New Internationalist


June 2011

Ayiti’, as this country is affectionately known by nationalists, is much more than the post-apocalyptic photos of its capital, Port-au-Prince, might imply. In spite of the devastation wrought by the January 2010 earthquake, which killed nearly 300,000 people, Haiti remains a land of hummingbirds, coral reefs, charming architecture, strong coffee and the vibrant colours of markets chock-full of unexpected treats. Mornings serve up rooster crows and sleepy afternoons find men gathered over dominoes on impromptu tables that rest on their knees; long nights bring the distinctive rhythms of konpa music and the drums of traditional Vodou ceremonies.

The first country ever to launch a successful slave rebellion, Haiti overthrew French colonialists and declared independence in 1804. For several decades, the new government launched its own offensive, occupying the Dominican Republic in a manner that continues to generate resentment and ongoing grudges between the island neighbours. The violent dictatorships of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier from 1957 to 1986, and the subsequent years of disrupted and degenerating rule by populist leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide have also taken a toll.

Long labelled as isolated and unco-operative, Haiti has rarely been free from the economic and political webs woven by its more powerful neighbours. It is little known that US marines actually occupied Haiti for nearly 20 years, starting in 1915. Since then, virtually no political decision has been taken in the country that has not borne the mark of international intervention or, at the very least, strong suggestion, especially from the closest superpower, the US. Massive deforestation, political instability and the removal of tariffs from imported goods have also thoroughly corrupted Haiti’s once booming rice and other export industries. In collaboration with bilateral donors, foreign and Haitian investors have started to relaunch the garment and mango industries, but a country that was once the poster child of prosperity for its colonial rulers is now a leading example of how not to manage a national economy.

Jacob Kushner
Churchgoers walk through the ruins of Notre Dame Cathedral in Port-au-Prince on the first anniversary of the 2010 earthquake Jacob Kushner

Yet it is important to remember that Haiti’s image as ‘the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere’, and as a bastion of misery, is often upheld by those with an ulterior motive. Misery and violence make for great news; poverty and suffering make for great funding proposals. A widespread fear of insecurity is highly profitable for everyone who works in the security industry, and also for the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) forces, whose presence – though often peaceful and helpful – has become a thorn in the side of almost every Haitian. Following the rampant rumours that UN forces were responsible for reintroducing cholera to a country where it has been absent for more than 150 years, MINUSTAH is these days more often resented as an occupying force than seen as a protector.

Many Haitians say that the problem with their country is that it never actually overthrew systematic slavery: colonial slavery was merely replaced with that of the poor majority by the wealthy minority. Few believe that any change of government will be strong enough to root out the corruption and élitism that underpins most economic and political decisions in Haiti. And while the world today continues to focus on the problems resulting from the earthquake – up to a million people remain homeless – Haitians themselves recognize that it was the ongoing political mayhem and social (dis)order that paved the way for the devastation.

This is a country of extreme poverties, extreme injustices and an extremity of unexploited resources – most found far from the business district and wrapped up in the wit, creativity and resourcefulness of a surprisingly hardy people.

