Haiti is a country of only about 28,000 square kilometers, about the size of the state of Maryland. It occupies the western third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola (La Isla Española); the Dominican Republic takes up the eastern two-thirds. Shaped like a horseshoe on its side, Haiti has two main peninsulas, one in the north and one in the south. Between the peninsulas is the Ile de la Gonâve.
The mainland of Haiti has three regions: the northern region, which includes the northern peninsula; the central region; and the southern region, which includes the southern peninsula. In addition, Haiti controls several nearby islands.
Haiti has a generally hot and humid tropical climate. The north wind brings fog and drizzle, which interrupt Haiti's dry season from November to January. But during February through May, the weather is very wet. Northeast trade winds bring rains during the wet season.
Haiti formally renounced its colonial bond with France in January 1804, as the result of the only successful slave rebellion in world history. The country's longevity as an independent nation in the Western Hemisphere is second only to that of the United States. Over this span of almost two centuries, however, the country has never known a period free of tyranny, repression, political conflict, racial animosity, and economic hardship.
Haiti, the first black republic in modern times, sprang directly to self-governance from French colonialism, a system that had a profound impact on the nation. Haiti's colonial origins had demonstrated that an illiterate and impoverished majority could be ruled by a repressive elite. The slaveholding system had established the efficacy of violence and coercion in controlling others, and the racial prejudice inherent in the colonial system survived under the black republic. A lightskinned elite assumed a disproportionate share of political and economic power.
The chaotic and personalistic nature of Haitian political culture combined with chronic underdevelopment to provide fertile ground for a succession of despots, strongmen, and dictators. Even the few national leaders whose election apparently reflected popular sentiment, such as Dumarsais Estimé (1946-50) and François Duvalier (1957-71), rejected constitutional procedures in favor of retaining personal power. The popular revolt that deposed President for life Jean-Claude Duvalier (1971-86) demonstrated the Haitian people's rejection of parasitic despotism. At the same time, however, the revolt reaffirmed another lesson of Haitian history: violence has often been the only effective route to change.
Haiti is a dramatic country in its terrain, history, and culture. In comparison with other countries in the Caribbean, Haiti is described in superlatives: it is the most rural in its settlement pattern, the poorest, and the most densely populated. It is also the only country in the region that was born of a successful slave rebellion, and it is the first modern black republic.
Roman Catholicism is the official religion of Haiti, but voodoo may be considered the country's national religion. The majority of Haitians believe in and practice at least some aspects of voodoo. Most voodooists believe that their religion can coexist with Catholicism. Most Protestants, however, strongly oppose voodoo.
For the tourists who ventured to the "land of mountains," Haiti held a number of attractions: exotic culture, exquisite French cuisine, distinctive and colorful art and handicrafts, castles, hotels, and a resort setting virtually free of street crime. Its warm climate, friendly people, and low prices were further attractions.