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Home Country Haiti: History, Government, Economy, Geography, Culture and More.

Haiti: History, Government, Economy, Geography, Culture and More.

Haiti is a sovereign nation located on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean Sea. It shares the island with another sovereign nation, Dominican Republic. The current population of Haiti is about 11.1 million people as of 2018. The total size of the country is approximately 10,714 square miles (or 27,750 sq km).

Haiti is the second-most populous Caribbean nation, with the first being Cuba. Its ethnic groups consist of 95% black and 5% other. As far as religion goes, nearly 87% of Haitians practice the Christian faith and the rest either identify has non-religious or practice some type of folk religion. Folklore is more commonly practiced in smaller Haitian towns and villages, where fewer outside cultures have influenced them.

The two official languages of the country are French and Haitian Creole, but the secondary language of English is spoken in the touristy areas of the country to accommodate foreigners. The capital city of Port-au-Prince, for instance, contains English, French, and Haitian Creole speakers.

Sans-Souci Palace, Cap-Haitien, Haiti, Photo by Steve Bennett
Sans-Souci Palace, Cap-Haitien, Haiti, Photo by Steve Bennett

History

The history of Haiti can be traced all the way back to the year 5,000 B.C., which was a time before the country itself even existed. There was only the island and its natural inhabitants, otherwise known as Native Americans. These are the same Native Americans that existed in Central American and South America.

Experts believe these Native Americans traveled to Hispaniola island at a time when it was uninhabited and then populated it with their people. But there weren’t any farming villages or signs of economic development until around 300 B.C. It was about this time when communities and groups of people are developed and identified.

An Arawak group known as the “Taino” became the primary inhabitants of the western region of Hispaniola, which became modern day Haiti. It is estimated that between 1 to 2 million Taino were already living on the island by the time the European settlers arrived there. The Taino were very active in trading pottery, gold jewelry, fish, fruits and vegetables.

The Taino people are believed to have been migrants from South America. They dominated the island until Christopher Columbus and other European explorers had settled in the Americas around the turn of the 16th century. Columbus named the island “La Isla Espanola,” which translates to the Spanish Island. When the English later inhabited the Americas, the Espanola name was converted to Hispaniola.

Spanish explorers were the first to introduce slavery to the island. They enslaved the Taino people and forced them to mine for gold, which was abundant on the island. The working conditions were extremely difficult. Between those conditions and the diseases brought to the island from the Spanish explorers of Europe, it caused most of the native inhabits to die. Instead of over one million Taino people, there was only around 30,000 at the beginning of the 16th century. Toward the end of that same century, the Taino were all gone.

The Spanish settlers eventually departed from Hispaniola after wiping out all the gold from its mines. But the island would not be vacant for too long because French and British explorers claimed their settlements on Hispaniola by the end of the 17th century. The only problem for them was they didn’t have anyone to enslave because all the native inhabitants were dead.

As a result, these European settlers and landowners of Hispaniola had acquired African slaves to work on their plantations. By this time in the Americas, African slaves were being brought to North America in large numbers. Landowners from the island would often travel to the American continental mainland to purchase African slaves and bring them back to Hispaniola to work the fields. These African slaves are the descendants of the modern Haitians that exist today.

Near the end of the 18th century, the African slaves of Haiti started to rebel against their French slave owners. This led to the Haitian Revolution that lasted for 13 years. It was a bloody war between the former slaves and the French army. In 1803, the French Army retreated from the western side of Hispaniola and went to the eastern side. The western side, of course, would become modern-day Haiti.

Map of the Republic of Haiti with the departments colored in bright colors - photo sketch
Map of the Republic of Haiti with the departments colored in bright colors – photo sketch

Geography

The Caribbean is known as America’s beautiful and exotic tropical region of the Atlantic. It contains several islands with aqua blue waters and white sandy beaches. Haiti happens to be one of the countries in this Caribbean region. This country shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. It makes up the western half of the island while Dominican Republic makes up the eastern half.

When you look at Haiti on a map, it appears to have a disproportionate coastline because of its horseshoe-like shape that points outward to the west. Haiti and the Dominican Republic share a border that is 224 miles long. More than half of Hispaniola contains the Dominican Republic, with the other three-eighths being Haiti. In addition, there are many offshore Haitian islands as well, such as Tortuga Island and Gonave Island.

The Caribbean consists of over 700 islands and 12 countries. On the list of the biggest Caribbean countries, Haiti comes in at number three. The first is Cuba and the second is the Dominican Republic. But on the list of most mountainous Caribbean countries, Haiti gets first place. It has a lot of mountains, coastal plains, river valleys, beaches and a tropical climate that is perfect for attracting tourists and vacationers.

