Haiti is an independent nation, occupying the western 1/3 of the Island of Hispaniola. The eastern 2/3 is the nation of the Dominican Republic.
Haiti became a nation on January 1, 1804, at the end of a long revolutionary war (1791-1803) against the French, who owned and ran the colony of Saint-Domingue. Haiti thus became the second independent modern nation in the Americas (the U.S. became a nation in 1783, the only one to preceed it.)
Haiti also became the ONLY nation in human history to be established by black slaves who overthrew their white masters.
More about all that in the next weeks.
Haiti is a small place, about 10,000 square miles, about the size of the state of Maryland. Currently it has a population of around 7,000,000 people, making it the most densely populated place in the Caribbean and in much of the world.
A quick word about statistical data. There is simply NO reliable and
authortative statistical data about Haiti. At best it is all
informed guestimation. But, since this sort of data seems necessary,
big names get put behind much of the data. So, you will find
that someone like the World Bank will cite figures for Haiti, and
since the World Bank sounds like such an authoritive source, and since
no one really can point to a more authortative source, the World Bank,
or U.N., or whatever, sort of becomes the
authority. But, trace it
down and you will find NOTHING behind such guestimations, but informed
guesses. Author Simon Fass, in one of my most favorite books on Haiti,
THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF HAITI, discusses this habit of guessing and
then others picking up the guesses and so on.
So, I do it too. I re-cite figures that others cite, but we have
no hard data, no genuine censuses, or anyother decent counting
measure, other than
informed folks guessing.
Within that caution let me continue. While Haiti is thought to have about 7,000,000 people, it is claimed that about 2,000,000 Haitians, or Haitians and the children born to them in foreign lands, number about another 2,000,000. Thus, if those figures are correct, then there are about 9,000,000 live Haitians, though extremely few of the 2,000,000 Haitians living abroad ever intend to return to Haiti.
A word about the 2,000,000. I got that figure just yesterday. The
guestimator was Harry Fouche, head of
Haiti's Tenth Department
[more about that in a few minutes]. He claims that the primary
centers of Haitians living outside Haiti are Miami, New York [Harry
says that until quite recently more Haitians live in NY than Miami,
but now that is reversed], Boston, Montreal, Quebec, Paris and other
places in U.S., Canada, Europe and the Caribbean.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, though both Nicaragua and Guatamala are not much different. The masses of the people live in total misery, without access to adequate food, potable water, electricity, schools, medical care, decent housing, jobs, even shoes and decent clothes etc. It is so incredibly difficult to describe to foreigners who are not that poor and desperate just how harsh life is for the overwhelming masses of Haitians, probably as much as 90% of them.
At the same time, and difficult for many foreigners to understand, the Haitian people are simply delightful folks to meet. People of song and dance and deep religious experience (the dominant religion is the religion of Voodoo, and we'll talk about that later), and simply delightful people in basic social relations. All of this in those conditions. Strange.
Many foreigners are like me. One goes there and simply falls in love with the place, the Haitians, the country. It's like that and I've read that sentiment from so very many foreigners.
Most Haitians cannot read or write at all. The data about illiteracy rates is much more variable than most other data. I tend to cite and lean toward an 85% figure. Others will say something close to 75%. This doesn't mean much. The data for literacy is no more or less solid than the other data. It's just for other data more people agree. NO good reason for that, they just do. All the data is created from nothing.
Another often cited factor of the level of misery in Haiti are the death rates of children. Infant mortality is the highest in the hemisphere. The death rate of children is astronomical. Many often cite the claim that 50% of the children die before the age of 5. This seems wrong to me. If one took only the 80% poorest people, then it probably is not much exaggerated. Children mainly die of malnutrition related diseases.
There has been an enormous flap about AIDS in Haiti, and much literature to assure us that Haiti received an extremely unfair and extraordinarily damaging rap when it was claimed that AIDS might have originated in Haiti, and that Haitians were one of the four groups cited as being especially high risk for AIDS (along with hemophiliacs, homosexuals, and intervenous drug users). The rap against Haitians is surely false. Nonetheless, there is an enormous problem with AIDS in Haiti, and it is related more to heterosexual transmission than any other form, or so the literature seems to suggest.
Despite all this misery, Haiti has an elite class, comprising perhaps 3-5 % of the people which is extremely wealthy and live lives of wealthy jet setters. Haiti has a very small, but seemingly growing middle class.
Haiti is still a mainly rural country. Probably 70% of the people still live in the rural areas, ekeing out a subsistance living on the land -- mainly on someone else's land which is being farmed as a sharecropper. Haiti does not have many large plantations as in other Caribbean and Central American countries, but nonetheless, the small land plots are owned mainly by the city-dwelling elite.
