Eight hundred miles south of Miami by sea, Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. There are more than 8 million people within its mountainous 10,000 square miles, making Haiti the most densely populated and poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
The average Haitian earns less than $300 (US) per year. In 2002, it was estimated that Haitians are the fourth most undernourished people in the world, behind only Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Eighty out of every 1000 children born today will not live to see their first birthdays and 60% of those that die will do so in their first month of life.
Drinking water usually comes from a polluted river, a ditch or open pond. Food is so scarce and expensive that most Haitian children receive less nutrition than the average American house pet. It is estimated that 42% of all children under the age of five are severely or moderately stunted in growth due to malnutrition.
A recent report from the United Nations Development Program described health care in Haiti as nearly catastrophic. One of every three deaths in Haiti is that of a child. With most people earning less than $1 a day, many do without medicine. Death during childbirth is the second leading cause of death among women, HIV rates are climbing, and tuberculosis is common, the report said. There are an estimated 163,000 children who are orphans due to their parents dying from AIDS.
The people of Haiti are descendants of slaves brought over from Africa centuries ago. In 1804, Haiti became the first Black Republic in the world, gaining its independence by driving out the French colonists.
The decades of self-rule since then have not been easy ones, especially for the rural Haitian. Today, he struggles for a different kind of independence and freedom - freedom from poverty, illiteracy, and lack of education - from malnutrition and disease - and freedom from the dark fear of the Voodoo religion.
Haiti is a country of great beauty. But even the beautiful sunsets and green mountains cannot hide the poverty. On the right side of the page, you can see the striking contrasts between the beauty of the country and the harsh realities of the day to day lives of its people. The pictures of Cite Soleil - the poorest section of the capital, where raw sewage runs through the streets and safe drinking water is difficult to find - speak for themselves. The infant mortality rate is extremely high in this area.
About 95 percent of Haitians are of African origin. The remaining 5 percent are Mulatto and other races. The Mulatto population makes up about half of the country's elite. French and Creole (which uses both French colonial and West African phrases and words) are the official languages; the latter attaining that status in 1987. The poorer class (about 90 percent of the population) speak Creole, while the elite speak modern French. About 80 percent of Haiti's people are nominal Roman Catholics, many of them combining an African animism called "voodoo" into their religious beliefs and ceremonies. Other religious groups include Baptists (about 10 percent), Pentecostals (4 percent), and Adventists (about 1 percent). The Protestant faiths do not allow voodoo practices.
The population of Haiti is over 8.3 million (estimated), giving the country an overall population density of about 299 persons per sq km (about 775 per sq mi). In arable areas, however, there are about 1200 persons per sq km (about 3050 per sq mi). About 79 percent of the population is classified as rural. The population is projected to reach 13 million by 2050. Total fertility rate is 4.94 children per woman.
By law, education is free and compulsory in Haiti for children between the ages of 7 and 13. In practice, access to education is sharply limited by school location, language comprehension (classes are taught in French), the cost of school clothes and supplies, and the availability of teachers. Only about 40 percent of the 1.3 million eligible children actually attend school. About 50 percent of the population is literate. The University of Haiti (1944), located in Port-au-Prince, has colleges of medicine, law, business, agronomy, social sciences, architecture, and engineering. In the early 1990s, about 1500 students were enrolled there. Many university-level students attend foreign universities.
For most Haitians, daily life is a struggle for survival. An estimated 75 percent of the population lives in poverty, with 42% living in abject poverty. These people, many of whom farm small plots of poor mountain land, are often malnourished. Infant mortality is about 80 per 1000 births. Life expectancy is only 51 years; and the incidence of diseases ranging from intestinal parasites to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is extremely high. Only about 41 percent of the population has access to safe drinking water, and only 25 percent has access to sanitary sewer systems. A limited elite of about 10 percent, mostly professionals, enjoy a sophisticated, affluent lifestyle. This elite class has traditionally resisted all attempts to restructure the Haitian social system.
Haiti's most serious social problems stem from the disproportionate distribution of wealth. Although Haiti is 95 percent black, there are also racial divisions between the small mulatto elite and the larger black population. Since colonial times, the mulattoes have functioned as the ruling class. Having more in common with the wealthy classes of other countries, the mulattoes identify very little with poor Haitians. Underdeveloped social, economic, and political institutions-chiefly education-mean that there are few mechanisms within the country to promote upward social mobility. Another problem preventing social cohesion is the physical isolation of rural communities. About 79 percent of Haitians have little contact with Port-au-Prince or other centers of cultural change.
Haiti's economy has been shrinking since the early 1980s, while the population has continued to grow. In the mid-1990s, Haiti's per-capita gross domestic product was $370. This placed Haiti among the world's poorest nations. Agriculture employs about two-thirds of the labor force; manufacturing, services, and tourism are the next largest employers. About 25 to 50 percent of the workforce is underemployed or unemployed. The international sanctions employed against Haiti's military leaders from 1991 to 1994 further weakened the already crippled economy. Government revenue in the mid-1990s was about $300 million and spending was about $416 million. Haiti's international debt is approaching $1 billion.
Most of Haiti's farmers work subsistence plots of land that produce small amounts of cash crops. Soil erosion and overworked land are major agricultural problems, while hurricanes and drought have also taken their toll. Coffee, sugarcane, sisal, and fruit are the major commercial crops, while beans, rice, corn, and sorghum are the main food crops. Coffee is the major agricultural export. Sugarcane, cotton, sisal, coconuts, and vetiver (a grass that yields oils used in the manufacture of perfume) are raised on plantations revitalized by loans from the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations (UN) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Chickens are the most common livestock, but some cattle and goats are also raised. The country's pig population was decimated when African swine fever swept through Haiti in the early 1980s.
Haiti's medical system is struggling to cope with the nation's serious health hazards. There is only one physician for every 6000 inhabitants, and medical facilities are poor. Malaria, dengue fever, intestinal parasites, yaws, AIDS, and other infectious diseases are common. Foreign governments and several international organizations, including the UN and the OAS, provide food and medicine to Haiti, but the scope of the country's problems overwhelm these efforts. Haiti's social services are similarly limited.