By John Ceravino
The republic of Haiti has a rich and complicated history. It has long been plagued with scandal and brutality and even before the devastating earthquake that has brought this island into public eye, it remained the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.
The history and beginnings of Haiti have close similarities to that of the United States. Christopher Columbus landed his ship the Santa Maria in Haiti in 1492, and claimed the island in the name of Spain. The Taino Indians inhabited the island and resisted Columbus’ attempt at starting settlements, and this marked the beginning of the violence that has been such a big part of Haitian history. It wasn’t long until the Spaniards realized they could exploit the island and its people through gold. The indigenous people were forced to work the mines or face slavery and even death. The Spaniards also brought them infectious diseases to which the people had no immunity. The Spanish kingdom tried with no success to rule the land. They tried to enforce laws regarding maltreatment of the natives and conversion but struggled in doing so.
Meanwhile, Haiti remained extremely important as a gateway to the Caribbean. It provided colonies the chance to impede Spanish ships. They were constantly raided over the years and the Spanish rule began to diminish. The French residents that occupied the island of Tartuga were able to survive by eating the wild game and pirating Spanish ships. The first permanent settlement on Tortuga was established under the commission of King Louis XIV in 1659. Through more encroachments like this and the French West India Company, Spain officially relinquished the area to France in the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697.
By the mid-18th century, France attempted to prove if the island was not neglected, it could be a rich colony. By the time of the French Revolution, the territory was the richest in the Western Hemisphere, producing about 60 percent of the world’s coffee and 40 percent of the sugar. This is the time where modern Haitian society began to form.
The modern Haiti population was formed by the slave trade, with wealthy white colonists taking on African concubines and having mulattoe children. This eventually led to a caste system with the upper class imposing severe restrictions on the lower class regarding everything from clothing to professions.
The first signs of revolt came in the mid 1700s. Groups of runaway slaves, referred to as maroons, hid in the forest and attacked using guerrilla warfare. This developed into the 1791 Slave Rebellion, which in turn became the Haitian Revolution. This was a series of rebellions in which European settlers used the racial tension between blacks and mulattoes to their advantage. In 1791, the French were taken over. The maroons quickly turned their oppression into revenge, slaughtering any whites in their way. Their trademark was to carry a pike with an impaled white baby. Fires were set too, as anything that belonged to a slaveholder was destroyed.
This quickly caught the attention of Spain and Britain. They attacked and successfully took over Port-au-Prince. As they encroached upon Saint-Domingue, their forces thinned due to illness and other varying factors. It was then that FranÃ§ois-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, a revolutionary born in Saint-Domingue, had to cast aside his goal of emancipation and pledge his support to France. He was still weary of a white man in power and proceeded to go behind his allies back. He believed that only black leadership would lead to emancipation. By May of 1800, Toussaint held control over all of Haiti.
He maintained a military dictatorship and forced his people to work labor driven jobs. He believed that exporting would be the key to success. A constitution was approved in 1801 that appointed Toussaint governor general for life. This success would be short-lived though, as Napoleon Bonaparte eyed the island. He raided them with an army of around 15,000. With the help of white colonists, the French defeated Toussaint, and he had no choice but to surrender in May of 1802. He would die in a French dungeon due to neglect a year later. By that time France had re-engaged in war with Britain. After signing the Purchase of Louisiana, Bonaparte effectively ended France’s interest in the western hemisphere. This ended the Haitian-French colonial rule once and for all.
On January 1, 1804, Haiti became the first independent black republic. Although this became a great symbol to those still being oppressed, Haiti took on a nonintervention creed. They feared another great power would come in and have a renewed interest in their land and people. Dessalines, commander in the final stages of the revolution, became the new leader. He ruled as a dictator under the same constitution that came about in 1801.
Dessalines was a former slave and held a deep resentment towards whites. Again the whites were slaughtered and life in Haiti didn’t improve. The land and the people were decimated by the years of warfare in their homeland. The plantation system was again restored. Harsh punishments were handed out to any who refused to work or ran away. This marked a pattern of military involvement in politics for over 150 years. It also presented a divide between blacks and mulattoes and finally split the two rivals and the nation in two. Many people succeeded Dessalines, all with similar problems and instability.
From 1843 to 1915, 22 leaders took office to lead the Haitian people. Only one of them would finish his term. The others were poisoned, attacked by a mob, or simply disposed of. In 1915, the United States intervened.
Washington D.C. was granted control over Haiti’s finances, as well as authority over appointing leaders. They also were to set up a public health system and to supervise government affairs. Initially, the Haitians rebelled against the American marines. The marines quickly restored order, something never witnessed by Haitian people. The Americans that maintained order were prejudiced and this caused disdain among the upper class mulattoes. Even though racial tension still hung over the island, some things actually improved. Roads were expanded and improved and almost all roads led to Port-au-Prince. This made all economic activity to gravitate to the capitol. The country began to grow by leaps and bounds. Towns gained access to clean water and bridges and a telephone system were constructed. Schools, hospitals and other buildings were restructured and public health began to improve.
Before his death in 1971, Duvalier appointed his son as the new leader of the country. Jeane-Claude Duvalier was only nineteen when he became the next ‘president for life.’ It was then that the U.S. restored its aide to Haiti. Duvalier gained massive wealth through the tobacco industry, and while doing so, greatly neglected the people of Haiti. The poverty and low standard of health care led to out break of diseases such as AIDS. Over the years he immensely angered his country. He had a $3 million wedding in which he wed a mulatto. The sheer price of the wedding and the color of his new wife’s skin further alienated him from his people. In 1986, President Reagan pressured Duvalier to resign and he initially accepted only to renounce his pledge. Rioting ensued in the streets and made its way to the capitol and America once again cut financial ties with Haiti. Duvalier finally departed in 1986, leaving behind a country decimated and extremely poor. By 1987, a new constitution was decidedly approved by the population. But the elections were aborted hours dozens of civilians were shot in the capital and countless others were ravaged by the soldiers.
By 1990, Jean Aristide was elected President. Although he was a former priest, he begged supporters to kill his opposing government officials. He was overthrown a few days later. Chaos ensued until 1994 when President Clinton successfully negotiated the departure of Haiti’s military leaders and the entry of U.S. forces under Operation Uphold Democracy. This also paved the way for Aristide to return to office. He immediately disbanded the existing army and created a civilian police force. Aristide vacated his office in 1996, the scheduled end of his original term. The new decade gave the presidency back to Aristide.
Opposition was everywhere and even the election was boycotted. Violence continued to plague the country and the nation’s radio stations were bombed and journalists were massacred. The people of Haiti revolted once again in 2004. This led to Aristide fleeing the country again. This marked the beginning of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. The current mission is authorized until October of 2010. Even a UN mission is marred by instances of violence. In 2005, they were supposedly raiding armed rebels, who were in fact civilians who supported Aristide.