At A Glance
Haiti was the world's first black republic and the first Caribbean state to achieve independence, but decades of violence, dictatorship, coups, debt and national disasters have left it the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere.
- Earthquakes and hurricanes destroy entire cities
- One of highest HIV infection rates in the Americas
The country is still recovering from a massive earthquake which hit in January 2010, killing more than 200,000 people, destroying much of the capital and making more than 1.5 million homeless. The 7.0 magnitude tremor was the country's worst in 200 years. For more, see AlertNet's Haiti earthquake briefing.
A major cholera epidemic broke out in October 2010 and quickly spread across the country. It was Haiti's first in decades and, by January 2011, it had killed 3,600 people. By February 2012, more than 7,000 people had died and 500,000 people had been infected.
More than half of Haiti's 10 million people scrape by on less than $1.25 a day and the country is awash with weapons, fuelling endemic violence.
Parts of the capital Port-au-Prince are at the mercy of armed gangs.
A U.N. peacekeeping force was sent to Haiti in 2004 after an armed uprising against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who fled into exile but has since returned. ;
In January 2010, a powerful earthquake destroyed much of the capital and surrounding towns. Two years on, more than half a million survivors are still living in camps.
The government faces the daunting challenge of rebuilding the capital and uniting the anarchic country where the rich and poor are bitterly divided, and unemployment rates hover at 40 percent.
At the root of Haiti's social problems is the huge wealth gap between the predominantly Creole-speaking blacks who make up about 95 percent of the 10 million-strong population and the French-speaking mulattos who own the bulk of the country's wealth.
Chronic political instability and violence have plagued Haiti for decades.
Parts of the capital Port-au-Prince are at the mercy of armed gangs, some of them with links to political parties, according to the U.N. secretary-general's report of August 2011. Murder and rape are commonplace.
A U.N. peacekeeping force has been in Haiti since 2004 to try to contain political and gang violence. But there has been mounting public unease over the U.N. role in Haiti. Anger has risen over allegations of rape, on top of allegations that poor sanitary conditions at a camp of U.N. troops from Nepal was responsible for introducing a cholera epidemic to the country.
The outbreak was Haiti's first in decades and quickly spread across the country. It began in October 2010 and, by January 2011, it had killed 3,600 people. By January 2012, it had killed 7,000 people and 500,000 had been infected.
The country has one of the highest rates of HIV infection outside sub-Saharan Africa.
Killer quakes and floods
Haiti lies in the middle of a hurricane belt and experiences regular earthquakes.
A 7.0 magnitude quake in January 2010 was one of the worst catastrophes in Haiti's history. More than 200,000 people were killed, according to U.N. figures. Another 1.5 million people were left homeless. Two years on, more than half a million people are still living in camps. See AlertNet's briefing on the quake.
Haiti's abject poverty, lack of infrastructure or early warning system and its ecological degradation make it vulnerable to even the weakest of storms.
The mountainous country was once heavily wooded, but almost all of its forests have been chopped down for charcoal for cooking. This has left a nation of subsistence farmers vulnerable to soil erosion, devastating floods and mudslides. See our briefing on Haiti's floods.
Gonaives city bore the brunt of Tropical Storm Hanna, the worst of the storms that hit in quick succession in 2008. Heavy rains poured down bare hillsides surrounding the city, swamping it with floodwaters and mud. Much of the city of 250,000 people was completely buried in mud. More than 800 people were killed and nearly 1 million left homeless or in dire need of help.
Haiti, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere and more than half the population earns less than $1.25 a day. It is ranked 158th in the U.N. Development Programme's 2011 Human Development Index.
The country's history has been plagued by debt. Haitians defeated French forces and declared independence in 1804, but in 1825, France demanded reparations of 150 million francs in gold – which some estimate is equivalent to $22 billion today. This was reduced to 60 million francs in the 1830s, but it was still far more than the country of former slaves could afford.
By 1900, Haiti was spending 80 percent of its national budget on repayments. The debt plus interest was finally paid off in 1947 – partly by taking out loans from the United States, Germany and France. Paying off the debt, however, left the country destitute, corrupt and politically volatile.
By 2008, it had racked up another $1.9 billion in debt. Much of the debt had been contracted during the country's 30-year Duvalier dictatorship which began in 1956. The Duvaliers allegedly embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars.
