In 1492, Christopher Columbus made the European discovery of the island of Hispaniola and established a settlement near the present city of Cap-Haïtien. Within 25 years, the native Arawak, a peace-loving, agricultural people, were virtually annihilated by the Spanish settlers. Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas, a missionary to the Amerindians, who had originally come to Hispaniola as a planter in 1502, proposed that African slaves be imported for plantation labor. Some time after 1517, a forced migration of Africans gave Haiti its black population.
About 1625, French and English privateers and buccaneers, preying on Spanish Caribbean shipping, made the small island of Tortuga their base. The French soon also established a colonial presence on nearby mainland coasts and competed with the Spaniards. In the Treaty of Ryswick (1697), Spain ceded the western third of the island (Haiti) to the French. Under French rule it became one of the wealthiest of the Caribbean communities. This prosperity, stemming from forestry and sugar-related industries, came at a heavy cost in human misery and environmental degradation.
The French Revolution in 1789 outlawed slavery in France, which inspired Haiti's nearly half million black slaves to revolt. In a series of violent uprisings, slaves killed white planters and razed estates. Although they suffered cruel reprisals, they fought on under the direction of Toussaint L'Ouverture, an ex-slave who had risen to the rank of general in the French army. By 1801 Toussaint controlled the entire island, and promulgated a constitution, which abolished slavery. The emperor Napoleon did not accept this move, and sent 70 warships and 25,000 men to suppress the movement. Toussaint was captured, and died in a French prison.
Jean Jacques Dessalines, another black general risen from the ranks, continued the struggle, and in 1803, the disease-decimated French army surrendered. On 1 January 1804, Dessalines proclaimed Haiti's independence. Dessalines, after assuming the title of emperor in 1804, was assassinated in 1806, and Haiti was divided into a northern monarchy and a southern republic. Under both regimes, the plantations were distributed among former slaves, and Haiti became a nation of small farmers. Haiti was reunited by Jean Pierre Boyer in 1820, and in 1822 the Haitian army conquered Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic). For 22 years there was one republic for the entire island. In 1844, however, one year after Boyer was overthrown, the Dominican Republic proclaimed its independence from Haiti. In 1849, the president of Haiti, Faustin Elie Soulouque, proclaimed himself Emperor Faustin I. He was dethroned by a revolution headed by Nicholas Fabre Geffrard, who reestablished the republic and became president. In 1860, Geffrard negotiated a concordat with the Holy See that established Roman Catholicism as the national religion, although freedom of worship was retained.
A long period of political instability between 1843 and 1915, during which time Haiti had 22 dictators, culminated in the assassination of President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam and was followed by US military occupation. The occupation, which lasted 19 years, terminated in 1934 during the administration of President Sténio Vincent (1930–41), who in 1935 proclaimed a new constitution.
After World War II, another period of political instability culminated in a 1950 coup d'etat that brought Gen. Paul Magloire to power. Magloire's economic policies led to a serious depression. In December 1956 a national sit-down strike, organized jointly by business, labor, and professional leaders, forced Magloire into exile. A period of chaos ensued, with seven governments trying to establish control.
In a September 1957 election filled with irregularities François Duvalier, a middle-class black physician known to his followers as Papa Doc, became president. He began to rule by decree in 1958, and in May 1961, he had himself elected for another six years. On 22 June 1964, Duvalier was formally elected president for life. Despite several attempted revolts, he consolidated his position, ruling largely through his security force, the Tontons Macoutes ("bogeymen"). Political opposition was ruthlessly suppressed, and thousands of suspected dissidents "disappeared." Also murdered were some 3,000 supporters of Daniel Fignolé, leader of the Peasant Workers Movement (Mouvement Ouvrier Paysan) and Duvalier's most effective opponent.
Political life under the Papa Doc regime was characterized by plots against the government and governmental counterterrorism, the latter entrusted to the Tontons Macoutes and to other thugs known as cagoulards. Opposition leaders went into hiding or exile. The Haitian Revolutionary Movement (Mouvement Révolutionnaire Haïtien), led by Haitian exiles Luc B. Innocent and Paul G. Argelin, began operations in Colombia in February 1961.
The National Democratic Union (Union Démocratique Nationale) was founded in Puerto Rico in April 1962 by former Ambassador Pierre Rigaud, with a branch in Venezuela organized by Paul Verna and an underground movement operating in Haiti. Invasions in 1964, 1969, and 1970 met with no success. Haitian exiles in New York, Montreal, Chicago, and Washington mounted an influential anti-Duvalier campaign during the 1960s. Throughout this period, no party operated openly in Haiti except the Duvalierist Party of National Unity (Parti de l'Unité Nationale).
On 22 January 1971, Duvalier named his son Jean-Claude as his successor. Papa Doc died on 21 April 1971, and Jean-Claude, at the age of 19, became president for life the following day. The younger Duvalier sought to ease political tensions, encouraged tourism and foreign investment, and contributed to the beginnings of an economic revival. However, political arrests did not wholly cease, and there were severe economic reverses in the mid-and late-1970s.