Haiti Fact File
Leader President Michel Martelly.
Economy GDP per capita $646 (Dominican Republic $4,637, United States $45,989). An estimated 80% live in poverty and there is widespread unemployment (over two-thirds of the labour force does not have a formal job). Haiti’s public sector and infrastructure were in disarray even before the earthquake. Remittances from expatriate workers are a lifeline for some
Monetary unit Haitian gourde, though US dollars are widely accepted.
Main exports Apparel, oils, cocoa, mangoes, coffee.
People 10.0 million. Annual population growth rate 1.9%. People per square kilometre 316 (UK 253).
Health Infant mortality 64 per 1,000 live births (Dom Rep 27, US 7). HIV prevalence 1.9% and holding steady. High risk of infectious diseases (bacterial and protozoal diarrhoea, hepatitis A and E, and typhoid fever, dengue fever and malaria, leptospirosis).
Environment CO2 emissions per capita 0.2 tonnes (US 19.9). Extensive deforestation, soil erosion; inadequate supplies of potable water. Subject to severe storms June-October, as well as occasional flooding and earthquakes.
Culture 95% are descendants of African slaves. There are vibrant traditions such as ‘Carnaval’ as well as a long history of innovative craftwork and colourful artwork.
Religion Roman Catholic 80%, Baptist 10%, Pentecostal 4%, Adventist 1%, other Christian 1%), none 1%, other 3%. A popular joke is that 80% of Haitians are Catholic, 20% are Protestant and 100% are Vodou.
Language Haitian Creole (spelled ‘Kreyol’ to distinguish it as a separate language and not just a derivative form) and French are both official.
Human development index 0.404 – 145th of 169 (Dom Rep 0.663, US 0.902).
Last profiled link September 1999
Haiti ratings in detail
Income distribution
The richest Haitians live like movie stars, with their Miami weekends and their beach mansions, while the poor struggle to find 10 gourdes for a tap-tap (bus) ride.
Previously reviewed
Life expectancy
61 years (Dom Rep 73, US 79). Up from 54 years when last profiled.
Previously reviewed
53%. Many schools collapsed in the earthquake and have not been rebuilt and many children were forced to drop out after their families suffered severe economic setbacks.
Previously reviewed
Position of women
The Vodou religion traditionally elevates the female but women remain among the poorest and most vulnerable. In the year after the earthquake, rates of rape have skyrocketed – largely due to the poorly lit tent camps.
Previously reviewed
An ostensibly free press but also a long history of journalists receiving death threats. Haitians are quick to share opinions and argue loudly. But after years of terror by government-backed street gangs, they know where to draw the line.
Previously reviewed
Sexual minorities
While not illegal, there seems to be little place in today’s Haiti for homosexuality. Though the country is not as homophobic as some others in the Caribbean, there are no gay or lesbian venues and little cultural tolerance.
NI Assessment (Politics)
The government has been virtually non-existent in recent years. The elections of 2010 and 2011 have now launched flamboyant musician ‘Sweet Mickey’ Martelly as the new president of Haiti. The presidential race was far more about the poorest segments of society fearing the oppression of the richest than it was about the actual qualifications of either candidate. But for now, Martelly has ‘the people’ on his side and, more than a year after a devastating earthquake and a widespread cholera epidemic, what ‘the people’ really want for their country is change.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 443 This column was published in the June 2011 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 boyd 03 Jul 11

    The above article states that “Martelly has ‘the people’ on his side.”

    Hardly: Before the election began, the largest party in Haiti, Fanmi Lavalas, was excluded. Then voter turnout was only 22%, eventually giving Martelly only 16.7 percent of registered voters. Compared with elections in 2000, Aristide received over 3.5 times as many votes as Martelly. (See


  2. #2 emilycavan 06 Jul 11

    Hi Boyd,

    Thanks for your comment. Point taken that it is hard to assess the will of 'the people' (and please do note the quotation marks - it is hard sometimes to even define what 'the people' means exactly) in what is seen by many as an unfair (if not undemocratic) election. However, within the confines of this current runoff, Martelly was definitely seen as the representative of the poor and less enfranchised, in comparison with his only other final contender, Madame Manigat.

    What WILL be interesting to see is how Aristide, still in Haiti and sitting mum as far as anyone can tell, will play out his role as the once true populist leader.

    Martelly may have won these elections but most of those 'people' we were talking about earlier feel that Aristide is their leader (bygones being bygones). His word (and surely he knows this?) is gold. So we are all waiting to see what he is going to say.

    So far, it hasn't been much.


  3. #3 elizabeth 05 Nov 11

    Just wanted to point out that Creole is not spelled Kreyol in the language to distinguish it as a separate language, but rather because the entire language is written phonetically. In English it is always spelled Creole.

  4. #4 Haisha 19 Aug 15

    Wrong again

    ThE LIES YOU TELL, 95% of the population are black?

    Haiti has 80 to 85% of is population wich is black ( mulattos included) the 15 to 20% left are arabs( syrians, lybians) + whites ( french, germans, polish ) and a handfull of asian descent....

    And no haiTian doesn't eat mud cake, but clay, aand it's yummy even the rich one eat it too.

    And the western media keep spreading lies, they only shoot in port au prince, because they know the country side is no different then any other island of the carribean: SEA/SUN.

    Why people have to spread lies about Haiti.

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Country ratings (details)
Income distribution1
Previously reviewed1
Life expectancy2
Previously reviewed1
Previously reviewed1
Position of women2
Previously reviewed3
Previously reviewed3
Sexual minorities1
NI Assessment (Politics)2

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This article was originally published in issue 443

New Internationalist Magazine issue 443
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