Haiti's troubled past

Author: Walton Collins

Haiti could be called the country that history cursed. It shares with the Dominican Republic the island of Hispaniola, which Columbus reached in December 1492 on his first voyage. It may have been an ill omen that his flagship, the Santa Maria, struck a reef there on Christmas Eve and sank. Columbus used the wreckage to build a fort on shore and left 40 men there when he returned to Spain.

Two-hundred years later Spain ceded the western third of the island to France, retaining the eastern two-thirds for itself. During much of the 18th century the smaller section—now called Haiti—was the richest colony in the Caribbean, its capital celebrated as the “Paris of the New World.” But a cruel and oppressive French colonial regime led to a slave rebellion in 1792, and more than a decade of struggle finally disgorged the independent Republic of Haiti in 1804.

Between 1843 and 1915 Haiti went through 22 heads of state, most of whom were violently expelled from office. In 1915 U.S. troops invaded the country to begin an occupation that lasted until 1934, by which time Haiti was prospering again. But turmoil resumed soon after 1957 when François Duvalier, a doctor and union leader, was elected president. Known as “Papa Doc,” Duvalier subjected Haiti to a 14-year reign of terror with the help of his personal militia, the tontons macoutes (in Creole, “uncle boogeymen”). A practitioner of voodoo, a belief system imported from West Africa that centers on family spirits, Duvalier was succeeded at his death in 1971 by his 19-year-old son, Jean Claude, who became known as “Baby Doc.” He continued the avaricious dictatorship until 1986, when he was ousted by a military coup and fled to France. He left an impoverished country with no functioning political institutions, no tradition of self-rule and no idea how to respond to a popular yearning for democracy.

Four years later Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest, became the country’s first freely elected president. Within months he was ousted in a bloody coup. He was granted asylum in the United States and was restored to the presidency in 1994 with the help of U.S. troops. Forbidden by the constitution to succeed himself when his term ended in 1995, he ran afresh in 2000 and won despite opposition boycotts at the polls.

Anti-government protests continued after he took office and grew increasingly violent in 2003. At the end of February 2004, Aristide again left office and fled on a U.S.-chartered jet. He later charged that he was abducted by the United States “in the commission of a coup.”

Both the chartered jet and the coup charge are symbolic of Aristide’s on-and-off relationship with the United States, which initially hoped an elected president would bring governmental stability to the island nation. Instead he became a focal point for increased turmoil and heightened violence—fueled, critics charge, by arms he funneled to his partisans in Port au Prince, the dangerous chimeres. Many observers in and outside of Haiti feel the United States is still too close to Aristide, whom they view as one more in a long line of disastrous leaders.

The ousted president is now living in South Africa, where he’s vowed to remain until he can return to Haiti.