of Latòti, better known by its Spanish name of Tortuga. The capital is Port-au-Prince.
Haiti’s name derives from the indigenous Taíno word for land of high mountains, which reflects the island's rugged interior landscape. Unfortunately, the geological situation of the Haiti has also been a source of great destruction, being situated over a major fault. As a result, the island has suffered numerous devastating earthquakes, the most recent of which in 2010 is estimated to have killed as many as 85000 people. In addition to the threat of seismic activity, Haiti is also at risk from the frequent hurricanes that pass through the Caribbean, disrupting its normally tropical climate.
Population and Language
The majority of the population of Haiti is of predominantly West African descent. In addition to this, there also exists a smaller population who identify as mulatto, or mixed race. Though now only about five percent of the population, historically mulatto families have formed a key social strata in Haitian society. The remainder of the population includes small Hispanic groups, primarily from other parts of the Caribbean. While Haiti’s population is around ten million it is also a major source of migrant worker in both the Carribean and elsewhere in the Americas. A result, a significant number of Haitians live outside of the country, often sending back remittances which are a major part of the economy.
The official languages of Haiti are Haitian Creole and French. The former, based on a historical form of French combined with elements of West African languages. While much of the vocabulary has a superficial resemblance to modern French, many of the grammatical features such as sentence structure derive from African sources, particularly the Fon languages spoken in modern day Benin. Due to its proximity to several hispanophone countries, including the Dominican Republic, Spanish is a common secondary language.
The island is predominantly Christian, with around eighty percent identifying as Catholic and most of the remainder professing Protestantism. A proportion of the population also practice, sometimes alongside Catholicism a continuation or reinvention of African religious practices referred to as Vodou. Partly resulting from French attempts to suppress traditional beliefs amongst black slaves brought to Haiti, Vodou combines elements from Roman Catholicism with a cosmology derived from West African Vodoun. Often confused with similar but distinct practices such as Louisiana Voodoo and caricatured depictions in popular culture, Vodou occupies a unique cultural and religious place on the island.
History and politics
The indigenous Taíno people once inhabited the island now known as Hispaniola, but were almost entirely eradicated during the century after conquest by Spain through a combination of exposure to disease and the cruelty of the colonial power. An Anglo-French pirate haven on the isle of Tortuga in the north west of Hispaniola evolved into a French colony across that whole portion of the island, which became a major destination for African slaves, numbering in their hundred of thousands. The harsh conditions and short life expectancy meant that this population was constantly being replaced by new arrivals- though a number of slaves escaped into the forests to continue guerilla war against the French colonies. Children born from mixed race couples soon became a major social group in the colony - free peoples who could inherit property but not recognised fully as citizens, creating an emerging “mulatto” or gens de couleur class, many of whom became land and even slave owners.
During the French revolution, representatives of the mulatto population in Paris pressed a claim to full citizenship for their people. While accepted by the new government in Paris, the royal governor of Haiti refused and a 1790 rebellion failed after the mulatto landowners refused to free and arm their the slaves. In August 1791, however, a new rebellion started amongst the free black population of the island; storming plantations, freeing slaves and killing colonists. Attempting to maintain control of the territory, representatives of the radical government in Paris freed the black population in 1793 to fight the conservative white colonist. With the French governments hold on the island slipping, a freed slave turned military leader called Toussaint Louverture came to the fore, whose forces soon controlled both the French and Spanish territories of the island, freeing slaves in both. After defeating a French attempt at reoccupation during the time of Napoleon, a black republic was finally established in 1804, though its survival was contingent on paying punishing reparations to its former colonial power. Control of the whole island did not last, however, as a succession of violent and divided government eventually led to the breakaway of the largely Spanish influenced east into the Dominican Republic in 1844.