Although, the climate does vary amongst the different altitudes of the country. The temperature of the higher altitudes and mountainous regions are about 10 degrees cooler in comparison to the lower level regions and beaches. Heavier rain also exists in the lowlands and mountainous slopes. If you ever visit Haiti and want to avoid the rain as much as possible, then avoid the rainiest months of April, May, June, October, and November.

Throughout the country’s history, Haiti has been widely recognized for its breadfruit trees and mango trees. Many of the early settlers depended on Haitian breadfruit and mango harvesting for their food and survival. As Haiti became more globalized in trade, breadfruit and mango farming became more popular in the region. Sadly, Haiti has been subject to massive deforestation over the last 100 years, so it makes farming even more crucial to produce these food items.

Cour de Cassation, Port-au-Prince, Haiti - Photo Courtesy of CMS International
Cour de Cassation, Port-au-Prince, Haiti – Photo Courtesy of CMS International

Government

Haiti has been a sovereign country since January of 1804. Haitian slaves took part in the Haitian Revolution and fought against their French captors for 13 years. After they gained their independence, the Haitians began electing presidents and creating a more democratic style of government.

Unfortunately, their democratic system is nowhere near perfect. Even though people have the right to vote, there is often ballot tampering, voter intimidation, and other forms of corruption in the political process. In fact, Haiti didn’t even have a Constitution activated until the year 1995. This constitution contains elements found in both the United States Constitution and the French Constitution.

The Haitian government is led by both a prime minster and a president. This form of government is called a semi-presidential republic. There are political parties and popular elections just like in most democratic societies. The people vote for the president and then the president chooses the prime minister. The presidential term is five years and may be reelected one-time for a second term, as long as it’s a nonconsecutive term. 

Most developed countries will have either a president or prime minister leading the government, but not both. In this semi-presidential system, the prime minister is the leader of the government, and the president is the head of the state and has the right to implement executive power where needed.

The National Assembly of Haiti is similar to the U.S. Congress. It is a bicameral legislature branch of government with two chambers, the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. When the president appoints a prime minister, he chooses one of the parliamentary members from the National Assembly to serve the role. The person is usually from the same political party as the president.

When Haitian senators are elected, they go on to serve six-year terms just like U.S. senators who are elected. The deputies from the Chamber of Deputies serve four-year terms, though. It is twice as long as the term limit of their equivalent counterpart in the U.S., which is the House of Representatives. U.S. representatives have two-year term limits.

Amiga Island (eng), Haiti, Ils a Rat (FR) Lobster purchase, photo by Maxim Larche
Amiga Island (eng), Haiti, Ils a Rat (FR) Lobster purchase, photo by Maxim Larche

Economy

Haiti is what you might call a third-world country or a very poor and impoverished country. It is the number one poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, which says a lot when you consider that poor South American countries are also part of the Western Hemisphere.

Roughly 80% of all Haitians live in poverty. Unemployment is a big reason for this problem, but it is not the only reason. Even the Haitians who do have jobs are underpaid or underemployed, so they cannot afford to pay their living expenses either. A big reason why this is the case has to do with the slave history of the country.

The early European colonialists and settlers exhausted Haiti of its richest natural resources, including its gold. The only resource left for Haitians to survive on is their domestic agriculture. But there is so much demand for food that Haitian farmers cannot keep up with it. That is why 20% of all Haitian food consumption is imported from other countries.

Since imported food is much cheaper for poor Haitian citizens to purchase, it has caused many local Haitian farmers to struggle to sell their fruits and vegetables. Self-employment is the primary way in which most Haitians survive because there are few companies and organizations in Haiti that actually employ wage-earning workers.

For this reason, street vendors are commonly seen in the touristy areas of the country. The other forms of self-employment might include illegal activities, such as transporting drugs between Haiti and the Americas. Some Haitians choose to leave Haiti and find legitimate work overseas.

As they earn better wages in a different country, they’ll often send money back home to their family. These overseas workers have actually helped boost the Haitian economy significantly because they’re bringing money from overseas to Haiti. On top of that, the United States has provided foreign aid to the Haitian government for many years now.

Over the last 50 years, the tourism industry has seen an uprise in Haiti. Several hotels, restaurants and other businesses are located near the coastline in order to attract foreign tourists from the United States and around the world. Haiti is still a very poor country, though. It is difficult for other industries to thrive in Haiti because of the weak education system and all the political instability and corruption which exists in the country.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Toussaint L'Ouverture, Airport
Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Airport

Infrastructure

One of the most important pieces of Haitian infrastructure is Toussaint Louverture International Airport. It is the main airport of Port-au-Prince and is used to accommodate travelers entering and leaving the country. There are also regional airports for private aircrafts in smaller cities like Les Cayes, Jacmel, and Jeremie.

