Haiti wasn’t always the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. The tiny island country was considered the economic jewel of the Caribbean. In 1492, on his trek to America, Christopher Columbus claimed the island for Spain naming it Hispaniola. In fact, the Spanish gained control of the Eastern side of the island (now the Dominican Republic), while the Western side of the island was granted to France.
The French built their nation as a result of the work of the Haitian people by developing coffee and sugar plantations over the next century. The French imported hundreds and thousands of slaves from Africa. Many slaves endured hard labor.
In 1789, the enslaved Haitian people learned about a revolution in France, which made its way to the Caribbean colony. The news fueled the slaves to revolt. The French could not control the warriors who outnumbered the colonists 10 to 1. Their disobedience would lead to the independence for Haiti.
At the time, the United States was interested in purchasing the French-controlled port of New Orleans. To the American’s surprise Napoleon, the French emperor no longer wanted the land, after losing his most fruitful colony in Haiti. A young America walked away with the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the U.S.
The small country became the only nation to gain independence by a slave-led rebellion. Its new flag originates from the French tricolor, red, blue and white. The white stripe was symbolically stripped off.
So the Haitians gained their independence along with a pricey consequence. Before withdrawing in 1825, France demanded reparations for the loss of its economic and human property of 150 million francs: equaling to about $21 billion in American dollars. A devastating debt Haiti did not pay off until 1947.
In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson commands U.S. Marines to invade Haiti to help restore stability. The United States remains under control until 1934. In 1994, former President Bill Clinton sends in 20,000 U.S. troops.
In 1957, Franois Duvalier is elected. Duvalier’s leadership became synonymous for corruption, torture and terrorism.
In 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide is the country’s first free elections President. He is removed from office in less than eight months. Many Haitians flee for Florida in small boats. HIV and a growing poverty rate sinks the population. Surprisingly, Aristide is back in power in 2001 but is forced into exile in 2004.
In 2004, a tropical storm killed an estimated 3,000 people, most in Gonaives, Haiti—-thousands were displaced. On January 12, 2010 a fierce 7.0 earthquake hit. We all watched as the Haitian people tried to piece together what little they have. Now millions are trying to help rebuild this once fruitful country because after all Haiti was at one time the Caribbean’s economic jewel.