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new internationalist
issue 202 - December 1989



[image, unknown] Haiti was the 'pearl of the Antilles' a French colony in the eighteenth century: today it is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. In 1804 African slaves overthrew the French and made Haiti the first 'Black Republic'. Skin-color politics and foreign interests played a major role in the country's course throughout the nineteenth century and into this one. The US occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, crushing a nationalist revolt, tying the Haitian currency directly to the dollar, and making the military a powerful, independent institution. Only President Dumarsais Estime, elected in 1946 and ousted by the army in 1950, represented a progressive, black Nationalist leadership.

In 1957, Dr. Francois Duvalier won a controversial election with backing from the military and the US government. Known as 'Papa Doc', he used the Creole language, the Vodun religion (voodoo) and Black Nationalism to identify himself with the Haitian peasant, and gained US support with his anti-communist pronouncements. He declared himself President-for-Life in 1964, and used his paramilitary Tontons Macoutes to stamp out any opposition.

Jean Claude Duvalier became president at his father's death in 1971. He expanded a corrupt system that siphoned foreign aid dollars into the pockets of family and friends, and continued the by-now-familiar repression. Finally in February 1986, the army, the rich and the US State Department could no longer be counted on to support his government's violent responses to accelerating national protests, and the Duvaliers fled.

As Haitians in the diaspora considered returning to a 'free' Haiti, the military again filled the political vacuum. A milestone in Haiti's history came in March 1987 when the Government loosened its grip long enough for voters to adopt a new, progressive constitution. The document outlawed the death penalty, made Creole an official language and erased anti-Vodun laws. A determined civilian electoral council then became Haiti's moral leader for eight months, allowing civilians to organise elections. But the process was crushed amidst massacres of voters on election day. Since then leaders have come and gone. In September 1988 General Avril ousted the progressive army officers then in power, and the Haitian 'revolution' was back to square one.

Today Haiti is still waiting for the leadership which will attack the country's major problems - illiteracy, deforestation and AIDS - and which will legitimize basic Haitian culture such as Creole, the Vodun religion and the rural, agricultural base of the country. But above all, Haitians are waiting for an end to the decades of pain and privation.

Kyle Richmond, Caribbean Exchange

Leader: General Prosper Avril

Economy: GNP per capita $360 (US $18,530) Monetary unit: Gourde
Major industries are sugar, coffee, cocoa and tourism. Food, vehicles and fuel, machinery, textiles and building materials are imported: exports include coffee, sugar and manufactured items such as baseballs. Foreign imports (eg US rice) undercut local production. Haitian pigs, killed to stop a swine flu virus from reaching the US, have still not been replaced. Tourism has almost died since the violence of Duvalier years and the onset of AIDS.

People: 6.1 million

Health: Infant mortality: 117 per 1,000 live births (US 10 per 1,000)

Culture: Haiti has one of the highest population densities in the world. About 1.5 million Haitians live outside the country, in the US and Canada. About 400,000 live in virtual slavery in the Dominican Republic were they went or were sent to cut sugar cane.

Religion: Vodun, which derives from African mysticism, colonial Catholicism and slavery. Also Christianity.
Languages: French is the official language but Creole is the most used.

Sources: World Bank Report 1990. Information supplied by the author.


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80% of rural people below poverty level; high rate of millionaires

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Domestic staples undersold by black-market imports

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Nearly equal access to education; poor access to contraception

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Military maintains control; opposition cannot organise

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Female 35%
Male 40%

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Constitution suspended; political activists disappeared

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55 years
(US 75 years)

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New Internationalist issue 202 magazine cover This article is from the December 1989 issue of New Internationalist.
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