Christopher Columbus landed on the tiny island he called, "La isla espanola" in December 1492 (The name was later shortened to Hispanola). The island was inhabited by local Arawak Indians who referred to their home as "Hayti", or mountainous land. In keeping with imperialistic ideology, the Spaniards used and abused the native Arawaks to the point of near extinction.

It's location and lush soil made Haiti a treasure constantly sought after by Britain, France and Spain. Finally, by the middle of the 17th century the island became a French colony.

Under French rule Haiti flourished. Haitian products were in great demand in the European market and the tiny island became invaluable as a resource for cocoa, cotton, sugar cane and coffee.

Unfortunately, the great demands for these products also created a demand for inexpensive labor. The French, as the Spanish before them looked to Africa as a solution to the labor problem. They imported slaves from the west coast of Africa.

By 1780, Haiti was one of the wealthiest regions in the world. France relied heavily on the slave trade to maintain its economic base. This created a number of problems that would later affect the future of Haiti.

First, the slaves brought with them the religious practices of voodoo which for them was more a lifestyle than a religion.

Second, the French treated the slaves with undue harshness creating hatred amid an already resentful environment.

Third, a class of mulattos arose from the relations of the slave owners and the slaves.

In 1791, a successful slave revolt was initiated against the French. The Haitian slaves ousted Napoleon, and by 1804, the island becomes the first black independent nation, with General Dessalines declaring himself emperor.

With power comes abuse and the abuses of Dessalines led to his assassination. He was followed by Henri Christophe, an illiterate ex-slave who ruled in the north and Alexandre Petion, a mulatto who ruled in the south. When Christophe died the north and south united. In 1844, the island split into two countries, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

The tiny country of Haiti was in a state of anarchy, poverty was rampant and there was no one with the support or ability to rule and govern fairly. The class system was ever present with the wealthy at one extreme and the poor at the other.

By 1915, American marines stepped in to calm the situation. The occupation had both positive and negative effects. Thanks to the Marines, the infrastructure of the country was enhanced. Paved roads, houses, hospitals and sewage systems were built.

However, once again the Haitians found themselves in an occupied state and their rulers were white. This resulted in even greater power for the lighter skinned Haitians.

When the Americans left in 1934 the country was still in shambles. There was a constant struggle for power between the Catholic Church and the followers of voodoo. The United States fruit companies that settled and developed on lands taken from Haitian peasants were a source of constant tension. Many leaders came and went but no one united or moved the nation forward.

In 1957, Francois Duvalier, "Papa Doc", declared himself "President for life". Fear ruled the nation under Duvalier and his Tontons Macoutes. Terror reigned under the police repression of his government.

Unfortunately, even that stable, structured government didn't help the people economically, educationally or otherwise. With the death of Duvalier, his son Jean Claude, ("Baby Doc") came into power.

Life under Baby Doc was only slightly better for the Haitian people than before. His rule was tainted with crimes of repression and a plundering of the riches of the country. Finally, Baby Doc was exiled to France.

After the exile, the country was ridden with mass massacres and rigged elections. Today, power goes back and forth from one leader to the next without any positive results for the people.

In 1990, a priest from the slums of Port Au Prince was elected by 67% of the people. Jean Bertrand Aristide was seen as the first leader of the people since 1804. The rooster emblem of Aristide replaced the guinea faun worn by the Tontons Macoutes.

In 1991, a military coup ended the Aristide presidency and he went into exile. The Organization of American States imposed a strict embargo against Haiti causing the country great economic hardship.

Many Haitians tried to escape by boat only to suffer death or relocation to camps at Guantanomo, Cuba. Today, Haiti is still struggling with poverty and instability. Elections have failed to produce leadership that can deal with the many problems of this tiny country.

Carnival is the most anticipated cultural event of the year in Haiti. It draws from elements of the African and French customs, including music, masquerades and dancing. A flair in the music that comes from Haiti is zook, which is a mixture of African and French Creole. Pageants and floats are in the streets and everyone have a great time. To see this spectacular, plan to vsit Haiti during the last week in February.


Information provided courtesy of: Caribbean Association Midwest America