Haiti is a small, mountainous, nation in the Caribbean taking up the western third of the island of Hispaniola and the smaller islands of Gonâve, Tortue, Grande Caye, and Vache. It is notable for being the second country in the Americas to free itself from colonial rule with much of its population being descended from African slaves. However, due to facing economic, political, and social difficulties as well as a number of natural disasters over its two hundred years of existence, the country is facing chronic poverty and other serious problems.
A Brief History
The French arrived in Haiti in the seventeenth century and began importing Africans for labor after wiping out the indigenous population. During its colonial era, Haiti was France's richest colony, producing mainly sugar and coffee. It had a strict race and class-based hierarchy with black slaves at the bottom and rich whites at the top. It seemed as though this would change after the French Revolution when the National Assembly in Paris agreed to grant suffrage to landed and tax-paying free blacks. When the colonial assembly refused to comply, conflict broke out between the French and the Creole royalists backed by Spain and Britain.
In 1800, Toussaint Louverture used his leadership skills and the experience he gained fighting for both sides to free the colony from European rule. In 1803, Haiti fully repelled European forces and declared itself an independent Republic. During its early years, the nation was isolated and struggled to maintain cohesion with the pre-war hierarchy remaining largely in place. In 1915, the US invaded and occupied the island after the assassination of Haitian President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. After taking two decades to rewrite the constitution, stabilize the economy, and make improvements in infrastructure, the US withdrew and allowed Haiti to resume free elections. In 1990, populist Jean-Bertrand Aristide became president and worked to abolish the class hierarchy despite facing a military coup and opposition from the country’s elites.
Haitians culture emphasizes the importance of faith. Catholicism was introduced by the Spanish in the 1500s and has since grown to be the nation’s largest religion, followed by Protestant Christianity. Despite this, faith in Vodou is also widespread and often combined with aspects of the Christain faith. Practitioners of Vodou use candles, incense, and oils to appease bad spirits and bring order to chaos and pain.
The country is heavily divided between members of different classes. Members of the lower class often live in poor conditions. Due to this, it is not uncommon for children of a family to work by the age of eight with looking after the family’s livestock, gardening, and running errands being most typical. A small middle class exists mainly in the country’s cities. They often seek to advance their family by pushing their children to pursue education, largely unavailable to the lower class, with many going on to attend college. The higher class is made up of light-skinned traditional elites as well as successful entrepreneurs. Those of the higher class are expected to treat those beneath them with contempt. While open conflict due to social status is rare, it escalates quickly to bloodshed.
Family is considered to be very important in Haiti. Though official marriages are uncommon for members of the lower class, they typically have strong nuclear families focused on the household. It is typical for the man to build a house for the woman and whatever children they have together to stay in. Godparents, and close friends who sponsor the baptism of a child, are very common and considered to tie the families together. Elder family members often live with their children if not nearby and often help with raising the kids.