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Supporting the lives of the elderly poor
by providing shelter, food, medical
services, and care in Jeremie, Haiti.

 

Music by David Kauffman
"I Will Go"
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Essay by Deborah Hage
 
Historical Overview  

The native Taino Amerindians - who inhabited the island of Hispaniola when it was discovered by Columbus in 1492 - were virtually annihilated by Spanish settlers within 25 years. In the early 17th century, the French established a presence on Hispaniola, and in 1697 Spain ceded to the French the western third of the island, which later became Haiti. The French colony, based on forestry and sugar-related industries, became one of the wealthiest in the Caribbean, but only through the heavy importation of African slaves and considerable environmental degradation.

In the late 18th century, Haiti's nearly half million slaves revolted under Toussaint L'Ouverture. Most of the French were killed. After a prolonged struggle, Haiti became the first black republic to declare its independence in 1804. The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti has been plagued by political violence for most of its history. 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 of 2006.

There are certain factions in Haiti who wish to keep political and financial power out of the hands of the population, thus maintaining the authority of the small elite. They actively work to destabilize the government. Since 2004, about 8,000 peacekeepers from the United Nations maintain civil order in Haiti. Their armed presence is visible everywhere in Port au Prince and they have been an effective force to stop the violence and maintain the elected authority’s ability to govern.

Haiti, about the size of Maryland, 400 miles from Florida, inhabits the western one-third of the island of Hispaniola and is in the same time zone as Washington D.C. The other two thirds of the island is the Dominican Republic. Hispaniola is rugged, mountainous, and tropical. It lies in the middle of the hurricane belt and is subject to severe storms from June to October, occasional flooding and earthquakes and periodic droughts. Due to extreme poverty the land suffers from severe deforestation as land is cleared for cultivation and trees are cut for cooking fuel. This has lead to a shortage of potable water and a large potential for mudslides during rainstorms.

The population of 9 million is 80% Catholic and 16% Protestant. 50% of the population also embraces some form of voodoo. The mortality rate is high due to AIDS and a high infant mortality rate due to poor medical care. These factors contribute to a lower life expectancy. The official languages are French and Creole. 95% of the population speaks Creole at home. However, most of the business is conducted in French and the political power structure speaks French. Many of the public schools do not have the resources to hire French language instructors so the students are educated just in Creole, leaving those students without the benefit of a private, expensive, privileged education unable to participate in the business and political life of the country.

The intelligentsia and the elite of the country (about 5%), however, are very proud of their connection to French culture and language and have little conflict over the way their country men are disenfranchised due to their inability to communicate effectively in French. Due to poor access to quality, public education most of the 4 million workers are unskilled. 50% of the adult population is illiterate. There is widespread unemployment and underemployment. More than two-thirds of the labor forces do not have formal jobs. The average yearly income is $1800.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with 80% of the population living under the poverty line and 54% in abject poverty. Two-thirds of all Haitians depend on the agriculture sector, mainly small-scale subsistence farming, and remain vulnerable to damage from frequent natural disasters, exacerbated by the country's widespread deforestation. The government relies on formal international economic assistance for fiscal sustainability. Telephone and electrical service is very undependable and daily outages are routine.

Despite its poverty Haiti is a relatively expensive place to live and visit as everything must be imported. There is very little domestic production of anything. Most goods must be transported along unpaved roads, making them very expensive to purchase. US dollars are accepted for most purchases.


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