Most of Haiti's debt was cancelled in 2009 through the Highly-Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) initiative, and donor countries cancelled the rest after the 2010 earthquake. But, by early 2012, it had risen again to about $400 million, according to the CIA Factbook.
For years the Haitian diaspora have provided a lifeline to their families back home, sending annual remittances of roughly $2 billion - which is equivalent to nearly 20 percent of the country's gross domestic product.
Before the January 2010 quake, donor policies on the economy focused on boosting Haiti's textile industry and its export processing zones - areas where foreign companies can set up factories, free of taxes and government regulations on wages and working conditions.
The zones created thousands of jobs, but some experts say workers are so poorly paid they have had limited impact on reducing poverty.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, new zones are being built in and near the capital.
The government also wanted to improve the agriculture sector to boost food production and help create jobs for the tens of thousands who fled the devastated capital after the quake.
For many years Haiti has been heavily dependent on food imports, partly because farmers moved to the cities in the hope of better wages in factories, or were encouraged to shift away from subsistence farming to growing crops for export.
The lack of investment in rural areas worsened poverty in the countryside, home to most of Haiti's poorest, says Yasmine Shamsie, associate professor at Canada's Wilfrid Laurier University and co-editor of the book "Haiti: Hope for a Fragile State".
"There were also terrible consequences for the environment, as desperate rural folk deforested the landscape," says Shamsie. This in turn has made the country more susceptible to deadly floods and mudslides in the wake of hurricanes.
Cutting down trees to make charcoal to sell for fuel is a last resort for many rural Haitians who have no other income between harvests.
Refugees and migrants
Violence and poverty have forced many Haitians to flee in recent decades, mostly to North America, the Dominican Republic and France.
Those in the Dominican Republic, most of them illegal immigrants, work on cattle ranches and sugar plantations, or as domestic servants and construction workers in conditions that human rights groups say frequently approach slavery.
The United States has imposed a sea blockade since the early 1990s to intercept refugee boats and stop Haitians reaching U.S. soil and claiming asylum.
A 2008 report by the Inter-American Development Bank found that 1.5 million Haitians were working abroad and 80 percent sent regular money back to relatives.
Although the country won independence from France in 1804, Haitians had to wait nearly two centuries before they got the chance to pick their own leader in a democratic election.
The most notorious period in recent history was the Duvalier dictatorship when tens of thousands were killed or exiled, and the country's treasury was looted. Voodoo physician Francois Duvalier, "Papa Doc", who seized power in 1956, used his Tonton Macoutes paramilitary group to terrorise the population. He ruled until his death in 1971.
Papa Doc was succeeded by his son Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, who fled to France in 1986 following an uprising.
An interim government, headed by General Henri Namphy, was supposed to oversee a two-year transition to democracy, but polls in 1987 were aborted after gunmen linked to the Duvalier government massacred at least 34 voters.
Most Haitians boycotted army-run elections in 1988 and the winner was toppled within months. After two more years of turmoil, Haiti held its first free elections in December 1990.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a fiery leftist Roman Catholic priest and a champion of Haiti's poor, won by a landslide, raising hopes the country was finally on the road to stability.
Haiti's first democratically elected president forced military leaders to retire, announced he would clean up Duvalierist corruption and promised to introduce democratic reform. But the military, supported by the wealthy elite, ousted Aristide just seven months later.
Coup leader Lt Gen Raoul Cedras headed a brutal regime, violently repressing Haiti's grassroots movement.
More than 40,000 Haitians fled the country in rickety boats in 1991 and 1992. Many ended up at a refugee camp at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and were eventually sent back to Haiti.
After the United Nations imposed an oil and arms embargo against Haiti in June 1993, Cedras signed a U.N.-brokered pact with Aristide calling for the restoration of democracy.
But the military refused to step aside as promised, prompting the United Nations to authorise a U.S.-led invasion in September 1994.
Aristide resumed office for the rest of his term and promptly disbanded the military. The constitution barred him from immediate re-election and he was succeeded in 1995 by his protege Rene Preval - the first leader in Haiti's history to win a democratic election, serve a full term and hand over peacefully to a successor.
Aristide returned to power in 2001. However, his election victory was not recognised by the main opposition parties who had boycotted the presidential poll, accusing Aristide's Lavalas party of fraud in earlier parliamentary polls that were criticised by international observers.
