Geography and history of Haiti
A study of the island nation Haiti, including it’s geography and history.
“Haiti Geographical Information: The independent republic of Haiti consists of the western third of the island of Hispaniola, the second largest island in the Caribbean. Haiti shares the island with the Dominican Republic. Covering a total area of 10,714 square miles, Haiti has a northern and southern peninsula separated by the Gulf of Gonave. The shape of Haiti has been compared to a lobster’s claw, with the upper pincer pointing toward Cuba and the lower longer claw pointing toward Jamaica. Haiti is bounded on the north by the Atlantic Ocean, on the east by the Dominican Republic, on the south by the Caribbean Sea, and on the west by the Windward Passage. The Haitian landscape is characterized by broad bands of rugged mountain ranges. The word “Haiti” in the language of the Arawaks, the first inhabitants of the island, means “mountainous land.” In all, five mountain ranges cross this country.
The longest mountain range, the Massif du Nord, runs southeastward from the Atlantic coast and crosses the border with the Dominican Republic, where it changes its name to the Cordillera Central. Haiti’s highest peak is Pio La Selle, which at 8,793 feet above sea level dominates the Massif de la Selle mountain range. The Chaine du Haut Piton, runs along the northern peninsula reaching a height of 3,881 feet. The Massif de la Hotte reaches a height of 7,770 feet at the extreme western end of the southern peninsula. The other chains which include the Massif des Montagnes Noires and Chaine des Cahos range between 3,701 feet and 5,184 feet high. Haiti’s shoreline is irregular and there are many natural harbors. There are numerous rivers that are short, and basically unnavigable. Only the Artibonite River which is the country’s largest is navigable for any length. Saumatre Lake is Haiti’s largest saltwater lake located in the Cul-de-Sac. Peligre Lake is Haiti’s largest freshwater lake. This lake was formed by a dam on the upper part of the Artibonite River. Haiti’s inland area includes three productive agricultural regions, the Plaine du Nord, and two valleys, the Artibonite River Valley and the Cul-de-Sac. Climate: Haiti’s tropical climate is hot and dry all year round. There is high humidity in many of the coastal areas.
Temperatures vary slightly with elevation. The annual average temperature is 81 degrees F in the lowlands and 76 degrees F in the highland interior. On the coast, the sea breezes help the tropical heat. The hottest months are June through September. The coolest are from February through April. The mountains surrounding the valleys form a protective wall that when coupled with direct sunlight, can produce the country’s highest temperatures. Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, is sheltered by mountains to the north and south. It is one of the hottest cities in the Caribbean. Haiti lies in a rain shadow and therefore generally receives less rainfall than its neighbor, the Dominican Republic. Rainfall produced by the trade winds is stopped by the mountain ridge dividing the two countries. The northern part of Haiti receives the most rain – between 20-100 inches per year. June through October is hurricane season in Haiti. Hurricane Flora killed 3,000 people in Haiti in 1963. In 1980, Hurricane Allen caused considerable damage to Haiti’s southern peninsula. History: Despite an early liberation from France and a national motto that boldly states “Strength Through Union,” Haiti has continued to endure a history characterized by enormous struggle and bloodshed. After almost two hundred years of rule by a series of cruel dictators, powerless presidents, and tyrannical generals, nothing has really improved for the average Haitian. From the early 1500’s, Haiti was originally part of the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo. Eastern Hispaniola remained unsettled until the mid 17th century when French colonists, importing African slaves, developed sugar plantations in the north. Under French rule from 1697, Haiti became one of the world’s richest sugar and coffee producers.
However, after the 1780’s, rebellion, class war, and invasions by French and British forces shredded the nations social and economic fabric. In 1801, a former slave, Toussaint L’Ouverture, conquered the whole island and abolished slavery. The independence of Haiti form France was proclaimed in 1804 by General Jean Jacques Dessalines who assumed the title of emperor. In 1806 Dessalines was assassinated, and for years the northern part of Haiti was held by Henri Christophe. In the southern part, a republic was established by Alexandre Sabes Petron. Upon the death of Chrisophe in 1820, Jean Pierre Boyer consolidated his power throughout the whole island. Two years later Haiti conquered Santo Domingo, the eastern Spanish speaking portion of Hispaniola. In 1844, Santo Domingo broke away from Haiti and became the Dominican Republic. With twenty two changes of government from 1843 to 1915, Haiti experienced numerous periods of intense political and economic disorder, prompting the United States military intervention in 1915. U.S. military forces were withdrawn on August 15, 1934 at the request of the elected government of Haiti. In 1939, President Stenio J. Vincent, first elected in 1930, took steps to remain in office beyond the expiration of his second term. However, he was confronted with strong local opposition and U.S. disapproval. He then announced he would not seek reelection. The Haitian legislature then elected Elie Lescot as president. Early in 1942, Haiti permitted the United States antisubmarine aircraft to make use of the Port-au-Prince landing field. Haiti signed the charter of the United Nations on June 26, 1945, becoming one of the original members. On January 11, 1946, growing political disturbances in Haiti led to the military overthrow of Lescot. On August 16, 1946, Dumarsais Estime was elected president.
