|It is the people of Haiti that have kept us attached to the island of Hispaniola, with their character that reflects their colorful culture abounding with tradition, ceremony and communal unity.
Haiti, a part of the island of Hispaniola, is only 700 miles from the U.S. It masses a third of the Caribbean island, sharing the rest with the Dominican Republic. It is about the same size as Maryland, but its 8 million people crowd every square inch of the island.
In 1492, Columbus landed on Haiti, where he encountered the peaceful native habitants, the Tianos; which means “Man of Good.” The Spanish then colonized the island and named it Hispaniola, or little Spain. Unfortunately, the Spanish were non-peaceful colonizers and quickly rounded up and enslaved the natives. Within 50 years of the Spanish Occupation, the 3 million Tianos and centuries of tradition were wiped out.
The Spanish imported droves of ill-fated African slaves to replace the native Tianos to work the gold rich, fertile land. In 1625, Spain left to colonize South America, and the French came in from the pirate island of Tortuga. They renamed it St. Dominique.
Thousands of Africans from the Ivory Coast were brought to the island to fuel the now bustling sugar cane industry. Haiti was France’s most prized and fortuitous colony for centuries and was the most prosperous colony of the Americas. That wealth was gained from the sweat of the seemingly endless supply of black slaves.
The island mainly consisted of a few French settlers, and a majority of African descendants and Mulattos. Slowly, Maroons (escaped slaves) were able to find refuge in the forests and spark what would be the greatest and most improbable revolution on the planet in the 16th Century. Voodoo Priest Boukman, in 1791, set off the drums, rolling through the mountains to call for the well-planned uprising to overthrow their repressive slave masters. Finally, in 1804, after defeating the Napoleonic army, Haiti gained its independence and became the first black republic.
In January 1804, Dessalines, emulating Napoleon, proclaimed himself Emperor Jacques I, but his increasingly oppressive rule provoked his assassination in 1806, and the country was divided between the rival regimes of Christophe in the north and Alexandre Pétion in the south. In 1811, Christophe proclaimed himself King Henri I, but after his suicide in 1820 Haiti was reunited under Pétion's successor, Jean Pierre Boyer, who ruled as president until his overthrow in 1843. He was forced to pay a huge indemnity to France for the loss of French property during the revolution. To pay this, he had to float loans in France, putting Haïti into a state of debt from which it has seldom escaped.
Meanwhile, in 1809, Spain had reoccupied the eastern two-thirds of the island. When the Spanish settlers declared independence in 1821, Haiti invaded the country and annexed it. The entire island remained under Haitian rule until 1844, when the eastern portion revolted and became the Dominican Republic.
After years of embargos, reparations, and the rest of the world turning their backs on the needs of the Haitians, Haiti slowly became powerless in the midst of imperialism and its conquest over the Caribbean.
Now, Haiti faces a dire future as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, where unemployment is around 70%, three-quarters of the population lives on less than 2 American dollars a day, and half the population lives below the minimum level of dietary energy consumption.
Within the last half-century, 98% of Haiti’s forests have disappeared, due to the volatile political situation and their economic disparity. The result is an ecological nightmare: 72% of the land is considered severely degraded, 20% of the land is arable, and only 41% of the population has access to potable water (source: the FAO). Almost all of the native animals have become extinct. The runoff has resulted in cloudy and polluted water that has suffocated virtually all of the marine ecosystems, including the coral reefs and mangrove forests.
One third of the population has migrated to the capitol city, Port-Au-Prince, in hopes of finding work. The unimaginable result is a city with 2 million without potable water, sewage system, or traffic signals. Haiti has become an appalling statistical anomaly.
Haiti has the third highest rate of hunger in the world, has less clean water than Ethiopia, their malnutrition rate is higher than Angola, and life expectancy is lower than Sudan. This is a secret emergency, which remains under the radar of common American consciousness.
An encounter with Haiti leaves one forever beholden and connected to the plight of its peoples. They are in great need of assistance, and their story is an unsettling example of how our current social behaviors are not sustainable. Haiti is a small example of what can, and will, happen to the rest of the world if we continue to use natural resources at our current rate of consumption. Haiti was the first colonized country by Westerners, and without help from the global community, will be the first country to become essentially uninhabitable.