Haiti History


The Spaniards used Hispaniola (of which Haiti is the western part and the Dominican Republic is the eastern) as a launching point to explore the rest of the Western Hemisphere. French buccaneers later used the western third of the island as a point from which to harass English and Spanish ships. In 1697, Spain ceded the western third of Hispaniola to France. As piracy was gradually suppressed, some French adventurers became planters, making Saint-Domingue--as the French portion of the island was then called--one of the richest colonies of the 18th century French empire.

During this period, African slaves were brought to work the sugarcane and coffee plantations. In 1791, the slave population--led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe--revolted and gained control of the northern part of Saint-Domingue.

In 1804, local forces defeated an army deployed by Napoleon Bonaparte, established independence from France, and renamed the area Haiti. The defeat of the French in Haiti is widely credited with contributing to Napoleon's decision to sell the Louisiana territory to the United States in 1804. Haiti is the world's oldest black republic and the second-oldest republic after the United States in the Western Hemisphere. Haitians actively assisted the American Revolution and independence movements of Latin American countries.

Two separate regimes (north and south) emerged after independence but were unified in 1820. Two years later, Haiti conquered Santo Domingo, the eastern, Spanish-speaking portion of Hispaniola. In 1844, however, Santo Domingo broke away from Haiti and became the Dominican Republic. With 22 changes of government from 1843 until 1915, Haiti experienced numerous periods of intense political and economic disorder, prompting United States military intervention in 1915. U.S. military forces were withdrawn in 1934 at the request of the elected Government of Haiti.

From 1986--when the 30-year dictatorship of the Duvalier family ended--until 1991, Haiti was ruled by a series of provisional governments. In 1987, a constitution was adopted that provides for an elected bicameral parliament, an elected president who serves as head of state, and a prime minister, cabinet of ministers, and supreme court appointed by the president with Parliament's consent. The Haitian Constitution also provides for the election of mayors and administrative bodies responsible for local government.

Aristide and the 1991 Coup d'Etat

In December 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a charismatic Roman Catholic priest, won 67% of the vote in a presidential election that international observers deemed largely free and fair. Aristide took office in February 1991, but was overthrown by dissatisfied elements of the army and forced to leave the country in September of the same year. It is estimated that between 300 and 500 Haitians were killed in the days following the September coup, and 3,000 in the following three years. The coup created a large-scale exodus from the country; in fact, the U.S. Coast Guard rescued a total of 41,342 Haitians from 1991 to 1992, more than the number of rescued refugees from the previous 10 years combined.

From October 1991 to June 1992, Joseph Nerette, as president, led an unconstitutional de facto regime and governed with a parliamentary majority and the armed forces. In June 1992, he resigned and Parliament approved Marc Bazin as prime minister of a de facto government with no replacement named for president. Bazin sought to negotiate a solution with exiled President Aristide and to end the economic embargo and diplomatic isolation of Haiti imposed after Aristide's ouster. In June 1993, Bazin resigned and the UN imposed an oil and arms embargo, bringing the Haitian military to the negotiating table.

Transition to Democracy

President Aristide and Gen. Raoul Cedras, head of the Haitian armed forces, signed the UN-brokered Governors Island Agreement on July 3, 1993, establishing a 10-step process for the restoration of constitutional government and the return of President Aristide by October 30, 1993. As part of this process, Robert Malval was sworn in as Prime Minister on August 30, 1993. The military derailed the process and the UN reimposed economic sanctions. Malval resigned on December 15, 1993, but remained as acting Prime Minister for 11 more months. The political and human rights climate continued to deteriorate as the military and the de facto government sanctioned repression, assassination, torture, and rape in open defiance of the international community's condemnation.

In May 1994, the military selected Supreme Court Justice Emile Jonassaint to be provisional president of its third de facto regime. The UN and the U.S. reacted to this extraconstitutional move by tightening economic sanctions (UN Resolution 917). On July 31, 1994, the UN adopted Resolution 940 authorizing member states to use all necessary means to facilitate the departure of Haiti's military leadership and restore constitutional rule and Aristide's presidency.