By 2003 the country was deeply divided between pro- and anti-Aristide camps. Aristide, once seen as a hero of democracy, was accused of despotism and corruption and fled in 2004 in the midst of an armed revolt and under intense U.S. and French pressure.
Aristide accused the United States of kidnapping him after arriving in Central African Republic on a U.S.-arranged flight. But Washington said he had resigned.
After his departure an interim government took over and the United Nations sent a peacekeeping force to prevent the country descending into civil war.
Those behind the subsequent bloodshed included criminal street gangs, pro-Aristide supporters and "rebels", former members of the army who played a key role in forcing Aristide out.
Gunfights and kidnappings prompted many aid groups to scale back their work in the capital's most violent slum, Cite Soleil.
Cite Soleil and other shanty towns were the bedrock of Aristide's grass-roots Lavalas movement that first swept him to the presidency.
The interim government, which blamed Aristide for fomenting violence from exile in South Africa, took a hard line against Aristide supporters, prompting an outcry from human rights groups.
Preval distanced himself from Aristide but did not rule out allowing him to return from exile.
The government threw down the gauntlet to the nation's armed gangs in August 2006, telling them to lay down their weapons or be killed.
Preval won presidential elections in 2006. The following year U.N. troops launched a tough new offensive against armed gangs in Cite Soleil.
Violent protests against rocketing food prices and the rising cost of living erupted in the spring of 2008. Aid agency Oxfam said prices had doubled or tripled in the previous two months, leaving many Haitians increasingly hungry.
The riots began in the south of the country and spread to Port-au-Prince, pitting thousands of hungry Haitians against U.N. peacekeepers.
The U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which is widely despised in the capital's slums, numbers around 7,700 troops and 3,500 international police.
Elections in November 2010 triggered violent protests across the country, with thousands saying the election results were rigged by the ruling government coalition.
Responding to international concern over reported irregularities in the results, Preval requested help from the Organization of American States to verify the preliminary tally. Popular musician Michel Martelly won the second round in March 2011.
In January 2011, Duvalier returned from exile, facing corruption and human rights abuse charges.
In February 2012, Prime Minister Garry Conille resigned after just four months in post, plunging the country into political paralysis. Conille's decision to step down came during political infighting over earthquake reconstruction contracts, and a parliamentary investigation into dual citizenship of government ministers, which is illegal under Haitian law. ; ;
Haiti's government website is run by its embassy in Washington.
Information on current and past U.N. peacekeeping missions is available on the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti website in French. Here's a slimmed-down version in English. ;
The British-based Haiti Support Group carries news and features from international and domestic sources. It was established in 1992 after Aristide's overthrow and has focused on developing contacts with grassroots and community organisations. The site also contains information on campaigns and links to local groups.
The Grammy Award-winning Haitian hip hop musicians Wyclef Jean and Jerry Duplessis in 2005 set up the non-political Yele Haiti Foundation "to empower the people of Haiti and the Haitian diaspora to rebuild their nation".
The World Food Programme's Haiti page has useful information about hunger in Haiti.
For information on refugees, the best place to start is the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) website.
Human Rights Watch has reports on human rights violations and corruption in the justice system.