Haitian politics for the next century were largely chaotic, with numerous coups and weak or unstable governments. Though it became home to a growing intellectual movement and was an inspiration for both independence and emancipation struggles across the Americas, the country remained heavily indebted and characterised by periods of political violence. An American occupation from 1915 to 1934 led to oppression and economic exploitation, but also allowed the development of unitary political institutions. The following decades saw alternating periods of democracy and coups, often based around tensions between populists, the entrenched elites and American interests - particularly the United Fruits Company. In 1957, François Duvalier emerged as the new president of Haiti, winning the support of both the military and the elections of that year. Initially seen as a moderate candidate and nicknamed “Papa Doc”, his rule would last until 1971 and be characterised by extreme violence, including the mass use of rape as a weapon against political opposition and popular belief in Vodou to inspire terror amongst the population and loyalty from his militias. While Duvalier’s death led to slight reduction in the brutality of the regime, his son (popularly known as “Baby Doc”) intensified the looting of Haiti’s fragile public finances increasing the poverty and vulnerability of the population. While the younger Duvalier was Overthrown by the army in 1986, elections in the following years were followed rapidly by bloody coups. The last of these in 1991 saw Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a populist former Roman Catholic priest, overthrown. The brutality of the new military regime drove tens of thousands into exile. The resultant refugee flow to the United States and a UN security council resolution authorising action to facilitate the end of military rule in Haiti led to President Bill Clinton dispatching US troops to oversee the restoration of Aristide in 1994. After losing the 1996 election, Aristide returned to power in 2000 after the main opposition boycotted the vote. Aristide’s populist economic policies and attempts to solidify his own power base alienated both traditional elites and the United States, however, and contributed to his overthrow once again in a 2004 coup de tat, which his supporters maintain was backed by international interests. Forced into exile, Aristide was replaced by an interim government and forced into exile while UN peacekeepers were also deployed to the island. Over the next few years, Haiti would see a series of natural disasters, with major hurricanes in 2004 and 2008 and the earthquake of 2010. The latter caused enormous damage, leaving tens of thousands dead and many more homeless. The ineffectual government response, failures in handling the post-disaster health and housing crises and conflicting agendas at work in international relief efforts have been widely criticised. Aristide returned to Haiti once again in 2011, but was barred from standing in that year’s election, which was disputed but saw Michel Martelly, perceived by some as being aligned with the interests behind the 2004 coup, take power.
While Haitian politics is frequently chaotic and peaceful transfers of power have been the exception rather than the rule durings it history, it is currently nominally a semi-presidential republic with a multi-party political system. The president is head of state and appoints the prime minister as head of government - between them, they share executive power. The legislature consists of two chambers, modelled after the French system and elected at either four or six year intervals . The legal system is modelled on Roman civil law, with a Court of Cassation as the highest court, but has been paralysed by absence or invalid appointment of judges.
Haiti is both one of the poorest and most unequal countries in the world. GDP per capita is around $725. Already in a dire economic situation before the earth quake of 2010, recovery efforts have been slow. Much of the islands income is dependent on agriculture, which has been severely hampered by continuing bad weather including a major drought in 2012. Other industries include low skilled labour mass producing clothing. Tourism has represented a significant source of income in the past and continues to play a big part in the economies of other countries in the region, including Haiti’s immediate neighbour the Dominican Republic, but political instability and fears of violence have limited the development of this sector.
While Haiti’s situation in regards to political and civil rights has improved somewhat in recent years, there are still major issues of concern. Haiti is rated “partly free” by Freedom house, with numerous reports of harassment and intimidation of human rights campaigners. While there is an active civil society in Haiti with many local grassroots and self help organisations, these groups are also under a great deal of pressure to ally themselves with competing political and economic elite interests and run the risk of being co opted. While there are few formal blocks on press freedom there is little protection provided for journalists either, leading to widespread self censorship in the face of threats by both the governing party and other factions. The media landscape is dominated by radio, which remains the most important means of communication in Haiti. As a result, radio journalists and support staff are frequent targets for violence by hostile interests.
Corruption in Haiti is extremely high - ranked by Transparency International as 165 of 176 worldwide in terms of perceptions of corrupt practices. This impacts every aspect of Haitian society, impeding the rule of law, economic progress and the democratic process.
Child Rights and Human Rights
The effects of the earthquake and the low capacity of the Haitian government to protect or implement rights mean that the country continues to suffer from severe problems. Delivery of key services like healthcare, education and poverty relief remains a major failing. The general situation of insecurity also creates a number of rights related problems, including high levels of crime and violence - particularly sexual violence against both women and men. Children are frequently brought into the struggles and contests for power between national and local groups, including carrying arms and working as carriers for criminal gangs.. Human trafficking is another major concern, with large numbers of people, particularly women and children moved outside of the country to work in often exploitative conditions. Haiti is also home to a particularly persistent practice of child labour - the Restavec system. Pre-2010 estimates suggested that around 250,000 children, the majority of them girls, were kept in bonded labour, sent from poor families to live as servants or workers in other households in exchange for food and shelter. Restavecs are frequently forced to live in very harsh conditions and are extremely vulnerable to abuse - particularly sexual abuse. While outlawed by the Haitian government, implementation of the law has been lacking and it still continues in many areas.
- Fletcher Forum of World Affairs Haiti Three Years After the Earthquake: An Interview with Jonathan M. Katz - A critical look at the response to the 2010 earthquake.
- Amnesty International Aftershocks: Women Speak Out Against Sexual Violence in Haiti’s Camps
- Human Rights Watch 2012 Report Country Chapter - Haiti