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In 1804, Haiti became independent from France after the colonial government was overthrown by an uprising of slaves of African descent, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. At the time, Haiti was one of the wealthiest colonies in the Caribbean, and it was the first black republic to break free from imperialism. Now after 200 years of independence, Haiti faces the most urgent crisis in its history. The past years has been marred by political violence, social upheaval, deepening poverty, and most recently, devastating natural disasters.
Haiti is located in the Caribbean Sea and occupies an area of land slightly smaller than the state of Maryland. It is currently the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with 80% of its population living in poverty.1 Over 50% of adults are unemployed2, and the average Haitian lives on US$440 per year.3 While over 66% of all Haitians depend on subsistence farming to survive, most of its population of 8.3 million people4 lives in the nation’s cities. In the capital, Port-au-Prince, overcrowding is a chronic problem, and mothers and fathers in the city’s shantytowns often sleep standing up in shacks that have less than 8 square feet of space for 10 or 12 people.5 A little over half of the population can read and write. Roughly 280,000 people in Haiti are living with HIV/AIDS.6
Women head more than 40% of Haitian families, and female-headed households in Haiti have an average yearly income of US$38.7 Women in Haiti make up 55% of the workforce, 70% of workers in the assembly and commercial sector, and 49% of workers in the agricultural sector.8 In many cases, Haitian women hold primary responsibility for providing their families with an income, food, shelter, and health care. The current conflict has severely disrupted women’s ability to provide for their families and made them easy targets of violence. Women who are political activists and the women relatives of political activists are often raped by members of opposing factions, who use violence against women as a way to intimidate their political rivals. With much of the Haitian population now dependent on food aid from international humanitarian organizations, women are usually the ones waiting in line for food. After receiving food supplies, they are often attacked on their way home by armed men who steal the food9 either for themselves or for resale on the black market.
Children also bear a disproportionate burden of suffering as a result of the conflict in Haiti. The humanitarian crisis and the armed conflict have cut off many Haitian children’s access to food, health care, and education. More than 1 in 10 of children in Haiti dies before the age of five. Only half of Haitian children receive immunizations, and almost 40% of children under five in Haiti suffer from acute respiratory infections.10 Thousands of children live on the streets of Haiti’s cities selling goods or begging for food or money. Girls are especially vulnerable because they cannot engage in certain economic activities available to boys, like polishing shoes and washing cars. For some girls who live on the street, the only option is to sell sex for food, money or shelter, which puts them at high risk of infection with HIV.11 Children have been beaten, shot, and killed in Haiti’s political violence. Armed gangs have recruited child soldiers, and the number of child rapes has increased significantly in urban areas.12
The United States has played a dominant role in the political affairs of Haiti since its first military intervention in Haiti in 1915. What began then as a mission to put a stop to political violence turned into a 20-year occupation.13 In more recent times, the U.S. government provided support to two Duvalier regimes. The Duvalier family ran a repressive and corrupt dictatorship in Haiti from 1956 to 1986, which violently tortured activists, intellectuals, journalists, and members of the political opposition. The Nixon administration agreed to support the transition of political power from “Papa Doc” Duvalier to his son, “Baby Doc” Duvalier, in exchange for generous incentives for U.S. investors. As a result “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s government worked to suppress labor unions, maintain a low minimum wage, and ensure that foreign companies doing business in Haiti could send all of their profits to their home country.14
When Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest and advocate for the poor, was elected to the presidency in 1990, many hoped that his leadership would improve the quality of life for the average Haitian. However, he was overthrown in a military coup less than a year later. One of the leaders of the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), which terrorized Haiti with death squads during military rule, was proven to be on the payroll of the CIA.15 After being restored to the presidency with the help of U.S. troops in 1994 and re-elected to the presidency in 2000, Aristide left the country in late February 2004 after months of a violent uprising led by former members of the Haitian Army and National Police. Currently in exile in South Africa, Aristide claims that he was forcibly removed from Haiti by the U.S. government.
While the government of Haiti is currently headed by an Interim President, Boniface Alexandre, and an Interim Prime Minister, Gerard Latortue, political instability continues to plague the country. Rebel factions are locked in a violent struggle for control of territory and resources that often puts the civilian population in the middle.