At this time Haiti signed the Rio Treaty in September, 1947 and the charter of the Organization of American States in April 1948. Estime was forced to resign in May 1950 and a military junta ruled the country until elections were held on October 8, 1950. Paul E. Magloire won the presidency. The Magloire government encouraged foreign investments to strengthen Haiti’s national economy. However, in December 1956, controversy arose over the extent of his term in office and in December of that year he relinquished all power. Political uncertainty followed until September 1957 when Francois Duvalier (known as Papa Doc) was elected president. Supported by a personal police force, the Tontons Macoutes, he imposed an especially repressive rule on the people of Haiti. After his death in 1971, rule was relaxed to some degree when he was succeeded by his son Jean-Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc). He was forced to flee the country in 1986. From 1986, when the thirty year dictatorship of the Francois Duvalier family ended, until 1991, Haiti was ruled by a series of provisional governments. In 1987, a constitution was adopted that provides for an elected bicameral parliament, an elected president as head of state, and a prime minister, cabinet of ministers, and a supreme court appointed by the President with Parliament’s consent.
The constitution also provides for the election of mayors and administrative bodies responsible for local government. In December 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a popular priest, won 67 percent of the vote in a presidential election. He took office in February 1991, but was overthrown by the army and forced to leave the country. This coup created a large exodus of 41,342 people from Haiti. From October 1991 to June 1992, Joseph Nerette, as a president led an unconstitutional regime and governed with a parliamentary majority and the armed forces. In June 1992, he resigned. Parliament approved Marc Bazin as Prime Minister. He sought to negotiate a solution with exiled President Aristide and to end the economic embargo and diplomatic isolation of Haiti imposed after Aristide’s ouster. In June 1993, Bazin resigned and the United States imposed an oil and arms embargo bringing the Haitian military under the leadership of General Raoul Cedras to the negotiating table. On September 16, 1994, the United States dispatched former President Jimmy Carter, Senator Sam Nunn, and former Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell for talks with Haiti’s military leadership. The U.S. had formed a Multinational Force (MNF) to carry out the UN’s mandate by means of a military intervention. The MFN deployed peacefully, General Cedrea and other top military leader of Haiti were offered exile in Panama and they left Haiti. Restoration of a legitimate government began leading to Aristide’s return on October 15, 1994. Elections for Parliament and local government offices were held between June and October 1995.
President Aristide’s Lavalas party swept into power at all levels. However, in the December 1995, Presidential election, Arisitde barred by the Haitian constitution from succeeding himself, Rene Preval won the vote and took office in February 1996. Many Haitians today have hopes for peace, reconciliation, and economic revival. Haiti’s economy was weakened to the point of collapse by the military takeovers and international embargo. Much of Haiti’s infrastructure, including port facilities, bridges and roadways have deteriorated. Large amounts of international aid need to be given for the improvement and stabilization of Haiti. In order to bolster Haiti’s fragile democracy, the United States has offered to help rebuild Haiti’s economy. U.S. policy toward Haiti is designed to foster democracy, help alleviate poverty, and promote respect for human rights. As president Clinton stated on the eve of the U.S. intervention in 1994 U.S. involvement was based on the need to “protect our interests, to stop the brutal atrocities that threaten Haitians, secure our borders, and to preserve stability and promote democracy in our hemisphere.” The United States has taken a leading role in organizing international efforts at the United Nations, the Organization of American States, with the Caribbean Community, and individual countries to achieve these objectives.
The United States has also returned Peace Corps volunteers to Haiti this year. The United States has been the largest contributor since 1973, with a total aid package of $566,000,000 form 1990 to 1995. Other efforts include the establishment of the United States-Haiti Business Development Council, and Oversees Private Investment Corporation, a commercial loan program and the Caribbean Basin Initiative, all providing greater market opportunities for American and Haitian businesses. Government: When Haiti broke free of French rule in 1804, their were high hopes for this black republic. However, after two centuries of independence. the Haitian people are still struggling to achieve true democracy. Haitian politics has been marked by a series of coup d’ etats, rigged elections, and martial law. The Haitian constitution adopted in March 1987, declares Haiti to be a republic with three branches of government: The Executive, Legislative, and the Judicial. The Executive is shared by the president of the republic, who is elected for a term consisting of five years.
