Country Profile of Haiti

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Haiti became the world’s first black-led republic and the first independent Caribbean state when it threw off French colonial control and slavery in a series of wars in the early 19th century.

However, decades of poverty, environmental degradation, violence, instability and dictatorship have left it as the poorest nation in the Americas.

A mostly mountainous country with a tropical climate, Haiti’s location, history and culture – epitomized by voodoo – once made it a potential tourist hot spot, but instability and violence, especially since the 1980s, have severely dented that prospect.

Haiti achieved notoriety during the brutal dictatorships of the voodoo physician Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude, or “Baby Doc”. Tens of thousands of people were killed under their 29-year rule.

Hopes that the election in 1990 of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest, would herald a brighter future were dashed when he was overthrown by the military a short time later.

AT A GLANCE
Girl surveys slum district of Port-au-Prince, April 2006
Politics: Democratic rule was restored in 2006, two years after a violent revolt ousted former leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide; bitter political divisions persist
Economy: The economy is in ruins and unemployment is chronic
International: The UN has deployed peacekeepers; international aid is seen as key to recovery

Although economic sanctions and US-led military intervention forced a return to constitutional government in 1994, Haiti’s fortunes did not pick up, with allegations of electoral irregularities, ongoing extra-judicial killings, torture and brutality.

A bloody rebellion, and pressure from the US and France, forced Mr Aristide out of the country in 2004.

Since then, an elected leadership has taken over from an interim government and a UN stabilisation force has been deployed. But Haiti is still plagued by violent confrontations between rival gangs and political groups and the UN has described the human rights situation as “catastrophic”.

Meanwhile, Haiti’s most serious underlying social problem, the huge wealth gap between the impoverished Creole-speaking black majority and the French-speaking minority, 1% of whom own nearly half the country’s wealth, remains unaddressed.

Many Haitians seek work and a better life in the US or other Caribbean nations, including the neighbouring Dominican Republic, which is home to hundreds of thousands of Haitian migrants.

Furthermore, the infrastructure has all but collapsed and drug trafficking has corrupted the judicial system and the police.

Haiti is also ill-equipped to deal with the aftermath of the tropical storms that frequently sweep across the island, with severe deforestation having left it vulnerable to flooding.

Facts

  • Full name: Republic of Haiti
  • Population: 10 million (UN, 2009)
  • Capital: Port-au-Prince
  • Area: 27,750 sq km (10,714 sq miles)
  • Major languages: Creole, French
  • Major religion: Christianity
  • Life expectancy: 59 years (men), 63 years (women) (UN)
  • Monetary unit: 1 gourde = 100 centimes
  • Main exports: Light manufactures, coffee, oils, mangoes
  • GNI per capita: US $660 (World Bank, 2008)
  • Internet domain: .ht
  • International dialling code: +509

Leaders

    President: Rene Preval

    Rene Preval, often described as a champion of the poor, won presidential elections in February 2006 with 51% of the vote.

    Rene Preval

    Rene Preval was declared 2006 poll victor after days of protests

    He was declared the victor after officials agreed to discount thousands of blank ballot papers. His supporters had taken to the streets, rejecting initial results which would have led to a second round.

    Mr Preval, the front-runner, said “massive fraud” was being used to deny him a first-round victory.

    Rene Preval is a former president and a one-time ally of Haiti’s exiled former leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

    He says he wants to tackle social inequalities and to create jobs. In the run-up to his inauguration he visited potential donor countries in pursuit of aid.

    Born in Port-au-Prince in 1943, Rene Preval studied in Belgium and lived in the US in the 1970s. He is often portrayed as being shy and softly-spoken. He was president from 1996-2001, between Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s first and second terms.

    Mr Aristide was Haiti’s first democratically-elected president, taking office in 1990 amid great popular support.

    Having weathered a bloody military coup and ongoing political and economic crises, he was forced out in February 2004 when opposition to his rule grew increasingly violent.

    Now in exile in South Africa, Mr Aristide has promised to return to Haiti and accuses the US of forcing him into exile. Washington denies this.

    Prime Minister: Jean-Max Bellerive

    Jean-Max Bellerive was appointed premier by President Preval in October 2009 after the sacking of the government headed by Michelle Pierre-Louis, who had held the post for just over a year.

    Jean-Max Bellerive

    Jean-Max Bellerive previously served as planning minister

    Haiti’s Senate had voted to dissolve Ms Pierre-Louis’ cabinet amid a power struggle that threatened to undermine efforts to attract foreign investment to the country.

    The senators who pushed through a censure motion against Ms Pierre-Louis accused her of failing to make sufficient progress in setting Haiti on the path to economic recovery.

    Mr Bellerive trained as an economist and has long experience in public administration. He has held a variety of government posts, and was an official in the administration of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

    As minister of planning and external cooperation under Ms Pierre-Louis, he played an important role in courting foreign investors.

    He faces the task of establishing his authority quickly, so as to avoid Haiti being plunged into a new phase of instability that could jeopardise what progress has been made in attracting investment.

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