Timeline: Haiti’s History and Current Crisis, Explained

September 24, 2021
Photo by Kieran McConville

Going back through centuries of oppression, debt, and political instability to understand this current moment in Haiti’s history.

You may have seen headlines in 2019 about a worsening humanitarian crisis in Haiti. And you most certainly saw headlines in 2021 following a political crisis and 7.2-magnitude earthquake. These moments have been just some of the latest inflection points in a country that has suffered more than five centuries of political instability—and the effects thereof. Here’s our at-a-glance guide to Haitian history. 

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1492: The “beginning” of history

Christopher Columbus lands on what is now known as Hispaniola (the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and claims it for Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. While this is regarded as the beginning of Haiti’s written history, the island had been inhabited by indigenous Taíno, who referred to the land as Ayiti, since the BC era. 

An engraving by Theodor de Bry of Christopher Columbus landing on Hispaniola on Dec. 6, 1492. (Image: Library of Congress)

1496-1697: Spanish colonization

In 1496, the first Spanish settlement on Hispaniola (and the first European settlement in the western hemisphere) is established in what is now present-day Dominican Republic. Five years later, after all but decimating the population of Taíno people, Spain brings 1,600 kidnapped and enslaved African people to the island to work in gold mines and on sugar plantations. 

1625-97: French colonization

The first French settlers establish a colony on Tortuga Island and in the northwestern area of Haiti’s mainland, naming the territory Saint-Domingue. In the latter part of the 17th Century, under Louis XIV, France authorizes African slave trade in the territory and introduces the Code Noir, which not only further restricts the rights of enslaved people in all French territories, but also the rights of free people of color. 

In 1697, Spain cedes its territory in western Hispaniola to France. Under French rule, Saint-Domingue is the country’s richest colony in the 18th Century, producing half of all the sugar and coffee bought and sold in Europe and accounting for one-third of the Atlantic slave trade. 

An engraving by Nicolace Ponce of Cap Français (present-day Cap-Haïtien), 1791. (Photo: New York Public Library Digital Collections)

1789-1804: Revolution(s)

The events of 1789 make more people — on both sides of the Atlantic — outspoken for the rights of Black and indigenous people of color in the colony. France violently represses this activism, which leads to the beginning of the Haitian Revolution in 1791. 

The Haitian Revolution continues for more than a decade, destroying much of Haiti’s agricultural resources and infrastructure. On December 4, 1803, French forces surrender to Jean-Jacques Dessalines in the northwestern commune of Gonaïves. For the first time in over 300 years, Haiti is once again an independent nation.

1804-20: A fractured peace and civil war

On January 1, 1804, Dessalines assumes the role of Governor-General. He declares himself Emperor later that year, and is assassinated two years later. This leads to a Haitian civil war between the north and south that lasts until 1820. Reunification following the second peace excludes Black Haitians from power. 

Haiti’s independence from France came at a cost: Reparations that cost the country approximately $20 billion that were paid through high-interest loans. The final payment was made in 1947.

1825-1914: Independence, but at a cost

French King Charles X agrees to formally recognize Haiti as an independent nation, provided that the country pay 150 million francs in reparations to France (approximately $33 billion in today’s currency). Haiti takes out high-interest loans from American, German, and French banks to cover the cost (approximately 80% of the country’s annual national budget). 

In 1838, France reduces this debt from 150 million to 90 million francs (ca. $20 billion). The final payment is made in 1947, nearly 150 years after independence. 

1915-37: American occupation and the Parsley Massacre

After a series of short-lived Haitian presidencies and border disputes with the Dominican Republic, the United States invades in 1915 to protect its investments in-country. The United States withdraws its forces in 1934. Three years later, Dominican forces under the orders of President Rafael Trujillo kill an estimated 30,000 Haitians living in the border zone between the two countries in what’s known today as the Parsley Massacre. 

1954-71: François “Papa Doc” Duvalier takes power

Shortly after Haiti celebrates 150 years of independence, Hurricane Hazel makes landfall in the country in October 1954, killing 1,000 and destroying coffee and cocoa crops at the beginning of harvest season. In 1957, following two failed elections, physician François “Papa Doc” Duvalier seizes power. His cult of personality turns despotic the following year when he establishes death squads to silence his opponents. In 1964, Duvalier declares himself president for life, a title he maintains until his death in 1971. 

François Duvalier during his 1957 presidential campaign (Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

1971-86: The reign and fall of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier

Following Duvalier’s death, his 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, assumes the title of president for life.  A popular revolt in 1986, however, leads to Baby Doc fleeing Haiti. He is replaced by Lieutenant-General Henri Namphy. 

1987-88: Leslie Manigat elected and overthrown

The elections of 1987 are delayed following the assassinations of two candidates and a massacre of Haitian voters. Military-run elections in January 1988 declare Leslie Manigat the winner. He is overthrown in a military coup led by Namphy six months later. In September, Namphy himself is overthrown by General Prosper Avril. 

1990-2004: Elected. Exiled. Re-elected. Re-exiled. 

Avril resigns amid protests. Former Salesian priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide wins the country’s first free and peaceful democratic elections, with a reported 67% of the popular vote. His rule is interrupted in 1991 by a coup led by former Brigadier-General Raoul Cedras. Aristide is exiled until Cedras himself gives up power and enters exile in September of that year. 

