Haiti—A Complex History

When I am in Haiti, most of my mornings start with a drive commencing in the northern city of Cap-Haitian and ending in a village called Upper Limbe, which is the home of North Haiti Christian University — where my father and I both volunteer as adjunct professors. On most of these days, up in the beautiful hills in the countryside, my father will point out what he has affectionally named “Columbus Bay” –the body of water in the Atlantic Ocean where Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola on December 6, 1492.

This picturesque view of Baie de I’Acul is where the long, complex and largely tragic history of the land now known as Haiti began. In 2018, more than 200 years after becoming only the 2nd independent country in the western hemisphere, Haiti is most known as a nation stricken by abject poverty and political instability and for its lack of progress in keeping up with the modern west.

If you ever have the opportunity to visit Haiti, you’d likely ask yourself — why Haiti? Why is it perceived as “normal” for U.S. citizens to go on a relaxing, Caribbean vacation in the Dominican Republic, which is on the same island as Haiti, but the concept of going on a vacation in Haiti wouldn’t even register in most of our minds?

The most renowned scholar on the history of Haiti is Laurent Dubois, a professor at Duke University. In his well-received book titled, “Haiti, The Aftershocks of History,” Dubois makes the claim that the true causes of Haiti’s poverty and instability are not mysterious and have nothing to do with any inherent shortcomings on the part of the Haitians themselves, but rather its history:

Haiti’s present is the product of its history: of the nation’s founding by enslaved people who overthrew their masters and freed themselves; of the hostility that this revolution generated among the colonial powers surrounding the country; and of the intense struggle within Haiti itself to define that freedom and realize its promise.

To explore the premise offered by Dubois, let’s explore five of the key events/time periods in Haitian history:

1. Independence of 1804

2. 1915 United States Occupation

3. Dictatorship: “Papa Doc” & “Baby Doc”

4. Aristide & Democracy

5. 2010 Earthquake

1. Independence of 1804

Prior to the arrival of Columbus and the Spanish, there were Taino Native Americans settled on the island that they referred to as “Haiti” in their language. These natives arrived on the island via South America in the 15th century. The Spanish, who brought infectious diseases that killed the natives in great numbers, renamed the island Hispaniola (which today is modern day Haiti and Dominican Republic).

In 1625, France took control of the Western portion of Hispaniola and called its new land Saint-Domingue. At this time, the land that is modern-day Haiti was one of the most profitable pieces of land in the world, where Saint-Domingue was the center of the sugarcane industry for the Americas. Slaves made up approximately 90% of the colony’s population and according to Dubois, as many as a million slaves were brought from Africa to Saint-Domingue over the course of the colony’s history.

The Haitian Revolution began in 1791 when slaves on the sugar plantations in the northern part of the French colony launched the largest slave revolt in history. Within two years, the revolutionaries had secured the freedom for all of the slaves in Saint-Domingue, and the French government abolished slavery in 1794 throughout the French empire.

Starting in 1794, Toussaint Louverture, a former slave led Saint-Domingue, which remained a French colony. Louverture sought to keep the plantation system in tact without the use of slaves and to defend the territory against an English invasion. In 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte sent troops to Saint-Domingue to recapture the land for France. Faced with the prospect of a return to slavery, the Haitian people rose up to defeat the French at the Battle of Vertieres under the leadership of Jean-Jacques Dessalines in November of 1803.

On January 1, 1804, Dessalines declared:

“We must live independent or die.”

On the same day, Dessalines declared a new nation to be created. The nation of Haiti, which is to be free of France and slavery. The commanders of his army declared him “Governor General for Life” — making Dessalines the first head of state.