In February 1979, elections to the National Assembly took place amid allegations of government fraud. Opposition groups were then arrested, tried, and convicted of subversion, but later released. In January and March 1982, two small exile groups tried unsuccessfully to overthrow the government by staging armed invasions. The first municipal elections of the Duvalier period were held in spring 1983. The voting resulted, for the most part, in victories for the government, partly because several opposition figures had been arrested during the campaign.
Jean-Claude proved to be an ineffectual leader and tensions mounted as the economy stagnated after 1980. When civil disorder began to break out in the mid-1980s, the president became increasingly reclusive. In February 1986, following a series of demonstrations and protests, Jean-Claude and his family fled to France, and the National Governing Council (Conseil National de Gouvernement—CNG), led by Lt.-Gen. Henri Namphy, seized power.
Hopes for the restoration of democracy soon faded. The presidential election scheduled for November 1987 was postponed as gangs of thugs and soldiers killed at least 34 persons. The CNG attempted new elections and a new government, but those governments had no legitimacy at home or abroad. In December 1990 a Roman Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was elected with 67.5% of the votes cast. The immediate aftermath of the CNG's takeover was euphoric. Political prisoners were released and the dreaded Tontons Macoute, Duvalier's clandestine secret police, were disbanded. Namphy's declared purpose was to provide a transition to a democratically elected government. A constituent assembly, convened in October 1986, drafted a new constitution that was approved by referendum in March 1987.
Aristide had an ideology, a sort of egalitarian Catholic doctrine, and a political coalition of 15 parties, the National Front for Change and Democracy (FNCD), but he did not have the confidence of the military. Upset by his popularity and his foreign policy, which favored stronger hemispheric relations at the expense of US-Haitian relations, the military under General Raoul Cédras ousted him in October 1991. From exile, Aristide did not relent, and appealed to international organizations for help. The UN and OAS forged an agreement between Cédras and Aristide that was to return Aristide to the presidency in October 1993, but the military balked. Aristide promptly appealed to the Clinton administration, even as he criticized US policy, and the Clinton administration responded with sanctions against the Haitian regime in May and June of 1994. However, the impasse persisted.
In September 1994, as a last resort, the Clinton administration secured international support for a military invasion of Haiti to force Cédras from power. A US invasion force was assembled and war seemed imminent. However, at the 11th hour, Clinton sent a special delegation, headed by former US president Jimmy Carter, to negotiate a peaceful solution to the crisis. As US fighter planes were about to take off for Haiti, the Carter team reached an agreement with Cédras and war was diverted. American forces peacefully took control of the country and, in October 1994, restored Aristide to power.
Returning to the country after a three-year absence, Aristide faced two major challenges: rescuing the country's economy, which was in dire straits following the international embargo that had been imposed on it, and curbing the rampant violent street crime, gang activity, and vigilantism that had developed in the absence of an adequate justice system. To cope with the security vacuum created by the departure of the military regime, UN peacekeeping forces arrived in March of 1995.
In June 1995, elections for local and legislative office, although marred by mismanagement and requiring additional rounds of voting, remained free of state-sponsored violence and were generally regarded as a sign of success for the nation's fledgling democracy. Although there was strong sentiment among many Haitians in favor of having Aristide remain in office beyond the end of his designated single term as president (most of which had been usurped by military rule), US support remained contingent on adhering to the terms of the 1987 constitution, which barred the president from seeking a second consecutive term. Aristide himself wavered about honoring this provision but ultimately stepped down, endorsing a close associate, René Préval, to succeed him in office. Préval was elected on 17 December 1995, with 88% of the vote. In February 1996 he took office, becoming Haiti's second democratically elected president in the country's 191-year history as an independent nation. The presence of both a UN peacekeeping force of over 1,000 and several hundred US troops was extended through November 1997. In July 1997 Haiti became a member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
Even under relatively stable political conditions, Haiti's economic and security problems proved intractable. Poverty and unemployment—estimated at 80%—remained endemic. In May 1996 Préval agreed to economic reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund, including privatization of state-owned enterprises, a measure previously resisted by his government. However, former president Aristide opposed the privatization plans and in 1997 formed a new political grouping of his own. After failing to win parliamentary approval for three nominees for prime minister in 1998, President Préval dissolved parliament in January 1999 and unilaterally appointed a new prime minister, provoking civil unrest in the streets. Through the rest of 1999 and into early 2000, Préval repeatedly postponed promised legislative elections, leaving the country without a fully operating government. A wave of violence escalted and eventually claimed the life of the country's most prominent radio journalist, Jean Leopold Dominique, who was murdered in April 2000.
In the presidential election held in November 2000, former president Aristide easily won the election with 91.8% of the vote. His party, the Fanmi Lavalas (FL—Lavalas Family), captured 83 of the 93 seats in the National Assembly. Since taking office in early 2001, Aristide has been accused of developing a highly personalist and authoritarian government. He has concentrated power in his own hands and has failed to build and consolidate democratic institutions. The economy continued its downward spiral, with negative growth in 2001 and 2002 and more than 80% of Haitians living in poverty. In addition, international organizations have expressed concern over the growing violence in the country and the little respect for human rights shown by the Aristide government. Attacks against opposition leaders and widespread street violence prompted the Organization of American States (OAS) to ask the Aristide government to correct the situation but as of mid-2003 little progress had been achieved.