Aristide returns to power in 1994. His reforms included increasing access to healthcare and education (including adult education and literacy), improving the country’s judicial system and civil rights, doubling the minimum wage, food distribution to those suffering hunger and food insecurity, livelihoods support and training, and dissolving the military.  

After a presidential term by René Préval (1996-2000), Aristide is re-elected despite claims of fraud. Several failed attempts to overthrow Aristide’s government result in conflict across the country led by armed groups. Aristide is forced to resign in a 2004 coup and leaves for South Africa. A multinational UN Peacekeeping force returns to the country to maintain security and stability. 

Destruction in Haiti after the earthquake

The January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti had catastrophic consequences as it struck the most populated area in the country. In the weeks following the disaster, sporadic violence, looting, and gang-related gunfire broke out in downtown Port-au-Prince.

2004-08: Free elections, natural disasters

Floods damage parts of the country early in 2004, a vulnerability that is further exploited that September by Hurricane Ivan and Hurricane Jeanne. Jeanne kills at least 3,000 and leaves another 250,000 Haitians homeless. Flooding destroys key rice and fruit harvests.

Less than a year later, Hurricane Dennis kills 56 and causes an additional $50 million in damages for Haitians. 2008 sees a string of natural disasters within just one month, including Tropical Storms Fay and Hanna and Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, destroying 25% of the country’s economy. 

2010-15: Earthquake, cholera, and further instability

On the afternoon of January 1, 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hits Port-au-Prince. The scale is unprecedented in an urban setting. While international donors pledge $5.3 billion to help Haiti rebuild, many fail to meet their commitments. Further issues with funds not making it to their intended uses continue to fuel popular dissatisfaction with leadership, especially when little progress has been made six months following the quake. 

The country is further overwhelmed by a cholera outbreak — the first of its kind on record,  and regarded by many to be the worst in recent history. Lasting for years, cases number 820,000 and approximately 10,000 are killed. After a violent election cycle, Michel Martelly wins the presidency. He designates Jovenel Moïse as his party’s candidate at the end of his term. Moïse wins two elections, held in 2015 and 2016, respectively, despite questions around their legitimacy, and takes office in 2017. 

The remote area of Latanye on the island of La Gonave was completely flooded after Hurricane Matthew. Nearly 25 percent of the homes were partially or completely destroyed. Photo: Kristin Myers

2016-19: Hurricane Matthew hits amid a lag in funding

Hurricane Matthew makes landfall late in the season (October 4, 2016) and is the strongest storm to hit Haiti since 1964. In addition to destroying crops just before harvest time, it exacerbates the cholera epidemic, leaves 200,000 families without a home, and causes further damage to the country’s infrastructure. 

Haitian civilians, especially the most vulnerable, suffer these consequences the most, especially amid a lack of humanitarian funding. In 2019, the United Nations reports only meeting 30% of its funding goals for Haiti as many donors fall behind on financial commitments.

2020-21: New developments and uncertainties

COVID-19 lockdowns add to income loss and food insecurity. Political insecurity also continues, with a constitutional crisis provoked over Moïse’s term limit and refusal to leave office before 2022. Moïse is assassinated in his own home in July, 2021, leading to increasing violence in the country. Ariel Henry is confirmed as prime minister, and also takes on the role of acting president. 

Five weeks after Moïse’s assassination, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake hits western Haiti, approximately 55 miles north of Les Cayes. It is the largest natural disaster to hit the country since the 2010 earthquake. 

Concern in Haiti

Concern has been active in Haiti for over a quarter of a century, beginning with our 1994 response to Hurricane Gordon. We’ve been involved in emergency response and development programming ever since. Some of our key programs and areas of work include: 

2021 Earthquake Response

As part of our emergency response, Concern has distributed 2,000 hygiene kits and provided safe drinking water to the affected communities. Alongside our partners we distributed 500 emergency shelter kits and other essential items such as plastic sheeting, blankets, soap and cooking utensils to families who have been displaced. We continue to support Haitian Civil Authorities to verify the extent of the damage to key infrastructures such as hospitals and schools. We are also working with local partners to mitigate the risks and raise awareness of gender-based violence (GBV) among vulnerable groups such as children, women, the elderly, people with disabilities and the LGBTQIA+ communities. These activities include community-based psychosocial support, street theater to promote GBV awareness, and the mapping of protection referral pathways.

Building Hope & Opportunities in Haiti

Our main program in the country addresses the complex problems of Cité Soleil, one of the biggest, and most overcrowded, urban residences in Port-au-Prince. The 5-year integrated program, funded by Irish Aid, works with communities and local authorities to improve community cohesion, waste management systems, civilian protection, livelihoods, and community resilience against flooding and other natural disasters. It includes trainings on peaceful conflict management for influential leaders and young change agents, and on gender-based violence for women’s groups.

Child Protection

Funded by UNICEF, Concern started this project in July 2018 in partnership with the Italian NGO AVSI to encourage communities, parents, children, and adolescents to understand the consequences of violence against children, as well as the benefits of protecting children against violence. The program targeted 500 families where children were at risk of family separation or any type of abuse. The integrated program included training and cash transfers on the condition that children continue to receive a school education.

Haiti Timeline