Haiti is a country often associated with voodoo magic and political unrest. In fact, the country has been marred by wars ever since it separated from the Dominican Republic. Because of the political drama and upheavals, Haiti unlike its island brethren is not a common vacation destination. Certainly, some areas are visited by cruise ships. There are also a few holiday resorts. But instability has put a damper on the island’s tourism potential. People are generally poor. Sugar-cane cutters earn meager wages and often have to travel to the Dominican Republic to earn more.
The island is mountainous, which makes development difficult. In fact, 80% of the island is mountains. Many subsistence farmers only have a tiny patch of land to work with. Coffee is the main crop that’s exported, while cotton, maize, bananas, and tobacco are grown for domestic consumption. The island arcs around the Gulf of Gonave, in the middle of which is an offshore island called Gonave.
Three mountain ranges dominate Haiti. The mountains used to be covered almost entirely by forest, but clear cutting is occurring at a rapid pace.
Haiti’s geography is partly to blame for the island’s economic plight. Much of the country has a denuded look, as tracts of forests have disappeared and erosion has become a problem with the open farmland. The Massif de la Hotte and the neighboring Massif de la Selle are the highest mountains in the Caribbean, boasting several peaks on the southern peninsula that reach over 2,000 meters (6,560 feet). North of these mountains, you’ll find a dramatic drop in elevations, at the bottom of which are lakes. Lake Enriquillo is located on the border with the Dominican Republic and is below sea level by 30 meters (98 feet). There are more mountains further north such as the Massif des Montagnes Noires along with a few smaller ranges on the north coast.
Much like its neighbor, the Dominican Republic, Haiti’s history is a turbulent one. It has been an aggressor, frequently making cross-border incursions. These incursions usually occur at times when the country is relatively settled. Overall, Haiti is almost always unsettled.
In the early 1990s, a major upset occurred when military leader General Prosper Avril was ousted and a temporary president – the first woman – was selected. Ertha Pascal-Trouillet, a member of the Supreme Court, was chosen after the country rebelled against AVril and his army for breaking promises to hold democratic elections at the beginning of 1990.
The island was first “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1492. He left his brother Bartolme in charge to build a colony. The setters quickly abandoned the north coast site and moved to the Dominican Republic to set up the capital at present-day Santo Domingo. The entire island remained under Spain’s control for numerous years and served as a base for expeditions to other Caribbean islands and to South America.
The English and the French both eyed the island because of its geographical significance. It was useful as a staging post between the gold fields of South America and Europe. While the English, led by Sir Francis Drake, took control of Santo Domingo for a few days, it was the French who ultimately captured Hispaniola.
From Hispaniola, the French launched an attack on the Spanish, seizing control of the western portion of the island. Under the Treaty of Ryswick of 1697, the conquest was ratified. Haiti immediately enjoyed numerous years of prosperity with its many sugar-cane plantations. The success, however, stemmed from the use of imported slaves from West Africa. After the French Revolution, a fear of a similar rebellion on Haiti gripped many of the plantation owners. When the French Government passed a law that allowed offsprings of white parents to vote, this sparked controversy between the growing mulatto and white community. Led by Francoise-Dominique Toussaint, slaves took the opportunity to stage a rebellion, slaughtering thousands of whites and triggering years of fighting.
The English also seized the opportunity by invading. They stayed for four years and left, leaving Toussaint in control. He then turned on the mulatto community, massacring thousands of them. He led an army into the Dominican Republic and conquered Santo Domingo. Finally, the French government intervened and arrested Toussaint, who died while imprisoned.
The French intervention triggered another rebellion led by slave Dessalines. In 1804, he declared himself emperor, but he died two years later and the country was left in complete disarray. For many years, Haiti was a country divided between mulatto and black rulers. During this period, plantations were split up and smaller parcels of land were given to peasants. The fracturing of farmland crippled the country’s economic strength.
The country remained in disarray well into the 20th century before the U.S. decided to intervene. Because of the island’s strategic location, the U.S. had plans for the country. They invested money into building Haiti’s infrastructure but were constantly attacked by the islanders. Finally, the Americans withdrew in the 1930s. The country remained under the control of mulattos until 1957 when “Papa Doc” Duvalier entered the scene. He was a black nationalist who kept control of the people with his network of secret police known as Tontons Macoutes. He tortured and terrorized the island.
During his reign, hundreds of thousands of Haitians were murdered. The upper class mulattos were almost eliminated. Everyone lived in mistrust and despair, not knowing who was a potential informer. In 1971, the son of Duvalier, “Baby Doc” was named President-for-Life. The mulattos regained strength during this period, especially when one of them married a Duvalier. “Baby Doc” unexpectedly fled to Europe in 1986 after having massacred hundreds. His departure left the secret police – the Tontons Macoutes – facing the “music”. Many of them were killed in revenge and mob attacks.
In the last few decades, the country has been run by the army with the help of civilians. Elections have been planned but often get canceled. In 1990, financial aid from France and the U.S. was cut because of the army’s dismal human rights record.
The country’s economy has steadily declined since the days of the sugar-cane plantations. It is one of the poorest countries in the region. There is mass unemployment and a mass exodus of men who travel to Dominican Republic for work. The millions of dollars received in foreign aid seems to have had little impact on the majority of Haitians.
Most of the people in the country live on subsistence farming. The clear-cutting of the forests has caused severe erosion. The cooler climate of the mountains enables a range of crops to be grown, but most are consumed locally except for coffee. The climactic conditions vary significantly across the country. Tourism is growing nad provide the country with hard currency. Most of the travelers are Americans. Many cruise ships also dock at Cap Haitien, bringing a steady flow of money from passengers.
Most of the residents are descended from former slaves. Approximately 20% are mulattos and have generally held power within the country. White people on the island are called blancs, which isn’t necessarily a racist term. It may seem that way sometimes though when street vendors hassle you.
Around the world, Haiti is known for its voodoo magic. Its origin comes from the slaves from West Africa. The Duvalier family used voodoo allegedly to control the population. Resorts perform voodoo shows for tourists, although they usually don’t get the real thing. Christianity is the other religion on the island.
Swimming costumes are frowned upon anywhere outside of the beaches. Women wearing short skirts will attract a lot of attention. Men typically wear shirts in the evening, although a tie or jacket is not common.
When to Go
The peak season for Haiti is between December and April. The temperature during this period is lower and there is less rain and humidity. If you travel to the mountains, temperatures are naturally lower and rainfall greater.
There are excellent restaurants in Haiti, thanks to the country’s French influences. The island’s specializes in mixing seafood with locally produced food. A mix of French and Caribbean styles is preferred. Lobster is the highlight of many menus. Babancourt is a popular local rum and Prestige is the preferred brand of local beer. The bakeries sell many pastries and French-style breads.
Booth, Elizabeth. Jamaica and the Greater Antilles. Swindon: Crowood Press, Ltd, 1991. ISBN: 1852234628.
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