Haiti, in the West Indies, occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic. About the size of Maryland, Haiti is two-thirds mountainous, with the rest of the country marked by great valleys, extensive plateaus, and small plains.
Explored by Columbus on Dec. 6, 1492, Haiti’s native Arawaks fell victim to Spanish rule. In 1697, Haiti became a French colony and was a leading sugarcane producer dependent on slaves. In 1791, an insurrection erupted among the slave population of 480,000, resulting in a declaration of independence in 1801. Napoléon Bonaparte suppressed the independence movement, but it eventually triumphed in 1804 under Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who gave the new nation the Arawak name Haiti. It was the world’s first independent black republic.
The revolution wrecked Haiti’s economy. Years of strife between the light-skinned mulattos who dominated the economy and the majority black population, plus disputes with neighboring Santo Domingo, continued to hurt the nation’s development. After a succession of dictatorships, a bankrupt Haiti accepted a U.S. customs receivership from 1905 to 1941. Occupation by U.S. Marines from 1915 to 1934 brought stability. Haiti’s high population growth made it the most densely populated nation in the Western Hemisphere.
In 1949, after four years of democratic rule, dictatorship returned under Gen. Paul Magloire, followed by François Duvalier, nicknamed “Papa Doc,” in 1957. Upon Duvalier’s death in 1971, his son, Jean-Claude, or “Baby Doc,” succeeded as ruler of the poorest nation in the hemisphere. Unrest generated by the economic crisis forced Baby Doc to flee the country in 1986.
The last 2 decades have brought a continuing turnover of leadership, featuring presidents, military coups, and UN peacekeeping forces. Haitians fleeing economic privation and civil unrest continue to cross into Dominican Republic and to sail to neighboring countries.