The Significance of the Haitian Revolution

The significance of the Haitian revolution cannot be understated — and the ramifications of 1804 run deep:


In 1804, Haiti gained its independence in a world still immersed in slavery. The sugar industry largely relocated to Cuba (who was under Spanish rule), creating significant economic strain in a region that once thrived under a plantation model. France refused to recognize Haiti’s independence — with the governments of England and the United States following suit — leaving the country in an obscure state on the world stage. The burden of protecting against a possible attack forced the new country to pour a significant amount of resources into infrastructure and maintaining a large army. The most visible example of this expense today is the Citadelle Laferriere (completed in 1820), a fortress built in the mountains outside of Cap-Haitian, which is one of the few tourist attractions in modern Haiti.

(2) Being a country largely at war for several years, the country’s ports and plantations were in ashes. According to Dubois, the war, disease and hunger killed as many as 100,000 people between 1802–1803 alone.

(3) The revolution did bring one extremely meaningful ramification — the pride and sense of independence that is present in Haitians today. Let me state again that the Haitian people led the only successful slave revolt in the history of the world. They were slaves in a brutal plantation system, and they created a situation where they earned their freedom. They earned their autonomy and the ability to practice trade and religion as they pleased. While the country has struggled for over 200 years with poverty, the ability to create a better existence for themselves is certainly not lost on Haitians.

2. 1915 United States Occupation

Almost immediately after the creation of Haiti as a new independent country, political instability ensued. Dessalines’s lifetime appointment as head of state lasted only three years — as he was assassinated in a revolt in 1806. Dubois states the following regarding Dessalines’s assassination:

For Haiti’s later leaders, Dessalines’s short reign offered a cautionary tale: he had to lead the country to independence, but rapidly fell prey to social conflicts over what that independence should mean, turning the freedom that Haiti had gained into something meaningful, and sustainable, for its people.

Throughout the remainder of the 1800s, the country went through a split into a northern and southern territory, and a uniting of the country through a southern revolt in 1820. It was not until 1825 that France recognized Haiti as an independent state after then President Jean-Pierre Boyer agreed to pay $90 million gold Francs to France. The northern capital city of Cap-Haitian suffered a large earthquake that destroyed the city, and the country had a civil war that started in 1888.

The United States saw itself becoming increasingly involved with the struggling island country, and the U.S. influence was largely unpopular due to the strong affection that the Haitians had with their independence. Between 1911–1915 the Haitian presidency passed through the hands of seven different men. In April of 1915, President Woodrow Wilson declared that “the time to act is now.”

Within a few weeks, there were 3,000 American soldiers in Haiti, and they took control of both Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitian. The U.S. occupation would continue for 19 years, not ending until 1934. According to Dubois, many Haitians, most especially the lower class, grew to loathe the United States. They were the recipients of not only cruel treatment of Haitians by far too many Marines, but the loss of national sovereignty was especially painful. The occupation was also a magnified and sustained attack on Vodou, which is the ancestral religious practice of most rural Haitian communities.

In February 1930, U.S. President Herbert Hoover sent a delegation to investigate conditions in Haiti. While the delegation concluded that the United States was making a credible effort to help Haiti move forward, the delegation criticized the racism of some U.S. officials towards the Haitian people.

In large part, the theme of the Haitian struggle with the U.S. occupation was the fear that the intruders had come to re-establish slavery. This is a country that had given up so much for its independence. The occupation, for many Haitians, felt too similar of the past that their ancestors had escaped from.

In 1930, Haitians went to the polls for the first free elections since the beginning of the occupation. U.S. forces withdrew from Haiti on August 14, 1934. One week later, Haiti celebrated its second Independence Day — free from U.S. occupation of their country.

3. Dictatorship: “Papa Doc” & “Baby Doc”

Throughout the mid-1940s, Haitians found themselves increasingly frustrated with their government and its apparent willingness to sell out to foreign interests, particularly to those of the United States. By 1956, the country was in political chaos with the sitting president, Paul Magloire, unwilling to call elections. Magloire was eventually forced out of power and over a course of seven months, Haiti had passed through the hands of five temporary governments.

