Haiti: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”

haitiflag

For our country
And for our forefathers,
Let us train our sons.
Free, strong, and prosperous,
We shall always be as brothers.

Haiti.

Pour le Pays et pour nos Pères
Formons des Fils, formons des Fils
Libres, forts et prospères
Toujours nous serons frères

haiti-earthquake-damage-ee602c9091fd9e2b

The Presidential Palace collapsed during the earthquake.

 The world is all too familiar with tragic photographs of the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, on January 12, 2010, killing and trapping unknown numbers of Haitians under mounds of debris. Yet few of us are aware of Haiti’s long and complex history, or the fact that Spain’s first New World settlement was at La Navidad on Haiti’s north coast.

 An Island Divided

The Dominican Republic and Haiti share the island of Hispaniola, one of the first claimed by Columbus in 1492.  Once one of the richest colonies in the New World,  by the 17th-century the Spanish had expanded their interests to other areas in the Caribbean, leaving the less populated areas of the west coast of Hispaniola vulnerable as a haven for pirates.

Haiti map_DR

Haiti and the Dominican Republic form two halves of the island originally named “Hispaniola” by the Spanish.

Eventually, the French occupied this sparsely populated part of the island and the King of Spain ceded the western third to France in 1697. Haiti continued to prosper as a colony of France until the enslaved population (led by Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Alexandre Pétion, and Henry Christophe) successfully revolted against France and declared Haiti the world’s first independent black nation in 1804 (see movie trailer to PBS film “Egalité for All ). Since then and continuing into the present day, Haiti has been racked by political instability, abject poverty and a variety of international military and peacekeeping occupations and interventions that are often viewed as intrusive by the Haitians.

Haiti’s complex and problematic history is not the only situation faced by its people. Haiti’s geographical location places it directly in the path of most Atlantic hurricanes from June to November. For much of this period, excessive rain, winds and tropical storms pound the island –often flooding much of the low lying areas.  At other times of the year, the island is plagued by earthquakes.

For that reason, since the earthquake, any reconstruction efforts during hurricane season are subject to delays or damage due to rain, wind and flooding.

A satellite photograph of the island of Hispaniola. On the left, the eastern tip of Cuba projects into the frame. The red line is the border between Haiti (to the west) and the Dominican Republic. Green indicates vegetation but not necessarily forest.

All of this has left Haiti with dwindling natural resources –hills and mountains stripped bare of growth by people desperate for firewood and food, while just across the border the Dominican Republic prospers from its lush mountain forests and fertile valleys. The two countries are, in a topographical sense, mirror images.

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Carnival dancers weave their way through the streets of Jacmel – a town on the Southern coast that is known for its art and artisans.

Yet, despite the challenges Haitians are resourceful and continue to control their nation and celebrate carnival each year.  For more information on Haiti’s history, culture, and art, go to:  http://www.visithaiti.gouv.ht/index.php

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