Haiti is densely populated, with approximately 250 people per square kilometer (650 per sq. mi.). About 95% of the Haitians are of African descent; the rest of the population is mostly of mixed African-Caucasian ancestry. A few are of European or Levantine stock. About 70% of the people live in rural areas.
French is one of two official languages, but it is spoken by only about 10% of the people. All Haitians speak Creole, the country's other official language. English is increasingly spoken among the young and in the business sector.
The state religion is Roman Catholicism which most of the population professes. Some have been converted to Protestantism by missionaries active throughout the country. Haitians, however, tend to see no conflict with voodoo traditions of African origin co-existing with Christian faiths.
Although public education is free, private and parochial schools provide perhaps 75% of educational programs offered. Only 63% of those enrolled will complete primary school; on average, it takes 16 years to produce a single graduate of the six-year cycle. Though Haitians place a high value on education, most families cannot afford to send their children to secondary school.
Recent large-scale emigration to the U.S., and secondarily to Canada and Caribbean neighbors, has created what Haitians refer to as the Tenth Department. About one out of every six Haitians lives abroad.
During this period, African slaves were brought to work the sugarcane and coffee plantations. In 1791, the slave population--led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe--revolted and gained control of the northern part of Saint-Domingue.
In 1804, local forces defeated an army deployed by Napoleon Bonaparte, established independence from France, and renamed the area Haiti. The defeat of the French in Haiti is widely credited with contributing to Napoleon's decision to sell the Louisiana territory to the United States in 1804. Haiti is the world's oldest black republic and the second-oldest republic after the United States in the Western Hemisphere. Haitians actively assisted the American Revolution and independence movements of Latin American countries.
Two separate regimes (north and south) emerged after independence but were unified in 1820. Two years later, Haiti conquered Santo Domingo, the eastern, Spanish-speaking portion of Hispaniola. In 1844, however, Santo Domingo broke away from Haiti and became the Dominican Republic. With 22 changes of government from 1843 until 1915, Haiti experienced numerous periods of intense political and economic disorder, prompting United States military intervention in 1915. U.S. military forces were withdrawn in 1934 at the request of the elected Government of Haiti.
From 1986--when the 30-year dictatorship of the 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 who serves as head of state, and a prime minister, cabinet of ministers, and supreme court appointed by the president with Parliament's consent. The Haitian Constitution also provides for the election of mayors and administrative bodies responsible for local government.
The international community rallied to Haiti's defense during the three years of illegal military rule from 1991 to 1994. In the end, a total of 31 countries participated in the U.S.-led MNF which, acting under UN auspices, intervened in September 1994 to help restore the legitimate government and create a secure and stable environment in Haiti. At its peak, the MNF had over 23,000 troops, mostly Americans, and more than 1,000 international police monitors. Within six months, the troop level was gradually reduced as the MNF was replaced smoothly by the UN Mission in Haiti (UNMIH), consisting of some 6,000 UN peacekeeping troops and 900 civilian police, who were charged with maintaining the secure environment which the MNF had helped establish. A total of 38 countries participated in UNMIH.
In order to spur Haiti's economic recovery, international development banks and donor agencies have pledged to provide over $2 billion in assistance by 1999, although much of this amount has not been disbursed. Disbursement is contingent on progress in economic reform. Major bilateral donors are led by the United States, with the largest bilateral assistance program, and include Canada, France, Germany, and Japan. Led by the U.S., the international community feeds 1.3 million Haitian people a day. USAID's food assistance program, PL 480, plays a large role in providing necessary food supplies to the population.
Maintaining good relations with and fostering democracy in Haiti are important for many reasons, not the least of which is its geographical proximity to the continental United States. In addition to a steady stream of legal immigrants in the U.S., tens of thousands of undocumented Haitian migrants were intercepted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard during the 1991-94 period of illegal military rule. With the return of the de jure government in 1994, the flow of migrants has virtually stopped, although if unrest arises again, the potential remains for a mass influx of migrants yet again. Thus, the U.S. is determined to promote a stable democracy in Haiti--a country historically plagued by autocratic rule and recurring political violence. In addition, the U.S. provides relief to Haiti to prevent severe poverty, environmental degradation, and improve poor public health conditions.
President Preval joined President Clinton and 14 other Caribbean leaders in May 1997 in Bridgetown, Barbados, for the first-ever U.S.-regional summit. The meeting strengthened the basis for regional cooperation on justice and counternarcotics, finance and development, and trade.
The U.S. Embassy in Haiti is located on Harry Truman Blvd., Port-au-Prince (tel: (509) 22-0200; (fax: (509) 23-1641).