Historically, Haiti plays a special role. It is one of the oldest independent states on the American continent and the only republic to have emerged from a successful slave uprising. Its history has been changeful and violent from the very beginning. Since its independence in 1804, no fewer than 32 military coups have taken place in Haiti.
Colonisation by the Spaniards
When Christopher Columbus landed on the island in 1492, he gave it the name Hispaniola, Little Spain. At that time the island was inhabited by an estimated one million Tainos. After 50 years of Spanish rule their number had dropped to a few hundred. Those who had not fallen victim to the massacres by the colonizers were exploited by the Spaniards as slaves in search of gold. The rest died of infectious diseases introduced by the conquerors, which the immune system of the indigenous population could not cope with. When the Tainos were almost extinct, the Spaniards began importing slaves from Africa in 1501 to make up for the shortage of labour. However, the search for gold on Hispaniola proved to be unproductive, so the Spaniards moved on to mainland South America. Hispaniola lost its importance as a colony for the next hundred years and became a hiding place for pirates.
Colonization by the French
After Spain ceded the western part of the island to the French in the Rijswijk peace treaty in 1697, who now called the colony Saint-Domingue, the country became the richest colony in the world, the pearl of the Antilles. The inhuman treatment of the slaves by the colonizers triggered the general slave revolt in 1791, during which the violent excesses on both sides escalated. After three cruel years, the abolition of slavery in the French colonies was decided by the French National Convention on 4 February 1794. Under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Alexandre Pétion, the former slaves fought for their independence on the model of the French Revolution. They were not stopped either by Napoleon’s troops or by Louverture’s arrest. After Jean-Jacques Dessalines finally succeeded in uniting the opposing black and mulatto groups, the French troops were defeated in the Battle of Vertières.
On 1 January 1804, after his victory over the French in the city of Gonaives, Dessalines declared the independence of the Republic of Haiti. However, the starting position of the new nation state must be described as extremely bad. On the one hand, the influential colonial powers France and the United States of America refused to recognise the new nation. Since their own prosperity was based on the plantation economy and thus on the principle of slavery, they feared that Haitian conditions could also spread to their nations. Haiti was thus forced into isolation in foreign policy terms.
On the other hand, in return for Haiti’s recognition as an independent state, France demanded a compensation sum of 150 million francs in 1825. The sum was later reduced to 90 million francs. It was not until 1947 that Haiti could finally pay off this amount with the help of loans. The high national debt immediately after independence is often seen as the beginning of Haiti’s economic dependence on foreign countries.
Haiti in the 19th century to 1986
From 1843 to 1915 the country was run by 21 different governments, only two of which survived the full term. This illustrates the extent of the political instability and power struggles of the many political groups. The various groups within Haiti’s small elite took turns to seize government control, which they regarded as a lucrative source of income. As a result, Haiti was occupied by the United States from 1915 to 1943, fearing for its own security on the mainland. During this time, the construction of schools and missionary work created an educated black middle class that could also become politically active.
From this middle class emerged Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc), who was elected president in 1957 and ruled as a cruel dictator. In 1971, Jean-Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc), then 19, inherited his father’s office. His inability to deal with economic issues left his mark on the economic, political and social structure in such a negative way that Haiti is still struggling with the consequences today.
The emergence of the present state
After Jean-Claude Duvalier’s flight in 1986, General Henri Namphy initially took power for the time being. In 1987, Haiti is granted a democratic constitution and free elections are prepared, but these have to be cancelled again because of continuing riots and murders. After a transitional period in which General Prosper Avril and then Ertha Trouillot took power, Jean Bertrand Aristide, a former priest, was elected President of the Republic of Haiti on 7 February 1991. Aristide made the fight against corruption and mismanagement his goal. Less than eight months later, in September 1991, he was overthrown by General Raoul Cédras, who appointed a military government. This marked the beginning of a politically and economically difficult period for Haiti, during which the population was exposed to international economic sanctions and the terror of its government. Under pressure from the USA, Aristide was allowed to return to the presidency in 1994. In 1995, Haiti is placed under a UN mandate to maintain public security.
After Aristide’s term of office, René Preval is elected president. The next election in 2001 was won again by Aristide. However, voices are raised about possible electoral fraud and the opposition boycotts the elections. International aid to the country is then stopped under pressure from the USA, significantly limiting the government’s scope for action. There are also frequent conflicts between supporters and opponents of Aristide. In 2004, the year of the 200th anniversary of independence, the resistance against Aristide, which has meanwhile become a multimillionaire, reaches its peak. His opponents accuse him of corruption, mismanagement and his dictatorial leadership style. On 29 February, Aristide is taken out of the country in an American military plane. On the same day, the USA, France and Chile send troops to Haiti. After a two-year transition period, elections are held in 2006, in which René Préval emerges victorious. However, his election victory is not uncontroversial, and there are suspicions of election fraud. Nevertheless, Preval is declared the winner by the electoral commission with 51.15% of the votes and can thus take up his second term in office.