Beginning in the early sixteenth century, the Spanish controlled Hispaniola and began to populate it with African slaves to work the vast sugar and later coffee plantations that prospered in the island's tropical climate. In 1697 Spain ceded the island to France, and Haiti subsequently became the wealthiest of French colonies by the end of the seventeenth century. That all changed, however, with the Great Slave Rebellion of 1791, led by the Haitian hero Toussaint L'Ouverture, who by 1800 had managed to gain control over most of the island. Although L'Ouverture was captured by French forces and sent to France in 1802, the rebellion continued, and the rebels defeated the French a year later. In 1804 Haiti declared itself an independent republic, making it the second-oldest black republic in the world.
The nineteenth century was not kind to the tiny nation, as it experienced a series of coups, revolts, and grinding poverty. After an angry mob executed Haiti's leader, the U.S. Marine Corps invaded Haiti in 1915 and occupied it until 1934, in the process establishing a tradition of undemocratic military rule and training a generation of Haitian leaders enamored with strong-arm military tactics. More instability followed the U.S. occupation. There were coups in 1946 and 1950, and in 1957 alone Haiti had six different presidents. In 1957, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier was elected president, beginning a twenty-nine-year reign of despotic terror. In 1964, he proclaimed himself president for life while ruling the nation with an iron fist. Political opponents were murdered, and the population was kept in check by his nefarious militia known as the Tontons Macoutes.
When Duvalier died on 22 April 1971, he was immediately succeeded by his son Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, who proved to be just as autocratic as his father. His government terrorized political opponents, quashed public criticism of his rule, was riddled with corruption and cronyism, and kept the population in abject poverty, so much so that Haiti has had the dubious distinction of being the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation. The United States turned a blind eye to much of the Duvaliers' tactics because they were staunchly anticommunist and kept the population in check. Baby Doc Duvalier hung on to power until February 1986 when, after three months of increasingly violent protests against the government's policies, he fled the country for France.
Between 1986 and 1990 Haiti was ruled by a series of provisional governments while prodemocracy reformers sought to overhaul the Haitian political system. After a new constitution was ratified in 1987, there was a brief glimmer of hope that democracy and stability might finally come to the embattled nation. A national election was held in December 1990 that was internationally supervised and believed to be free and fair. The winner of the presidential race was a young, charismatic Roman Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Aristide, considered a progressive reformer, sought to initiate badly needed land reform and to jump-start the moribund Haitian economy. Yet violence and intimidation persisted in Haiti, much of it directed by the Tontons Macoutes and opponents of Aristide. Less than seven months into his presidency, on 30 September 1991 Aristide was overthrown in a violent coup led by Dr. Roger Lafontant and supported by the military and Haitian elites who feared Aristide's reform agenda.
In September 1994 Aristide was returned to power with American support, and a U.S.-led international peacekeeping force (MLF) was dispatched to Haiti to ensure the peaceful transfer of power. Although much hope was placed in Aristide's leadership, it soon became apparent that his administration was tolerant if not supportive of corruption and political intimidation. Nor was he able to bring about any substantive improvement to the economy. Aristide attempted to run for the presidency again in the December 1995 elections but was constitutionally forbidden. Instead, René Preval was elected, although Aristide and his supporters attempted to destabilize his government by claiming that the election results were invalid. This led to deep divisions between the executive and legislative branches and eventually to political gridlock. In December 2000 Aristide ran for president again in yet another disputed election and in February 2001 was inaugurated amid much controversy. Three years later, rebellion broke out among Aristide's opponents as tales of widespread government corruption began to circulate. In the meantime, the Aristide government had not ameliorated the abysmal economic situation. Finally, under pressure from the United States and other nations, Aristide left office on 29 February 2004, another sad story in the troubled history of Haiti. Aristide was succeeded by Boniface Alexandre, chief of the supreme court.
Paul G. Pierpaoli Jr.
Bamberg, James. British Petroleum and Global Oil, 1950-75: The Challenge to Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.; McKissick, Patricia C. History of Haiti. Maryknoll, NY: Henry Holt, 1998.; Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Haiti, State against Nation: The Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990.