Located between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, Haiti occupies the western one-third of the island of Hispaniola. The Dominican Republic borders Haiti on the eastern side of the island. Haiti’s closest neighbors include Jamaica to the west and Cuba to the northwest.
Hayti means "land of the mountains” in the Indigenous, or native, Taíno language. The country’s highest peak, Pic la Selle, is part of the Massif de la Selle range located in southeastern Haiti and reaches nearly 9,000 feet (2,715 meters).
The island sits at the edge of a huge geological slab of rock just below the Earth’s surface, called a tectonic plate; when the plate shifts, it can cause an earthquake. (This article explains more about earthquakes.) Because of Haiti’s position on the edge of the plate, the country has a long history of very strong earthquakes that cause major damage. A massive magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck the country in August 2021. Experts estimate that over 2,000 people were killed and nearly 150,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed.
PEOPLE & CULTURE
Haiti is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with 1,000 people for every square mile (or 380 people for every square kilometer). Much of the population lives in rural areas working as farmers or laborers, but city population numbers are increasing. Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, is its most populous city, with nearly three million residents.
Most Haitians are of African origin, but a small number are of European descent. Haitian Creole, a mixture of French and African languages, is one of the country’s official languages and is spoken by the majority of the population. Though French is also an official language, only about 10 percent of Haitians speak it fluently.
Many Haitians practice voodoo, which combines West African spiritualism with the worship of Roman Catholic saints. A common saying in the country is that Haitians are 70 percent Catholic, 30 percent Protestant, and a hundred percent voodoo. In 2003, voodoo was declared an official religion. Today, marriages and other ceremonies held in the voodoo tradition are recognized by the government.
The traditional Haitian diet includes locally grown vegetables and fruits like cabbage, mango, and guava, as well as spicy meat dishes. Popular meals include griot (spiced, marinated cubes of pork), black rice made from mushrooms called djon-djon, and Haitian patties (savory pies filled with chicken, beef, or fish).
Haiti’s tropical climate means warm temperatures for most of the year. While much of the country is mountainous, the coastline is flat and dotted with coconut trees. Royal palm trees are common here, too, and can reach up to 60 feet (18.3 meters) tall. But as Haiti’s population has grown, many of these trees have been cut down to make way for development. Wood is also frequently burned for fuel.
Because much of its forest coverage has been stripped, Haiti’s surface cannot stop floodwaters caused by strong storms and hurricanes from reaching most of the country. This causes massive damage often, because hurricanes are common in the warm ocean waters surrounding the island. Recent storms include Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016, both of which caused flooding and landslides, leading to the loss of homes for thousands of people.
Haiti is slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Maryland, but it has several diverse climate zones, including dry forests where several species of cacti grow and coastal mangrove forests where American flamingos can be spotted. The country’s two national parks—La Visite and Pic Macaya—each contain tropical and pine forests, which are home to a variety of species, including the rhinoceros iguana, the Haitian boa, and Haiti’s national bird: the Hispaniolan trogon.
GOVERNMENT & ECONOMY
Haiti’s government is a semi-presidential republic, with a president acting as the country’s leader and a prime minister reporting to the president. A president is elected to office every five years by a majority vote from the people of Haiti. The president appoints the country’s prime minister.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Caribbean and among the poorest countries in the world, with some 60 percent of the population living in poverty. The government relies on foreign aid from countries like the United States and Canada, which includes money for food, healthcare, and reconstruction efforts after major weather disasters.
Most of the Haitian population works in farming. Clothing factories also employ thousands of Haitians, mainly women, to manufacture products that are exported, or sent, around the world. Haiti’s other major exports include coffee, mangoes, sugarcane, rice, corn, and wood.
Hispaniola has been inhabited since around 5000 B.C., when groups of Native Americans likely arrived from Central and South America. Some of these early settlers included the Taíno, whose cave paintings scattered throughout the country have become national symbols of Haiti and popular tourist attractions.
Explorer Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola in 1492 and claimed it as a Spanish colony. Soon hundreds of Spanish settlers arrived. They killed most of the island natives and brought over enslaved Africans to work in the colony.
By the 1600s, the French had taken over much of the colony, which they called Saint Domingue. They increased production of many crops such as coffee, cotton, and sugarcane. But the enslaved people of Saint Domingue revolted against French rule in 1791. After what many historians refer to as the largest and most successful rebellion by enslaved people, the islanders finally declared their independence from France in 1804 and changed the name of the country to Haiti.
These Haitians had created the first independent nation in the Caribbean. (The others were colonized, or ruled, by countries like Spain and France.) Haiti was also the second democracy in the Western Hemisphere (after the United States), and the first Black republic—or a government not led by a monarch—in the world. But because the population had been ruled by outsiders for so long, the revolution left them without a system for governing, and years of struggle followed. By 1809, the eastern two-thirds of the island—the part that would eventually become the Dominican Republic—was returned to Spain.
Presidents did not remain in power very long in Haiti—by 1915, multiple revolutions had overthrown the government many times. From 1915 until 1934, the country was occupied by U.S. Marines who were establishing a base to protect the entrances to the Panama Canal, a waterway in the Central American country of Panama that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Starting in 1957, the Duvalier family began its rule of Haiti. Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier was elected president that year but became a dictator, refusing to give up his leadership role until his death in 1971. Haitians voted to approve his 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, as his successor. The younger Duvalier ruled Haiti from 1971 to 1986.
Like his father’s rule, the younger Duvalier’s term was marked by extreme poverty. People who didn't agree with his actions were often killed, and many Haitians fled the country to escape the harsh living conditions. Finally, Duvalier's government was overthrown in 1986.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president in 1990 during Haiti's first free and peaceful election. His presidency lasted until 1995, when Rene Preval was elected as his successor. Aristide was re-elected president in 2000. For the next four years, the country experienced violence, political corruption, and food shortages. In 2004, Aristide was forced out of the country by protesters who were hoping for new leadership. A series of new presidents followed, but most were controversial leaders like Aristide.
In 2017, Jovenel Moïse, a former banana exporter, was elected president. During his time in office, he was also accused of being a corrupt ruler by some of his fellow Haitians. In February 2021, protestors held demonstrations demanding that Moïse step down from the presidency. He refused. On July 7 of the same year, Moïse was assassinated in his home.
Two days before his assassination, Moïse had appointed Ariel Henry, a doctor who went to school in the United States, to be Haiti’s prime minister. Henry will oversee the government until the country holds an election for its next president on November 7, 2021.