Perspectives on Haiti: Looking at the Past to Understand the Present

USNS Comfort’s Medical Teams Help Hundreds

Por Dialogo
abril 01, 2010

The island of Hispaniola — occupied by Haiti on the western third and by the
Dominican Republic on the other two thirds — was one of many Caribbean islands
inhabited by the Taíno Indians at the time of European arrival in 1492.
Ayiti (“land of high mountains”) was the indigenous Taíno name for the
mountainous western side of the island and the inspiration for the present day name
for the country, Haiti. The Taíno name for the entire island was Kiskeya. Christopher
Columbus called the island Hispaniola, in honor of Spain, when he first landed there.
After the arrival of Spanish settlers, diseases and massacres decimated the
native population, which fell from 500,000 to only 60,000 inhabitants in less than
15 years. Within a few decades, the native population had become practically
extinct, prompting the Spanish governors who had established settlements on the
island to begin bringing in enslaved Africans as laborers to replace the diminished
work force.

Population: 9,876,000 (2008)
National Language: French, Creole
Per capita income: $660/year (2008)
Life expectancy: 61 (2008)
Percent of population using improved drinking water sources: 58 percent
Percent of population using adequte sanitation facilities: 19 percent
Mortality rate for children younger than 5: 72/1,000 live births

UNICEF: The State of the World's Children Report 2009

230, 000: Estimated death toll from the quake
3 million: Estimated number of people affected by the quake
1 million: Estimated number of displaced people
At least 50: Aftershocks of magnitute 4.5 or higher that have hit Haiti
since the January 12 quake
300, 000: Children younger than 2 in need of nutritional
90: Percentage of schools in Port-au-Prince that have been

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the
Red Cross, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. State Department,
the World Food Program
As a gateway to the Caribbean, Hispaniola quickly became a haven for pirates.
The western part of the island was settled by French buccaneers who succeeded in
growing tobacco, a promising venture that led many to become settlers. This
population did not submit to Spanish royal authority until the year 1660 and
instigated a series of conflicts between Spain and France. In 1697, the Treaty of
Ryswick settled hostilities between the competing colonial powers, dividing the
island among the two nations along the same border demarcations that remain until
the present day, with France renaming its portion of the island Saint-Domingue.
At the time, half the world’s production of coffee and sugar came from
Saint-Domingue, along with tobacco, cotton, indigo and other products processed in
France and re-exported to the rest of Europe, making it the richest colony in the
New World. Many French colonists soon arrived and established plantations in Saint-
Domingue, lured by the hopes of high profits. From 1713 to 1787, approximately 30,000
French colonists emigrated to the western part of the island, with exports from the
area soon accounting for two-thirds of France’s external trade.
The thriving commodity market desperately needed a large work force, rapidly
establishing Saint-Domingue as the largest single market for the European slave
trade. Under the mantle of the slave system, and taking advantage of a highly
productive colony, France extracted all it could.

During French rule, children of mixed race, usually born of unions between
African women and European men, were called mulâtres, whereas the term creole was
used to describe a mixture of European, Amerindian and African ancestry, regardless
of skin color. This blending of races also produced the language known today as
Creole, which is a mixture of various languages and dialects.
Despite having common cultural links with its Hispano-Caribbean neighbors,
Haiti remained predominantly francophone. Today it is the only independent
French-speaking nation in the Caribbean employing both French and Creole as o#cial
The French Revolution of 1789 led to the emancipation of slaves in all French
colonies two years later. The news spread quickly in Saint-Domingue, sparking a
rebellion. Sugar mills were destroyed and hundreds of owners were killed. About 80
percent of the slave population was freed. Saint-Domingue won its definitive
independence on January 1, 1804, with the newly founded country adopting the name
Haiti in honor of the native Taíno population. It was the second independent
republic in the Americas, after the United States.
Independence looked like a brilliant new beginning, but the dream of a
brighter future was short-lived. Colonial powers were appalled by the events in
Haiti, fearing the example of Haitian independence could spread to become a
dangerous threat to their own possessions in the region. Boycotted by almost every
nation in the world, Haiti fell into extreme economic dificulties, unable to export
or import. France began to collect payments from Haiti for a controversial and
extremely high debt it placed on the country to compensate the loss of slaves and
property by former French land owners.
The bitter dispute only ended in 1838, when the Haitian government agreed to
pay France 150 million francs. For more than 80 years, this debt, paid numerous
times over through unending interest fees, drained the Haitian economy. !e debt was
only considered paid off by France in 1922.

By then, a large part of Haiti’s original vegetation and abundant natural
resources had been depleted due to hundreds of years of colonial rule and
The environmental destruction increased exponentially during the 20th century,
as Haiti struggled to catch up with the developing world and often sacrificed
long-term sustainable development in order to meet short-term economic needs.
Deforestation is a complex process that has different origins in
different parts of the world. In much of Latin America, a major cause is the
clearance of land for agricultural production and grazing, particularly to meet the
growing global demand for animal food. In Haiti, the driving force responsible for
widespread environmental damage has been poverty, forcing Haitians to rely on wood
as chips used for cooking and as their prime source of fuel, since much of the
country, outside the major cities, does not have access to electricity.
According to the U.S. Library of Congress Federal Research Division, an
estimated 98 percent of Haiti’s original forest cover has been chopped down, a
process that also ruined once fertile farmland and is contributing to
desertification. In addition to soil erosion, deforestation has caused periodic
flooding, since rainwater runs off rather than being soaked up by the roots of
But these are not the only reasons that make Haiti particularly vulnerable to
natural disasters. Poor construction methods, due to the prolonged lack of economic
development, have claimed many lives that would have otherwise been spared. A
population plagued by centuries of slavery and with few educational opportunities,
never had the means to fully develop a construction design and standard that could
withstand earthquakes.
As architect Robin Cross told CNN in a recent interview: “It isn’t generally
earthquakes that kill people, it’s generally buildings that kill people.” Cross is
the director of projects for Article 25, a nonprofit architectural group based in
London that helped the region of Kashmir in Pakistan after a severe earthquake hit
the area in 2005, killing more than 70,000 people.
These concerns need to be addressed as the international community and the
government of Haiti study the best options for the future of the country. “Haiti’s
friends realize that Haiti’s true development cannot be built on aid, but must be
based on investment,” Haitian President René Préval said during a recent summit
meeting between Mexico and the Caribbean Community, adding that the nation needs
“not rebuilding but refounding.”
The leader of the slave-led independence movement against French rule in
Haiti, Toussaint L’Ouverture — whom French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte held prisoner
in a dungeon until he died from hunger and thirst in 1803 — said before he died: “In
overthrowing me, you have done no more than cut down the trunk of the tree of black
liberty in Saint-Domingue. It will spring back from the roots, for they are numerous
and deep.” That spirit of resilience and independence still lives within the Haitian