There is also a prime minister who is chosen by the president with the approval of the National Assembly. The president cannot serve more than two consecutive terms. The Legislative-the Haitian Parliament is made up of two houses: the twenty seven seat Senate and the eighty three seat Chamber of Deputies. The members of both houses are elected by a national vote for a term of five years. The Judiciary-has four levels: The Court of Cassation, The Court of Appeal, Civil Courts, and Magistrates Courts. Judges for the Court of Appeal and the Court of Cassation serve for ten years and are appointed by the president. The judges for Civil and Magistrate Court serve for seven years. Cities: Port-au-Prince – Founded in 1749 and rebuilt several times after earthquakes and fires. It is Haiti’s capital city. Its architecture retains a distinctive French flavor. The streets of Port-au-Prince reveal the contrast between the rich and the poor that are characteristic of Haiti: dirty, dusty, and overcrowded shanty towns stand side by side with elegant mansions and gleaming public buildings. Port-au-Prince has several outstanding libraries and the National Museum. The University of Haiti is also located here. There is one international airport in Port-au-Prince. Most of Haiti’s communication network is clustered here. Jacmel – French colonists Jacques de Milo founded this town on Haiti’s south coast in 1689. It is Haiti’s second largest city that once flourished with trade of coffee, orange peel, and cotton, but is now in decline. It has only 217,000 inhabitants. Other cities and towns include Cap-Haitian an export center and seaport. Les Cayes is an important coffee export center and seaport. Gonaives, an important seaport in western Haiti.
Wildlife and Animals: Haiti has several types of reptiles, including three varieties of crocodile, the rhino-horned iguana, small lizards and snakes. Haiti was a bird lovers paradise until the 1960’s. There were spotted sandpipers, flamingos, long-billed curlews, falcons, and plovers. Deforestation has destroyed the habitat of many of these species. However, parrots, pigeons, hens, ducks, and weaver birds can still be found. Egrets and flamingos make their nests around the lakes of the Cul-de-Sac Plain. There are 270 species of fish in the coastal waters, including tarpon, kingfish, barracuda, and red snapper.
Ecology: A few hundred years ago, Haiti was covered with marshes of wild ginger, plantations of bananas, and Indian corn. Tropical rainforests of mahogany, redwood, and pine were bountiful. Today, the landscape looks quite different. The plantations were subdivided and the vast expanses of trees disappeared as more and more of the land was cleared for agriculture. Haiti is one of the few countries in the world where destruction of the original woodland is almost complete. Surviving pine and hardwood trees only grow on the upper levels of mountains. Mangroves fringe the Gulf of Gonave and the Atlantic Coast to the east of Cap-Haitien. Along the coastline, thickets of guava fruit grows in profusion. The North Plain has scattered patches of desert like growth. Here trees grow only along the edges of rivers and streams. In the northwestern parts of the Central Plain, grasslands have semideciduous trees and conifers. The southeastern part is covered with scrub woodland and cacti. In the Artibonite Plain, thorny scrub woodland near the cost leads to a grassland savanna and mixed woodland farther inland.
Environmental Issues: Clearing forests for farms and wood for charcoal has stripped Haiti of most of its valuable native trees. Only some pine forests at high elevations and mangroves in inaccessible swamps remain. Semidesert scrub covers the ground in drier zones. Environmental deterioration has had a severe impact on Haiti’s plants, animals, soil, and water resources. Tropical reefs surrounding the country are threatened by large quantities of silt washed down from eroding mountainsides. A muddy brown ring surrounds the country’s coastline where topsoil has washed into the sea. Widespread soil erosion and lack of irrigation have reduced the productivity of the soil. Hurricanes and droughts have also taken their toll on the land.
Occupations: Nearly three-quarters of Haitians are still not part of the formal economy and live by subsistence farming. Only ten percent of the population knows how to read and write. Most of those who do work for wages are employed in the agricultural sector, making sixty cents a day. Commerce employs fifteen percent of the labor force, while seven percent work in manufacturing. Women outnumber men as factory workers. Industrial wages of two dollars a day are the lowest in the Caribbean. The rest of the labor force is distributed among the service industries, mining, and public institutions. There are more than eight hundred self taught painters in Haiti. They use a unique style of painting called the Primitive Movement, a style making use of bright colors and depicting Haitian life. Haitian paintings now form part of the permanent collection of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. Recreation/Sports: The Haitian soul comes alive in the form of dancing. Young children dance, as well as old people in Haiti. They dance to celebrate a festival, to express their gratitude for a bountiful harvest or to forget their poverty. One Haitian dance that has achieved international recognition is the meringue. The songs that accompany the meringue are often full of expressions of love or politics. The most popular sport played in Haiti is soccer. Competitive soccer is played at the national Sylvio Cator Stadium in Port-au-Prince.”