1492 - Christopher Columbus lands on and names island Hispaniola
1697 - Spain cedes western part to France; this becomes Haiti
1804 - Haiti becomes independent
1915 - U.S. invades following black-mulatto friction, which it thought endangered its property and investments in Haiti
1934 - U.S. withdraws its troops but maintains fiscal control until 1947
1956 - Voodoo physician Francios "Papa Doc" Duvalier seizes power in military coup and is elected president a year later
1964 - Duvalier declares himself president for life
1971 - Duvalier dies and is replaced by son Jean-Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc)
1986 - Duvalier forced into exile by uprising. Army chief Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy named to oversee two-year transition to democracy
1987 - Gunmen linked to Duvalier government and army halt elections, killing at least 34
Jan - Political scientist Leslie Manigat elected president in army-run elections, but overthrown by Namphy shortly afterwards
Sep - Namphy overthrown. Replaced by former Duvalier aide Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril
Mar - Avril resigns. Supreme Court Justice Ertha Trouillot sworn in as acting president
Dec - Populist priest Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide is landslide winner in presidential elections, Haiti's first democratic poll
Feb - Aristide inaugurated. Rene Preval becomes prime minister, promising to uproot corruption
Sep - Military ousts Aristide in bloody coup
Jun - U.N. imposes oil and arms embargo
Jul - Aristide and coup leader, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, sign U.N.-brokered pact that calls for Aristide's return. But Cedras later refuses to step down and U.N. tightens sanctions
Sep - A multinational force arrives to restore democracy
Oct - Aristide returns as president
Mar - U.N. peacekeeping force replaces multinational troops
Dec - Preval, from Aristide's Lavalas party, elected president to succeed Aristide
Nov - U.N. peacekeeping force ends armed mission
May - Parliamentary and local elections held after numerous postponements
Nov - Aristide wins presidential election, which is boycotted by main opposition parties because of dispute over parliamentary polls. Opposition proclaims provisional government with a "parallel president"
Feb - Aristide succeeds Preval
Dec - Gunmen storm Haiti's National Palace in apparent coup attempt
Jan/Feb - Thousands march against Aristide. Gunmen seize the city of Gonaives. Armed revolt spreads across Haiti. U.S. sends Marines to protect its facilities. Dozens killed in escalating violence. Foreigners flee the country. Rebels warn of imminent attack on capital
Feb 29 - U.S. flies Aristide out of country. Aristide later says he was kidnapped. Washington says he resigned
Mar - An interim government is appointed with former U.N. official Gerard Latortue as prime minister
Jun - U.N. stabilisation force replaces U.S.-led multinational force that moved in when Aristide left
Jul - Donors pledge over $1 billion in aid. Interim government later complains less than half was disbursed
Sep - Tropical Storm Jeanne hits northern Haiti, killing about 3,000 people
Jun - U.N. force's mandate extended as gang violence continues to escalate
Jan - U.N. force commander commits suicide and two U.N. peacekeepers killed in gang violence.
Feb 7 - Elections to replace interim government
Feb 16 - Preval declared winner of presidential poll
May 14 - Preval takes office
Jul - Donors pledge $750 million to help fund economic recovery
Aug - U.N. peacekeeping mission's mandate extended for another six months. Prime Minister Alexis says gang leaders who do not disarm under a U.N. scheme will be arrested or killed, after a July upsurge in violence
Sep - Alexis asks the U.S. to end its weapons embargo to allow the government to rearm police force
Oct - U.S. agrees to partially lift its 15-year arms embargo
Nov - Two U.N. peacekeepers killed in ambush attack near Cite Soleil. Police report a sharp spike in child kidnappings. Haiti is declared eligible for HIPC (Heavily Indebted Poor Countries) debt relief
Dec - U.N. launches government-approved anti-gang raid and anti-kidnapping operations. Alexis links recent violence with criminals deported from the U.S. The U.N. launches appeal for $98 million
Jan - President Rene Preval cites drug trafficking as primary cause of instability, accusing U.S. and other "drug-consuming" states of failing to tackle drug trade
Feb - U.N. Security Council extends U.N. peacekeeping mandate until 15 October. Peacekeepers launch major operations to strengthen grip on Cite Soleil slum.
Oct - Flooding triggered by torrential rains kills more than 30
Apr - Haitians riot over rising food prices, clashing with U.N. security forces. Government falls when lawmakers fire PM
Aug/Sep - Four storms smash into the country in one of Haiti's worst catastrophes. Hundreds killed and about 1 million badly affected
Haiti gets new government headed by Michele Pierre-Louis as PM, ending long impasse between Preval and lawmakers
May - Former U.S. President Bill Clinton becomes U.N. special envoy to Haiti
Jul - World Bank and IMF cancel $1.2bn of Haiti's debt - 80 percent of the total
Jan - A 7.0 magnitude quake hits Haiti - its worst tremor in 200 years. Haitian authorities estimate over 200,000 killed and more than 1 million are made homeless. Those figures later rise to 250,000 dead and 1.5 million homeless
Mar - Donors pledge $5.3 billion in aid
Oct – Major cholera epidemic breaks out
Nov - Presidential and parliamentary elections
Dec - Results from presidential poll trigger violent protests. A run-off vote is scheduled for Jan. 2011
Jan - Former president Jean-Claude Duvalier returns from exile
Death toll from cholera epidemic hits 3,600
Mar – Michel Martelly wins presidential run-off vote
Oct – Garry Conille becomes prime minister
Feb – Conille resigns
Cholera death toll rises to more than 7,000 people, and 500,000 had been infected