The Spaniards used the island of Hispaniola (Haiti occupies the western part and the Dominican Republic occupies the eastern) as a launching point to explore the rest of the Western Hemisphere. French buccaneers later used the western third of the island as a point to pirate English and Spanish ships. In 1697, Spain ceded the western third of Hispaniola to France. As piracy was gradually suppressed, some French adventurers became planters, making Saint Domingue — as the French portion of the island was known — the “pearl of the Antilles” and one of the richest colonies in France’s 18th century empire.
During this period, African slaves were brought to work on sugarcane and coffee plantations. In 1791, the slave population revolted and gained control of the northern part of the French colony, waging a war of attrition against the French.
By January 1804, local forces defeated an army sent by Napoleon Bonaparte, established independence from France and renamed the area Haiti.
With 22 changes of government from 1843 to 1915, Haiti experienced numerous periods of intense political and economic disorder.
From Feb. 7, 1986 — when the 29-year dictatorship of the Duvalier family ended — until 1991, Haiti was ruled by a series of provisional governments. Most of those governments had been ruled by a member of the former army forces (general or colonel). In March 1987, a constitution was ratified that provides for an elected president to serve as head of state; and a prime minister, cabinet, ministers and supreme court appointed by the president with parliament’s consent. The Haitian Constitution also provides for political decentralization through the election of mayors and administrative bodies responsible for local government.
In December 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a charismatic Roman Catholic priest, won 67 percent of the vote in a presidential election that international observers deemed largely free and fair. Aristide took office on Feb. 7, 1991, but was overthrown that September in a violent coup led by dissatisfied members of the army and supported by many of the country’s economic elite. Following the coup, Aristide began a three-year exile in the United States. Several thousand Haitians may have been killed during the de facto military rule. The coup contributed to a large-scale exodus of Haitians by boat. The U.S. Coast Guard rescued a total of 41,342 Haitians at sea during 1991 and 1992, more than the number of people rescued in boats from the previous 10 years combined.
With his term ending in February 1996, and barred by the constitution from succeeding himself, President Aristide agreed to step aside and support a presidential election in December 1995. Rene Preval, a prominent Aristide political ally, who had been Aristide’s prime minister in 1991, was sworn in to a five-year term on Feb. 7, 1996, during what was Haiti’s first-ever transition between two democratically elected presidents.
On Feb. 29, 2004, Aristide, accused of corruption and murder by the majority of the population, submitted his resignation as president of Haiti and flew on a chartered plane to the Central African Republic. Boniface Alexandre, president (chief justice) of Haiti’s Supreme Court, assumed office as interim president in accordance with Haiti’s Constitution.
After an armed rebellion led to the departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February 2004, an interim government took office to organize new elections under the auspices of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Continued violence and technical delays prompted repeated postponements, but Haiti finally did inaugurate a democratically elected president and parliament. In May 2006, former ally of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Rene Preval was sworn in as president.