In an extremely controversial election, a physician named Francois Duvalier (“Papa Doc”) was declared the winner of the presidential election in September of 1957. Duvalier disrupted the process of voter registration and carried out a string of bombings to cultivate a climate of fear and to align support within the military. In fact, Duvalier was not even eligible to be president of Haiti according to the constitution because both of his parents were not born in Haiti (his father was born in Martinique); however, Duvalier ignored the issue. When asked how he had won the election, Duvalier responded smilingly, “The peasants love their doc.”

Duvalier went on to rule Haiti as a ruthless dictator until his death in 1971. His son, Jean-Claude Duvalier (“Baby Doc”) assumed rule of the country after the passing of his father and was the president of the country until 1986. According to Dubois, estimates range from 20,000–60,000 Haitians that were killed by the Duvalier regime over their 30-year reign over the country, as the regime had a culture of murdering and exiling their opponents.

Papa Doc was extremely wary of the Haitian Army, despite the assistance he received from the military to come to power. Many believe his lack of trust with the military was because of his realization that the military was one of the few institutions that could challenge his authority and power.

John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, called Papa Doc’s regime a “disgrace to this hemisphere.” He also stated that Haiti, under Duvalier, was “a political cesspool, plagued by problems of poverty, illiteracy, superstition, inadequate public services of the most minimum sort, human rights — make your own list.”

The Kennedy Administration was adamant that Papa Doc leave office in 1963 at the end of his term; however, Papa Doc held a phony referendum in 1961 that kept him in power until 1967. In protest, the U.S. withdrew its ambassador and cut off direct military aid to Haiti. According to Dubois, President Kennedy and the CIA worked on various plans to invade Haiti to overthrow Duvalier — none of which came to fruition.

Relations with the United States began to improve after Baby Doc took power at the age of 20 in 1971. Between 1972 and 1981, Haiti received $584 million of foreign aid, 80% of which came from the United States. Foreign governments began giving the aid to independent organizations, bypassing Baby Doc’s corrupt regime. Baby Doc was known to live a lavish lifestyle; in 1980, he had a state-sponsored wedding that cost more than $3 million.

After the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976, he instituted a new strategy to foreign policy in Latin America, putting pressure on countries for a commitment to demonstrate human rights in return for continued aid. Baby Doc made several changes (allowing for local elections and easing his control of the press, for instance) to stay in good standing to receive aid. However, when Carter lost the election in 1980, Baby Doc quickly reversed course with the elimination of Carter’s policies.

The tipping point came in 1985 when three students were killed by members of the Duvalier regime at a student demonstration. 50,000 protestors marched in Cap-Haitian, and the U.S. arranged safe passage of Baby Doc to a life in exile in France.

In 2011, Baby Doc returned, unannounced to Haiti. He was immediately arrested by Haitian police and was charged with corruption and human rights abuse charges. He died of a heart attack in 2014 in Port-au-Prince prior to his legal matters being settled.

4. Aristide & Democracy

After the overthrow of Baby Doc & the Duvalier regime in 1986, a transitional military government called the CNG took power of the country. A new constitution was written with the goal of creating the first truly participatory democracy in Haiti. However, the new constitution was almost immediately challenged as the military government seemed determined to stay in power. The Haitian people and activists did not relent, and in 1990, the CNG yielded and agreed to organize a free election.

Only a few weeks before the election, a Roman Catholic priest in Port-au-Prince named Jean-Bertrand Aristide announced he was running. Aristide had gained prominence in Haiti throughout the 1980s as one of the loudest pro-democracy activists against Baby Doc.

Winning a whopping 67% of the general election votes in 1990, Aristide was voted as the President in what historians view as the first honest election in the history of Haiti. Just as Dessalines quickly lost power after claiming independence in 1804, the Haitian army, led by Aristide’s hand selected General, led a coup against the new president just eight months after the election.

Aristide was safely transported to the United States, but according to Dubois, the army carried out brutal attacks on Aristide’s supporters back in Haiti — killing at least 1,200 of his supporters in the first few days following the coup.

