Haitians - History



At the time of European contact, anywhere from 60,000 to 4 million Indians inhabited the island of Hispaniola. The indigenous population rapidly succumbed to the ravages of disease, slavery, and brutality, and the Europeans soon had to look to Africa for the labor they needed to work their plantations. In the colonial period (1492—1804) sugarcane plantations were established and slavery instituted in Saint Domingue, as the French called their territory on Hispaniola.

A series of minor uprisings culminated in the slave revolt of August 1791. By 1796, White supremacy was at an end, and within the framework of the French Republic, Black rule was established under the leadership of a former slave, the charismatic Toussain Louverture. In 1800 Napoleon sent 28,000 troops under his brother-in-law, Gen. Charles Leclerc, to retake the colony and reenslave the Blacks. By 1803, however, Haitians had defeated Napoleon's troops, and on 1 January 1804 Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Toussain's successor, proclaimed the independence of Haiti.

In the postindependence period (1820-1915) Haiti became a focal point of debates about the effect of emancipation and the capacity of Blacks for self-government. Many slave insurrections in the southern United States were consciously modeled after the Haitian example.

The U.S. military occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934 for pressing economic and strategic reasons. The major, though certainly unintended, results of the occupation were the increasing Black consciousness of the elite, the suppression of peasant movements, the training of the army, and the concentration of sociopolitical power in Port-au-Prince.

The postoccupation period (1934-1957) was characterized by a succession of undistinguished administrations, with one notable exception: the government led by President Dumarsais Estimé (1946-1950), which many view as a highly progressive era in Haitian politics that probably spelled the end of mulatto political domination. Important developments during his presidency were the entrance of Blacks into the civil service, increased pride in the African heritage, greater interaction with other Caribbean nations, the beginning of peasant integration into the national polity, and, especially, the rise of the new Black middle class.

François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, president from 1957 to 1971, established his power base largely among this middle class. Duvalier carried out a brutal campaign of oppression against his opponents, and Haiti was increasingly isolated from the international community. When Duvalier's 19year-old son, Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc"), became president in 1971, a new economic program guided by the U.S. government was put in place; U.S. private investment was wooed with such incentives as no customs taxes, a minimum wage kept very low, the suppression of labor unions, and the right of U.S. companies to repatriate their profits.

With little gain from fourteen years of rule by a second Duvalier, Haitians finally reached the end of their patience and overwhelming public protests led to the ouster of Jean-Claude on 7 February 1986. An interim government, the Conseil National de Gouvernement (CNG) headed by Lieut. Gen. Henri Namphy, took charge. Elections for president and for seats in the national assembly, set for 29 November 1987, were aborted by army-sponsored violence. In January 1988 the CNG held sham elections and announced that Leslie Manigat had won the presidency. About four months later, Manigat's attempt to play off one segment of the army against another led to his own ouster, and Namphy declared himself president. On 17 September 1988 Namphy was forced out of the National Palace and leadership was handed over to Lieut. Gen. Prosper Avril. Jean-Bertrand Aristide of the National Front for Change and Democracy (FNCD) was elected president on 16 December 1990 and assumed office on 7 February 1991 but was deposed on 30 September 1991. The military ousted him a little more than seven months later, but no state (except the Vatican) recognized the military government. After considerable vacillation, the administration of U.S. president Bill Clinton forced the military leaders to leave Haiti, and in October 1994 Aristide was reinstated under heavy U.S. military sponsorship.

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