If you ever drive in Haiti, then you’ll need to get used to the terrible road conditions that exist there. The Haitian government doesn’t have enough money or local resources to send out public contractors to repave its local roads. It is usually left up to local civilians and businesses to do the work themselves if they wish. Unfortunately, that rarely happens.

Furthermore, the devastating earthquakes that regularly occur in the country do not help the infrastructure problem either. These earthquakes leave roads in terrible shape with tremendous cracks, potholes, and other dangerous road conditions. If you ever take a drive in Haiti, then make sure you have four-wheel drive because it’s going to be a bumpy and strenuous ride.

The good news is that you can use bus services if you don’t want to drive anywhere. You’ll see colorful tap tap buses available to transport people from city to city as needed. Whenever a passenger wants to get off the bus, they’re supposed to tap the metal siding of the bus to signal to the drive to stop. That is why it is called a tap tap bus. These buses are easy to recognize because they often have beautiful Haitian art and decorations on the outside of them.

Outside of the transportation industry, the infrastructure of other industries is very weak. They do have radio, internet, television and telephone services, but the technology behind them is quite primitive. There is reportedly a lot of downtime and a poor-quality experience amongst users who try to use these services.  

Place Saint Pierre, Petionville, Haiti, Photo by Jazzy Photography
Place Saint Pierre, Petionville, Haiti, Photo by Jazzy Photography

Demographics

According to the CIA World Factbook, Haiti has a population of roughly 10.8 million people. The life expectancy in the country is about 64 years, although 50% of the population is under 20 years old. There are two reasons why this is the case. First, the poor health and economic conditions in the country cause people to die young. Second, a lot of adult Haitians move to other countries for better economic opportunities.

The United States alone has about 882,000 Haitians living in it, while Canada has 100,000 Haitians. Other countries with Haitians include the Bahamas with 80,000, France with 80,000, and Canada with 100,000. You’ll also find smaller groups of Haitians in Japan, Chile, and Switzerland.

In Haiti’s neighbor to the east, the Dominican Republic, there are about 800,000 Haitians living there. The Dominican Republic is the country with the second highest number of Haitian residents because it has a better economy and it is easier for native Haitians to travel to it. There are no airplane rides required as Haitians can simply walk or drive to the Dominican Republic.

Due to the history of slavery in the country, the average Haitian is about 95% African, 4% European, and 1% East Asian. But during the time of slavery, there was a specific group of mixed-race Haitians called the Mulattoes. They were Haitians who usually had a black mother and white father, or sometimes even the other way around. Because of their European heritage, Mulattoes were not enslaved like full-blooded Haitians. This meant that Mulattoes were upper-class citizens. 

There is less black and white mixing in Haiti because there are fewer white people living in modern Haiti at the moment. However, there are some Haitians living abroad who have found white partners for themselves. But that doesn’t mean their children will be considered Mulattoes. That is an older term that no longer describes modern mixed-race Haitians.

Kanaval in Jacmel, Haiti, Photo by Maxence Bradley
Kanaval in Jacmel, Haiti, Photo by Maxence Bradley

Culture

The modern Haitian culture was derived from hundreds of years of slavery that existed on Hispaniola island. The European colonialists and self-freed slaves both influenced this culture. All of the country’s art, literature, music, food and languages have an influence from Africa, France, North America, South America, England, and Spain. It is such a wild blend that is unlike any culture you’d find anywhere else.

Haitian art is loaded with vibrant colors, humor and references to African countries and history. The music and dance styles of the Haitian people were drawn from Spanish, French and African traditions. Some say there is a small amount of Taino influence left in the dancing styles as well.

The American and English influences are more than obvious in the Haitian nightclubs and discos. So, as a tourist, you would really have several different activities to choose from and experience. And if you’re interested in Haitian literature, you’ll find many books written in French and Haitian Creole about French colonialism and the enslavement of Haitians.

Sports and recreational activities occupy a lot of time amongst Haitians, especially those who are young or unemployed. They don’t have the luxury of attending or participating in any organized recreational events or activities. So, they try to make the best of it with what they have available to them.

In Port-au-Prince, they do have professional football (soccer) games because that is the capital city which attracts the most people with money. But in the rural or poorer areas of the country, football games are played on the potholed streets or the dirt or grassy fields. As for the adults and older Haitians, they’re more interested in card games, dominoes, and cockfighting. 