Haiti’s political and economic instability was made worse last month when Tropical Storm Jeanne brought devastating floods to the country. Over 1,870 died as a result of the storm and over 800 people remain missing. Those who survived Tropical Storm Jeanne face the threat of starvation and disease. Communities have been cut off from humanitarian aid because the floods destroyed roads that would have been used to transport supplies. In the city of Gonaïves alone, more than 125,000 people remain without adequate food. Riots and violence have broken out at aid distribution stations, sometimes forcing trucks to return to warehouses with full loads of undistributed supplies. The severity of the flooding is due to the fact that Haiti has very little vegetation. In the last five decades alone, forests covering an area three times the size of the Everglades have been lost to deforestation.16 People continue to cut down the remaining trees to make charcoal, which is the country’s main source of fuel and many Haitians’ source of income. Without trees to absorb water and hold down the topsoil, storms like Jeanne cause mudslides and widespread flooding.
While the U.S. government has sent roughly $2 million in humanitarian assistance to Haiti in response to the aftermath of Tropical Storm Jeanne,17 Haiti’s troubles will most likely take decades to resolve. Even if there is an end to the political violence, Haiti still faces harmful free trade policies, deforestation and natural resource exploitation, and a society fragmented by economic and political divisions. Until the international community makes a serious commitment to the reconstruction of Haiti and its institutions, and until the armed conflict is ends, Haiti’s future remains bleak.
- Learn more about Haiti. Compare the following country profiles on Haiti written by the General Board of Global Ministries and the U.S. Department of State. How are they similar or different?
General Board of Global Ministries: Haiti – Country Profile
U.S. Department of State: Haiti – Country Profile
- Read the following resources to find out more about topics discussed in this Action Alert:
- Book of Resolutions (2000), #195. A Call for Increased Commitment to End World Hunger and Poverty, pp. 494-499.
- Book of Resolutions (2000), #181. The Status of Women, pp. 459-464.
- Women’s Division, Social Policy Statements and Recommended Actions (2004), Resolution on Haiti, pp. 357-358.
- Call your members of Congress and ask them to support bill number H.R. 3919, which seeks to establish an independent commission to investigate United States’ role in the overthrow of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February 2004.
To contact your members of Congress, contact the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121
For hard copies of any of the documents mentioned above, contact the Washington Office of Public Policy at (202) 488-5660.
Read this and other Action Alerts online at the Women’s Division’s website – http://gbgm-umc.org/umw
1 CIA World Factbook, “Haiti,” http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/ha.html, 2004.
2 Amnesty International, “Haiti: Breaking the cycle of violence – A last chance for Haiti,” http://www.amnestyusa.org/countries/haiti/reports.do, 6/21/04.
3 BBC News, “Country Profile: Haiti,” http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/country_profiles/1202772.stm, 7/21/04.
5 Collie, Tim, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, “Haiti: ‘The world doesn’t have any idea how bad this situation is getting’”, http://www.haiti-info.com/article.php3?id_article=825, 12/7/03.
6 CIA World Factbook.
7 United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), “Gender Profile of the Conflict in Haiti,” http://womenwarpeace.org/haiti/haiti.htm, 2004.
8 Haiti Reborn, “Structural Adjustment and Haitian Women,” http://www.haitireborn.org/campaigns/debt/structural-adjustment-and-women.php.
9 Agence France Presse , “UN concerned about security for women in storm-ravaged Haiti,” http://www.terradaily.com/2004/041001112629.fhvd0psp.html, 10/1/04.
10 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), “Haiti’s simmering war erodes child health, http://www.reliefweb.int, 2/24/04.
11 UNICEF, “Keeping children off the streets and in the classroom,” http://www.unicef.org/emerg/haiti/index_keeping_children.html.
12 UNICEF, “West’s most neglected children bear brunt of Haiti’s upheaval, http://www.unicef.org/emerg/haiti/media_20443.html, 4/19/04.
13Adams, David, “U.S. History in Haiti: hands-on or hands-off,” St. Petersburg Times, http://www.sptimes.com/2004/02/29/news_pf/Worldandnation/US_history_in_Haiti_shtml, 2/29/04.
14 McGowan, Lisa A. “U.S. Policy in Haiti,” 50 Years Is Enough: U.S. Network for Global Economic Justice, January 1997.
15 Leight, Jessica, “Unfair and Indecent Diplomacy: Washington’s Vendetta Against Haiti’s President Aristide,” The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, http://www.coha.org/NEW_PRESS_RELEASES/New_Press_Releases_2004/04.03_Haiti_Aristide.htm, 1/15/04.
17 Lewis, Gregory, “Hurricane ravaged islands to get $50 million from U.S. aid package,” South Florida Sun-Sentinel,http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/local/caribbean/sfl-chaitiaid28sep28,0,2598832.story?coll=sfla-news-caribbean, 9/28/04.
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Oct 19, 2004