A figure that is often cited about Haiti is totally shocking and needs
some interpretation: It is often said that Haiti faces up to 80%
unemployment. It is probably true, maybe even more at this moment in
time when the country is very unstable. Yet at the same time one
can say there is virtually NO unemployment at all. What -- this seems
blatantly contradictory. Well, if employment means one has a
the sense of a 5 day a week, 8-10 hour, hourly wage job with some
slight degree of job security, then indeed, Haiti has 60 to 80%
unemployment. But, virtually no one doesn't
work and work for money.
But, they hustle, they sell things on the street, carry people packages,
do this, do that, scraping to make a tiny tiny bit of money to eat
a meal a day, or one every two days. And they are typically weak,
sickly, living on the edge, not prepared if any emergency arises.
But, they work.
Haiti has a terrible land problem -- not merely ownership, which I've already mentioned, but quality of land. The land is in simply DESPERATE condition. Farmers use farming techniques which defy all the best wisdom of the care of the land. And, since the only natural fuel for cooking on the island is wood, people have cut trees until this once densely forested island is nearly deforested and land erosion is so horrible that many agrarians believe that the land can NEVER be recovered in such a way that it could support the life of anyhthing like the current population.
Haiti has almost no natural resources. There used to be deposits of bauxite which were commercially mined, but that all came to an end some 40 years ago. There is little agricultural export, though there still are some very fertile lands left. Haiti might be self-supporting in rice, but cheap rice imports, especially from the United States, make it difficult to make a profit even in this needed crop.
STORY TIME: From time to time I will interupt the flow of information and analyses with stories from my own experiences. Hopefully these are not mainly just indulgences to my favorites stories, but illustrive of things I'm discussing.
Puzzle: About 3/4 years ago I took a group to Haiti from a St. Louis
area chuch. They had been twinning with a church in Haiti. That is,
the St. Louis church collected money to be given to it's
Haiti. This St. Louis group wanted to check up on it's church in
Northern Haiti. WE first went to Pandiassou, a tiny village just
west of the town of Hinche. There we met up with Franklyn
Armand, one of my dearest Haitian friends. Franklyn is a late
30s early 40s Haitian Roman Catholic brother, founder of the
Petit Fre Inkarnasyon (Little Brothers of the Incarnation) and
co-founder of the TiSe Inkarnasyon (Little Sister of the
Incarnation.) Franklyn decided to drive up first to Cap Haitien
and then to this village high in the mountain, just southwest
of Cap Haitien. I can't remember it, but it was something like
Valliers. (I don't have map here right now.) This was longer
ago, actually. Must have been in days just before Duvalier fell.
There was a gasoline shortage because Haiti was short of dollars.
At any rate, Franklyn and I spent hours buying gas from soup sized cans along the streets of the market over near the bus station in O Kap (Cap Haitien), the station which is across the little bridge, not the big station for buses to Port-au-Prince.
Once we got on the road Franklyn was moaning and groaning about the road he'd have to travel, and the people from the church, who had been there before, said it was simply a donkey trail up the mountain. We had a 4 wheel drive landrover -- like a tank.
Well, we had a shock. There was a 100% paved road, paved beautifully with small concrete block tiles. We did a 4-5 hour trip in 20 minutes or so. Fantastic. When we got back to Cap Haitien we stayed the night at Beck's Hotel up on the hill (Oh, can I tell stories about Beck! One of the most interesting foreigners in Haiti). Beck claimed that the road was there because there were some gold deposits up in them thar hills, and Duvalier was going to get it out. I never heard anymore about it, and I've never been back there since.
But, not many known minerals in Haiti.
People always ask -- Why is Haiti so poor? I think that is a fantastically complex and difficult question. There are many reasons, and in large measure our tracing of Haitian history will be an attempt to answer that question and many more.
Why is Haiti so neat and why does it win so many of our hearts? That will be another question that we will hopefully find the roots of in Haitian history.
By the way -- several times I have referred to Haiti as an island. Obviously it isn't an island, it is a third of an island. but, time to time I will use that phrase, even Haitians talk that way. We all know what we mean, but it is a useful shortcut. It just takes too long and is too cumbersome to say, when one wants to emphasize the fact that 3/4 of Haiti is surrounded by water, to go on about the D.R. and all that. So, please don't think I don't know the definition of an island, and that Haiti only shares one with the D.R., and uncomfortably at that.
Ok, that's about all I'll do as a quick introduction.
Now I have posted all the main line introductions. I do hope that there will be many responses and questions, additions, objections and whatnot, and I'll get to as much of that as I can.
But, it's time to move to issue # 1, the Pre-columbian natives.