In August 1994, Haiti had parallel governments, the illegitimate military-backed Jonassaint regime that controlled the government apparatus in Haiti, and the constitutional government, whose members, like President Aristide, were in exile or who, like acting Prime Minister Malval, were blocked from carrying out their duties.

In the weeks that followed, the United States took the lead in forming a multinational force (MNF) to carry out the UN's mandate by means of a military intervention. In September, with U.S. troops prepared to enter Haiti in a matter of hours, President Clinton dispatched a negotiating team led by former President Jimmy Carter to discuss with the de facto Haitian leadership the terms of their departure. As a result, the MNF deployed peacefully, Cedras and other top military leaders left Haiti, and restoration of the legitimate government began, leading to Aristide's return on October 15.

Current Conditions

Elections for parliament and local government offices were held successfully between June and October 1995, although they were delayed by seven months and marred by serious administrative problems and some violence. President Aristide's Lavalas party and its affiliates swept into power at all levels. In the December 1995 presidential election, with Aristide barred by the Haitian Constitution from succeeding himself, prominent Lavalas figure Rene Preval (who was Aristide's first prime minister in 1991) overwhelmed his 13 opponents by garnering 88% of the vote and took office the following February. Territorial elections designed to decentralize political power were held in early April 1997. The government of Prime Minister Rosny Smarth resigned on June 9, 1997. He continued in caretaker status until November 1997.

With the situation in Haiti gradually stabilizing, the international security presence has been reduced. The MNF, which at one time had more than 20,000 troops in Haiti, gave way in March 1995 to a UN peacekeeping mission (UN Mission in Haiti) under U.S. leadership, including about 6,000 troops. By mid-1996, the UN forces no longer included any U.S. military personnel, and the UN Special Mission in Haiti (UNSMIH) had been scaled back to about 600 troops under Canadian leadership, as well as 300 international police monitors from six different countries. The UNSMIH mission, originally set to expire at the end of November 1996, was extended through July 31, 1997. The United Nations Transition Mission in Haiti (UNTMIH) replaced UNSMIH to November 30, 1997. The 12-month UN Civilian Police Mission in Haiti (MIPONUH) was established by the Security Council and began operations on December 1, 1997, after the conclusion of UNSMIH. Its 300 authorized civilian police (CIVPOL) are divided into two groups. Up to 160 CIVPOL mentors, including 30 U.S. police officers, are tasked with bringing the Haitian National Police (HNP) to levels of operational competence required before UN specialized agencies, including the UN Development Program (UNDP), can assume responsibility for further long-term institutional development. The remaining 140 CIVPOL are Argentine gendarmes who, as part of a special police unit (SPU), are on call to ensure the safety of CIVPOL from situations where HNP may not be able to do so. MIPONUH does not have a military element.

The judicial system in Haiti is still weak and remains a high priority for international donors. USAID programs focus on improving administration in prosecutors' offices and the courts, establishing a case-tracking system, legal aid, and training for judges, court, and prosecutorial staff. International and Haitian officials are cooperating to investigate several high-profile murders that may have been politically motivated, including the murders of opposition politicians Antoine Leroy and Mireille Durocher Bertin. The U.S. Government helped the Government of Haiti set up a Special Investigative Unit within the Haitian National Police, and the investigation of several of these crimes is in progress. Steps have been taken to end the culture of impunity that has dominated Haiti for decades. The Office of Inspector General of the Haitian National Police investigates complaints against police officers, and around 200 have been dismissed. Training continues in an effort to build the fledgling National Police into a non-political, fully professional force committed to the rule of law.

source: U.S. State Department Background Notes 1998

  • Brief History

  • Main Country Page

  • Vital Statistics

  • Embassy Info

  • home vital stats history listings embassy listings guide books faq

    home history stats embassies