Haiti was colonized in 1659 by the French, who developed large sugar plantations utilizing slave labor from Africa. The years between 1659 and 1791 are the only period of political stability Haiti has known. From 1791 through 1803, the country experienced a slave rebellion that culminated in the slaves' victory over Napoleon's army and the establishment in 1804 of the independent state of Haiti, ruled by Dessalines, who declared himself emperor. The remainder of the 19th century was marked by frequent and often violent shifts in political power, with 22 changes of government during the period 1843–1915. Much of the conflict arose from the ethnic hierarchy, which remained essentially unchanged from Haiti's colonial period. Although Haitians of African descent made up the vast majority of the population, political power was concentrated in the hands of mulattos and light-skinned descendants of European landholders, which created extraordinary social tensions. After an extended period of heightened conflict and bloodletting between the two segments of society, the United States occupied Haiti in 1915 and ruled the country until 1934. A succession of leaders followed the U.S. departure, including the first black president of the republic, Dusmarsais Estime, in 1946. Two subsequent regimes were overthrown before 1957, and six held power that year before François Duvalier, a much beloved country physician, was elected president.
Despite a promising start, characterized by significant popular support, Duvalier (known popularly as "Papa Doc") quickly assumed dictatorial powers, declaring himself president for life, and unleashed what would become a 30-year reign of terror led first by himself and then by his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc," who succeeded to the presidency in April 1971 when his father died. Both Duvaliers used the Tontons Macoutes , a loyal private militia to control the nation and to crush opposition. Nevertheless, the 1970s and 1980s were characterized by intensifying public protest, despite increasing government repression. In 1985, in a last-ditch attempt to control the political forces sweeping Haiti, Baby Doc announced a series of constitutional reforms that would open the political process. Public opposition continued unabated, and Duvalier responded in January 1986 with the imposition of a state of siege and the declaration of martial law. On 7 February 1986, finally bowing to intense pressure both at home and abroad, Jean-Claude Duvalier and his family fled Haiti for exile in France. A series of unstable provisional military governments followed until March 1990 when Ertha Pascal Trouillot, a Supreme Court judge, was named head of yet another interim government. Trouillot was committed to democratic elections that had been promised and subsequently canceled by military leaders in the post-Duvalier period. These elections took place in December 1990 when Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest, was elected president of the Republic of Haiti with 67.5% of the vote. Aristide was overthrown in a military coup on 30 September 1991. The junta , under General Raoul Cédras, remained in power until October 1994 when 20,000 U.S. troops peacefully took control of Haiti to restore Aristide to power. Under the constitution approved by referendum in March 1987, the national government is comprised of several elements, all of which are intended to exert checks and balances on each other, thereby preventing any one element from acquiring overwhelming power. The legislature is bicameral, consisting of an 83-member Chamber of Deputies and a 27-member Senate. The executive power is held by the president, elected to a single five-year term, and the prime minister, chosen by the president from the majority party in the legislature, subject to the approval of that body. The voting age is 18, and suffrage is universal. Aristide could not run for reelection in 1995, so he endorsed an associate, René Préval, who was elected on 17 December 1995. Under Préval, the government was not functioning; the legislature failed to approve three of Préval's nominees for prime minister, and Préval responded in 1999 by dissolving the Parliament and appointing a prime minister. Aristide ran for and won the presidency in elections held in November 2000.