Rue 18 Cap-Haitien, Haiti, School students, photo by Maxim Laroche
Rue 18 Cap-Haitien, Haiti, School students, photo by Maxim Laroche

Education

The Haitian educational system is influenced by the French educational system because of the previous French colonialism. The French educational system is similar to the educational system found in the United States. The children attend primary school, secondary education and higher education.

The Ministry of Education sets the rules and regulations for all higher education institutions, such as public and private universities and other educational institutions. Most of the grade schools and primary schools are under private management rather than government-based management.

These private managers are comprised of many different entities, such as churches, for-profit businesses, nongovernment charitable organizations, and communities. Since the Haitian government doesn’t have the money to provide free grade school education to all, it is dependent on local communities and organizations to provide it for their children. Due to these conditions, there is very little government oversight on the policies and class curriculums set forth in these schools.

Fortunately, the United States has a number of charity organizations established for providing food and educational assistance to poor Haitians. There is the Food for the Poor charity, which is a Christian nonprofit charitable organization that operates out of Coconut Creek, Florida. It raises money to supply food, shelter, medicine and additional social services to Haiti and other poor countries in the Caribbean.

The Haitian Health Foundation is another American-based nonprofit organization that actively builds new schools and offers school supplies to Haitian children. The efforts of these organizations have helped raise the literacy rate amongst Haitians to about 61%, which is the highest it’s been ever.

The most popular Haitian higher education school is the University of Haiti, which also includes a law school and medical school. The university has been around since the 1820s, which was a little more than a decade after Haiti achieved its independence from France. It is truly a symbol of pride and prosperity to the Haitian people. It was one of the first schools built in wake of the Haitian Revolution, so the symbolic nature of it alone is special.

The University of Haiti provides a valuable education to those students who get accepted into the school. The tuition rate was only $15 per year as recently as 2010. Unfortunately, the acceptance rate into the school is only 15% for all undergraduate programs. That means all the other students who didn’t get accepted will have to apply to a private university, which is significantly more expensive.

Food in Jacmel, Haiti, photo by Maxence Bradley
Food in Jacmel, Haiti, photo by Maxence Bradley

Health

Many serious infectious diseases can be found in Haiti. According to the World Health Organization, the primary causes of death amongst Haitians are respiratory infections, diarrheal diseases, meningitis, HIV, and AIDS. To give you an idea of how common these diseases are truly, approximately 90% of all Haitian children have an intestinal parasite or waterborne disease.

A big reason why Haitians contract these diseases so easily is due to their impoverished living conditions. For instance, about three out of four Haitian households do not have any running water or plumbing in them. That means those families are forced to consume water from unsafe sources that are contaminated and unfiltered.  Not only that, but the living conditions of their homes are unsanitary as well.

When it comes to the health care industry in Haiti, they have very few nurses and resources available in its hospitals. This is another reason why so many people die from infectious diseases in Haiti. And even if somebody were to need hospitalization, it is so difficult for them to get to a hospital. Haitians don’t have the luxury of calling 9-1-1 and having paramedics come to their doorstep to assistance them. Instead, they must visit the hospitals themselves or have someone else bring them there.

Unfortunately, most Haitians do not have personal vehicles or resources to get transported to the nearest hospital. That is why they end up dealing with their illnesses at their homes, which often results in death. It is also why the infant mortality rate is 55 deaths for every 1,000 births. Compared to the 6 to 1000 ratio in other countries, Haiti has an extremely high infant mortality rate.

The children who do survive the infancy stage are still at risk of contracting treatable diseases like rubella and measles. However, due to the lack of transportation to hospitals, Haitian children have no way of getting to their nearest hospital to get vaccinated.

Therefore, it is a long journey for a Haitian to survive their childhood and grow up into adulthood. And if they’re lucky enough to enter adulthood in a reasonably healthy state, their next obstacle is to find higher education or job opportunities in their country or outside their country.

Miss Haiti 2016, Raquel Pelissier, photo by Frederic Geroges
Miss Haiti 2016, Raquel Pelissier, photo by Frederic Geroges

Notable Figures

There have been several notable figures throughout history who were either born in Haiti or involved with Haiti in some way. For instance, Haitian beauty queen Raquel Pelissier was the first runner-up in the 2017 Miss Universe pageant. One of Haiti’s best-known writers is Frankétienne. He is a poet and playwright who was nominated as a candidate to receive the Nobel Prize.

As for notable figures born outside of Haiti, American film actor Sean Penn serves the role of Ambassador-at-Large for the country. He is the first foreigner to ever receive this honorable position. It was given to him for all of the help and assistance he’s provided to the Haitian people in wake of the 2010 earthquake. Penn even established a relief organization called J/P HRO to support the effort.

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