Aristide lived in exile for three years while the military held control over the country. The already weak, struggling Haitian economy was completely trampled by a trade embargo put in place by the United States as a tool to quickly bring the military reign to an end. Bill Clinton himself later admitted the immense negative impact the embargo had on Haiti’s rice growers and its impact on even more dependence on other countries for imported food.

Escorted by U.S. troops, Aristide returned to Haiti and to the presidency in 1994. Aristide’s decision to disband the Haitian army entirely once back in office proved to be a decision with a meaningful long-term impact, as foreign troops from the U.S. and the U.N. took over the role of the Haitian army. In an ironic twist, Aristide, who had long been an advocate of the need for Haiti to be free of the encumbrances of foreign influence, had himself established a long-term foreign military presence in Haiti due to his policies upon return from exile.

The U.S. insisted that Aristide’s three years in exile were to count in his presidential term, and he stepped down in 1995. He was elected president once again the following election of 2000. During his second term, Haitians were becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in the country, and protests against Aristide became popular, and violence in the country, particularly in Port-au-Prince, rapidly increased.

In 2004, 200 years after Haiti’s independence from France, Aristide was victim of another coup, and he was escorted out of the country by U.S. troops who claimed they were trying to get? Aristide to safety. Aristide, however, saw the event differently — as he claims it was a kidnapping.

Aristide remained in exile in South Africa from 2004–2011. Despite strong objections from the United States, Aristide returned to Haiti in 2011 where he remains today, where he has remained largely uninvolved in political activities after his party was left out of the 2011 run-off election.

5. 2010 Earthquake

On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake with an epicenter approximately 15 miles from the capital of Port-au-Prince brought great tragedy to the poor island country of Haiti. The quake shook for 35 seconds, and according to the Miami Herald, more than 300,000 people were pronounced dead because of the natural disaster. According to Dubois, the earthquake profoundly deepened the country’s problems, destroying much of the infrastructure in Port-au-Prince and leaving millions homeless.

The emotional trauma alone of this horrific event is enough to paralyze a nation and to paralyze progress. In addition to the emotional trauma that so many Haitians had to bear, the issue of housing became such a significant problem. According to the Miami Herald, Haiti’s housing needs were estimated to be between 500,000–700,000 homes before the earthquake flattened or severely damaged another 200,000. USAID initially pledged funding to construct 15,000 houses. As of January 2015, five years after the earthquake, only 900 houses were built by USAID. The massive shortage of completed houses, according to USAID, was due to “delays, cost overruns and concerns about sustainability.”

It took about five years for the tarps in the tent cities surrounding Port-au-Prince to disappear. In January of 2015, there was ~$12.5 billion of pledged financial aid by the U.N. However, there were significant delays in the actual payments of the promises made by donors, and the Haitian government had to rely on its own funds to rebuild the first seven of 40 government buildings that crumbled in the quake.

Much was made about rebuilding Haiti. Former President Bill Clinton, who co-chaired the Haiti Recovery Commission, was quoted as saying that the focus was to “build back better.” The issue with so much focus on infrastructure, of course, was that many of the country’s other chronic problems were not being addressed. They were only being deepened. Gregory Brandt, President of the private sector Economic Forum, states the following:

Five years later, the money that came didn’t build anything, the same structural problems remain the same and we are back to the same level of debt prior to the earthquake…the country is better off in one aspect, security. But it’s fragile because the hunger, poverty, job creation and decentralization still haven’t been addressed.


In 2018, the country faces significant fundamental problems, including poverty, ecological devastation, insufficient educational and job opportunities for its youth and a dire lack of food, clean water and health care.

As presented by Dubois, Haiti is a country with a complex and tragic history, and it is important to understand this history to understand the current state of affairs within this beautiful country. In a place with so many problems, it can be easy to forget the grit and pride that carried the Haitian people out of slavery and into freedom. Dubois believes, as do I, that what happened over two hundred years ago in 1804 remains a reminder of what is possible — a hope for a better and more prosperous Haiti.