Haiti occupies the western side of Hispaniola, an island it shares with the Dominican Republic. Haiti is a rough and mountainous country about the size of Maryland. Located in the Caribbean, Haiti has a tropical climate and for many years the island enjoyed lush and fertile land. Unfortunately, the forests of Haiti have recently been disappearing at an alarming rate. Deforestation (to make charcoal for fuel) has become a major problem which has led to the erosion of Haiti’s rich topsoil. To make matters worse, the US has flooded the Haitian market with cheap goods making it difficult for local farmers to compete and rendering the people dependent on imports. Hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes are present challenges as well.
While Hispaniola was ‘discovered’ by Columbus in 1492, it was already home to the Tainos. As the island was colonized, they were eventually overcome by disease and conflict. Hispaniola was overlooked at first because its lack of gold, but soon became a leader in the sugar and coffee trades. This was only made possible by the importation of tens of thousands of African slaves. Life on the sugar plantations was especially brutal, and in 1803 Haiti became the first black republic as the people not only declared their independence from France, but overthrew their plantation owners as well. What followed was a series of difficult governments which included such dictators as the notorious “Papa Doc” Duvalier, his son “Baby Doc”, and most recently Aristide who was exiled in 2004. Other countries have often had a hand in Haiti’s politics, especially the US, Canada, and France. The past few years had been a time of relative peace—less political unrest and fewer kidnappings. However, on January 12, 2010 a 7.0-magnitude earthquake shook the country to its core, killing over 230,000 and leaving a million homeless.
Just over 9 million people live in Haiti, with nearly a third of them concentrated near the capital, Port-au-Prince. Not only is Haiti the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, but many factors suggest that over the past three decades the country has actually been falling behind other developing countries. Most Haitians survive on less than $2 (US) a day. A free, public education is not widely available, leaving about half the country illiterate. Of those that do attend school and go on to graduate from college, only 20% remain in Haiti. Extreme poverty has turned over 225,000 children into restavecs (unpaid servants), a modern form of slavery. Poverty, political unrest, and natural disasters have all had a significant impact on the country, but the people of Haiti maintain their resiliency and courage as they face the future in spite of the hardships they’ve endured.