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Wednesday, February 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Nation has long history of tragedy, triumph
By Knight Ridder Newspapers
Columbus "discovered" the island in 1492. Smallpox and Spanish guns decimated the native population of Arawak Taino Indians; the Spaniards replenished the labor supply with African slaves.
France supplanted Spain, and Haiti remained a colony until 1804, at the conclusion of a 12-year battle led by former slaves who rose up against Napoleon's army 200 years ago to become the first independent black nation. Founding father Toussaint L'Ouverture died in a French prison.
France, the United States and Latin American nations wouldn't recognize an independent Haiti for decades. Then came a French demand for 150 million gold francs in restitution ostensibly for property lost by French colonialists. So cash-starved was the fledgling republic that it had to borrow a third of the money from a French bank at 6 percent interest to make the payments.
"The main reason we're so poor today is that we had to pay France that money," said Leslie Voltaire, a cabinet minister.
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has campaigned for France to repay the entire sum, plus interest, a sum he calculates as $21,685,135,571. France has shown little interest in paying.
Political chaos and coups have cursed Haiti almost from the beginning. Few leaders have served their full terms in office.
President Woodrow Wilson ordered an invasion in 1915, purportedly to protect American interests, and troops remained until 1934.
The list of nefarious leaders is topped by François "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, a dynasty that ruled with intimidation and secret police from 1957 until 1986. A regime characterized by torture and execution, it spawned waves of fleeing "boat people" starting in 1979.
Aristide, a diminutive Roman Catholic priest, swept into office 14 years ago in a popular vote. A military junta ousted him, unleashing another wave of death and torture. President Clinton deployed troops in 1994 to return him to power.
More political tumult was, perhaps, inevitable. The 2000 elections that returned Aristide to power were flawed, prompting a new round of international condemnation as the government declined to recalculate some questionable vote tallies for lower offices.
The decision to freeze $500 million in international loans to Haiti after elections in 2000 has hurt the country, government officials said. In July, after Haiti paid $32 million in debt, some of the loans were released, but government officials said they have not yet received any disbursements. U.S. officials acknowledge that Haiti needs the loans to develop its infrastructure but express concern that aid may be misspent.
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