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Haitian man in distress
The lives of many in Haiti have been difficult for decades or longerImage: AP

Haitian history

January 14, 2010

At its founding Haiti was a beacon of freedom, now it is the poorhouse of the western hemisphere. Even before the earthquake, the country was wracked by conflict, political instability and environmental degradation.


For many, the Caribbean nation of Haiti is the embodiment of the failed state, or maybe even an accursed one. Even before Tuesday's 7.0-magnitude earthquake that current estimates say killed tens of thousands, the country was reeling from a set of afflictions - both natural and man-made - that have turned the lives of many of its citizens into fights for survival more serious than they already were.

The independent research group Fund for Peace ranked Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, number 12 in its 2009 list of failed states.

It based its tabulation on indicators such as severe economic decline, criminalization of the state, deterioration of public services, widespread violations of human rights and interventions by other nations in its internal affairs.

A woman and her daughters make clay cakes that ease hunger pains in a Port-au-Prince slum
A woman and her daughters make clay cakes that ease hunger pains in a Port-au-Prince slumImage: AP

On a scale of one to 10 for these categories, with 10 being the worst, Haiti scored 8.5 or higher.

"Life for the great majority of Haitians, even before this catastrophe, was extremely difficult," said Sonya Vogelberg of the German food-relief agency Welthungerhilfe, who was a regional director in Haiti from 2005 to 2007.

"It was combination of political unrest, malnourishment and violence, especially in the overpopulated capital of Port-au-Prince, where many people in slums lived without any kind of infrastructure," she told Deutsche Welle.

Some 80 percent of the Haitian population live under the poverty line and just over half are categorized as living in abject poverty. Two-thirds of all Haitians depend on the agricultural sector for their livelihoods, mainly small-scale subsistence farming, and are vulnerable to damage from frequent natural disasters, the damage from which has been exacerbated by widespread deforestation across the country.

The nightmarish list of statistics grows longer still. Only 30 percent of Haitians have access to sanitation; 54 percent can access clean water. The unemployment rate is around 70 percent and about half of the population is illiterate. The average salary is 66 cents per day.

One of the capital's slums, the notorious Cite Soleil, was once called by the United Nations "the most dangerous place on earth."

Auspicious beginning

While Haiti has been beset with problems for much of its 200-year history, at the country's outset, it was widely admired by those who supported the abolishment of the slave trade. Haiti, in fact, was the first "black" republic, the only nation born of a slave revolt.

Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of Hipaniola in 1492, and the native people there were all but wiped out by Spanish settlers within 25 years. In 1697, Spain ceded the western part of the island, now Haiti, to France, which made it into the wealthiest colony in the Caribbean due to thriving forestry and sugar industries, and the heavy importation of African slaves.

A slum in Port-au-Prince
A slum in Port-au-PrinceImage: picture-alliance /dpa/dpaweb

But in the late 18th century a slave rebellion under leader Toussaint Louverture was successful and after a long struggle, it became a republic on January 1, 1804.

"Given the slave trade in North America, Haiti was seen as a beacon of freedom in the new world," Stefan Rinke, a professor in the Latin America Institute at Berlin's Free University, told Deutsche Welle.

But the country gained its independence heavily indebted to France and since its former slaves originated in different parts of Africa, there were many communities with different traditions, religions and social hierarchies which led to internal tensions, hindering development.

As well, democratic norms never really took hold, according to Rinke. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, an ally of Louverture and leader at the time of independence, soon ruled as a despot. It was the beginning of a long and sad tradition of political leaders who felt their office gave them carte blanche to do whatever they wished, usually lining their own pockets along the way.

"Government there is still dominated by the 'strong man' principle," said Rinke

Terror and flight

In the 20th century, the country was plunged into a new dark period with dictatorship of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude, or "Baby Doc." For 29 years, they brutalized the country, killing tens of thousands of people. It led to a massive brain drain as many of the country's educated fled to the United States or, especially, French-speaking Canada.

Francois "Papa Doc" DuvalierImage: AP

"It was an enormous loss for the country," said Rinke. "If all those people had not left, who knows what might have been possible."

There were hopes that that the 1990 election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide would signal a change in the country's direction. However, he was overthrown shortly thereafter and despite a US-led intervention in 1994, experts still say Haiti was plagued with extra-judicial killings, torture and brutality.

Aristide eventually came back, but was forced out again, continuing the country's tradition of putsch-based transfers of powers. In its 200-year history, Haiti has seen 32 coups.

Natural disasters have also not spared the island. In 2008, the country was hit by two tropical storms and two hurricanes that killed 800. The scale of destruction, according to statements made at the time by World Bank President Robert Zoellick, "makes your eyes pop."

Huge setback

The tragedy of this latest, and likely more serious, catastrophe is that over the past few years, Haiti had seemed to be stabilizing somewhat. Rene Preval, an Aristide ally, was elected president in 2006 and appeared to be ready to work toward long-term sustainable development.

Haiti's severely damaged National Palace
Haiti's severely damaged National PalaceImage: AP

Former US President Bill Clinton was named by the UN as special envoy to Haiti and was using his talents to raising funds and public awareness. Last March, he raised $300 million (207 million euros) for reconstruction efforts.

Vogelberg of Welthungerhilfe said when she left the country in 2007, she felt the humanitarian situation was still serious, but she felt the country's future was looking brighter.

"I had the feeling that things were getting better," she said. "After the elections, there was more life on the streets, Haitians had begun celebrating carnival again and a certain joie de vivre was returning."

But after the latest estimates of tens of thousands of deaths, the destruction of the headquarters of the UN's Haiti program as well as the National Palace, the country's pride, she added: "Now that has all been set back dramatically."

Author: Kyle James
Editor: Rob Mudge

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