Official Name: Republic of Haiti
Population: 11.4 million
Official Language(s): French, Haitian Creole
Currency: Haitian Gourde
Area: 27,750 sq.km
The island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean Sea is divided into two countries. On the east is the Dominican Republic, and on the west is Haiti. While its neighbour enjoys a booming tourism sector bringing in 17% of its GDP, Haiti has been crippled by debt, political instability, and natural disasters, hindering its development. As the poorest country in the Caribbean and among the poorest in the world, roughly 60% of its population lives in poverty. Haiti also relies on foreign aid for food, healthcare, and reconstruction efforts after major weather disasters.
Before the arrival of Europeans, Arawak (also known as Taíno) and Carib Indians inhabited the small island. However, within only 50 years of Columbus’ colonisation, disease and brutal labour practices nearly annihilated the Indian population. In 1492, Columbus claimed the island for the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, leading to the first Spanish settlement on the Eastern part of the island in 1496. The Spanish continue to rule the island bringing enslaved African people to work on plantations and in gold mines until ceding the western territory of Hispaniola to the French in 1697.
The 1789 French Revolution makes more people outspoken for the rights of Black and Indigenous people of colour in the colony. France tries to repress the activism, leading to the beginning of the Haitian Revolution in 1791. This continues for more than a decade, destroying much of the country’s infrastructure and agricultural resources. Finally, in 1803 French forces surrender and Haiti once again becomes an independent nation. King Charles X of France agrees to formally recognise Haiti as an independent nation in 1825, provided the country pay 150 million francs in reparations to France. Although this amount was reduced to 90 million francs, the country made the final payment only in 1947, nearly 150 years after independence.
From the 1950s to the early 2000s, the country sees multiple dictators and ‘elected’ officials followed by assassinations, military coups, and exiles. For the next 20 years, Haiti is ravaged by hurricanes, earthquakes, and a cholera outbreak, further destabilising the country and leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless. In 2020, COVID-19 lockdowns add to income loss and food insecurity, while political turmoil provokes a constitutional crisis leading to the assassination of President Moïse in 2021, causing an increase in violence in the country.
People and Culture
Haiti has a rich and unique cultural identity, consisting of a blend of traditional French and African customs, mixed with Spanish and indigenous Taíno cultures. 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% of Haitians speak it fluently. As one of the most densely populated countries in the world with 380 people every square kilometre, most of the population lives in rural areas working as farmers or labourers. Clothing factories also employ thousands of Haitians to manufacture products for export.
Hayti means “land of the mountains” in the native Taíno language
Roughly 70% of the population practices Roman Catholicism and approximately one-fourth is Protestant or independent Christian. While there is no official religion in Haiti, its constitution allows for religious freedom. A large number of locals also practice and believe in vodou, a religion whose gods are derived from West African regions. Education is officially compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 12, but due to the lack of facilities and staff, only a small number of Haitian children attend school, mostly in private or church-administered institutions. This leads to only around 60% of the population being literate.
The typical meal consists of staples such as rice, beans, sweet potatoes, bananas and plantains, cassava, maize, and taro, a tropical tuber. When resources permit, Haitians prepare food with locally grown spices such as thyme, oregano, cloves, and black pepper, however many of the country’s urban poor have difficulty obtaining basic foodstuffs and adequate amounts of potable water.
Locals gather in towns as a community, forming informal-sector employment for thousands of people each day, working in street markets, small workshops, and food stalls. On almost every corner you will find a stall selling fritay
, or fried pieces of fish, pork, or plantains. There is no social security or personal income tax this way, and many children are paid near-starvation wages to perform the most menial of tasks. Many Haitians prefer this method and work in the slums of the capital Port-au-Prince where the hours are long, and the pay is little but as a way to make ends meet in comparison to the meagre living from remote hillside farms with eroded soil and infertile plots.
Tourism and Nature
Although the country has had a significant number of setbacks, it still has a multiplicity of elements to offer foreigners and travellers alike. If you have thought about visiting the island nation, you may have wondered which season is best to go. As a Caribbean nation close to the equator, Haiti is warm all year round, making it ideal to visit anytime. But as most tropical countries, there are rainy and dry seasons. Its official dry season runs from November to March and like most Caribbean islands, you can expect humid weather. However, thanks to northern trade winds, coastal areas are more tempered. In the dry season, you can expect sunny blue skies and lovely afternoon breezes, especially along the coast and in the mountains.
November starts off the month with Fèt Gede,
or the traditional Haitian Day of the Dead. This is celebrated by practitioners of vodou with a street parade whereby people dress up and paint their faces, dance around and perform rituals in cemeteries to honour the deceased. Mid November hosts Le Festival du Rhum
where tastings, workshops and cooking demonstrations highlight Haiti’s most famous export, rum. Late February to March is Carnival season. Like many other nations around the world, many celebrations and street parades are held over several weeks leading up to Mardi Gras.
. As an island nation, the country also has smaller islands in its surroundings such as Labadee—only a short boat ride away from Cap-Haïtien
—which is great for featuring its crystal-clear waters and coral reefs, and perfect for private excursions and snorkelling. Only a few kilometres outside of the town of Jacmel is Bassin Bleu
, said to be one of the most beautiful sites in Haiti. There are several waterfalls that cascade over the rocky terrain in this natural gateway, forming many pools of turquoise water below for a truly unforgettable swimming experience.
If Haiti was not on your travel radar within the next few years, it definitely should be. Even after years of hardships, the people remain warm and friendly and are working together to rebuild their charming nation.