The Sad History of Haiti

Earthquake is latest tragedy in Haiti’s troubles which go back more than 500 years

By Gabe Pressman
|  Thursday, Jun 30, 2011  |  Updated 10:12 AM EDT
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Dramatic Photos: Earthquake Aftermath in Haiti

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI - JANUARY 12: People search for survivors amongst the rubble of the Caribbean Super Market in Delmas on January 12, 2010 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. A 7.0 earthquake rocked Haiti today, followed by at least a dozen aftershocks, causing widespread devastation in the capital of Port-au-Prince.

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Haiti’s troubles go back more than 500 years. From the time Columbus first discovered the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, the Haitian people have suffered. They’ve endured civil wars, revolutions, invasions, piracy, poverty, disease and many natural disasters.

Misery has been a constant in their lives for many generations.

In 1983, when Pope John Paul II visited Haiti, he spoke out forcefully for human rights. He praised the dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier, for ending control of church appointments but condemned the unequal distribution of wealth.

At an outdoor mass, he called on privileged Haitians to help their brothers and sisters, endorsing the slogan: "Something must change here."

At the time, the average income was $270 a year.

But natural disasters and bloody battles have brought death and destruction to this unfortunate nation.

When Columbus claimed the island for Spain in 1492, the Spanish built the New World’s first settlement on Haiti’s north coast.

Later, the island was divided into French and Spanish areas. On the Western side, France created a major sugar, rum, coffee and cotton center. By the end of the 18th century, France had enslaved more than 500,000 Africans to work in their territory.

After a successful slave rebellion early in the 19th century, the former slaves defeated the French. Civil war divided the country. Ultimately France recognized Haitian independence in exchange for 150 million francs in 1825.

In 1915, President Wilson ordered the U.S. Marines to occupy Haiti and establish control over customs houses and port authorities. The Marines forced peasants into road building units.

In 1934, the United States withdrew from Haiti and three years later in 1937, thousands of Haitians living near the Dominican Republic border were massacred on the orders of Dominican Dictator General Trujillo.

In 1957, in a military-controlled election, Dr. Francois Duvalier won power and declared himself President for Life. Tens of thousands were killed or exiled during his corrupt dictatorship. Papa-Doc Duvalier, as he was known, died in 1971 after anointing his son, Jean-Claude [Baby-Doc] as his successor. The son was even more ruthless than his father.

Journalists, human rights workers and lawyers were arrested and exiled in the years that followed. And then, a disease took a toll. Haitian pigs were found to be carriers of African Swine Fever.

In the 1980s more bloodshed. Two hundred Haitian peasants were massacred after they demonstrated for access to land. There were massive anti-government demonstrations. Baby-Doc was exiled to France.

An attempt to have free elections fell apart when dozens of people were shot by soldiers in the capital and scores more in other parts of the country. In the 1990s, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide rose to power and lost it. Widespread corruption was reported. There were several attempts at having democratic elections, ending in disarray.

Just after the nation celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2004, major economic problems and growing political violence afflicted Haiti. Rebels took control of several towns. Aristide again resigned.

In 2008, four hurricanes struck the country in 30 days and killed more than 800 people. Hurricanes Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike destroyed about 60 percent of the nation’s harvest and wreaked havoc in various cities.

Now, an earthquake has struck the country, and thousands, or perhaps hundreds of thousands, are feared dead.

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