Haiti is the forgotten place of the Americas. Not far from the coast of the world's only hyperpower and in a relatively stable region, the country is the poorest in the hemisphere, and U.N. peacekeepers patrol the streets. But there is another side to Haiti, a side that still inspires fierce loyalty among its people. Through a 12-year revolution that pitted untrained former slaves against professional soldiers, Haiti won its independence from France in 1804, fending off the British, the Spanish and the troops of Napoleon Bonaparte. It emerged as only the second American republic to throw off colonial rule and the first with a black ruling class. The nation has also made more peaceful contributions: Iconic French author Alexandre Dumas was the grandson of a Haitian slave, and John James Audubon was born on a sugar plantation on the island.
The moment I arrived in Toussaint Louverture airport it was clear that this tireless nationalism was still very much alive. At the immigration checkpoint, the lines for foreigners were halted as officers processed Haitians first — a subtle reminder of who counts most. Despite its importance in Western history — or perhaps because of it — Haiti is still a very poor place. Even though tourist arrivals supply 10 percent of the nation's gross domestic product — and 300,000 jobs — the island's land, people and culture still seem largely untouched by the outside world.
Part of this has to do with the inherent violence of poverty and the regular outbreaks of political instability. This cycle of disorder began in the years immediately following independence, when the European powers punished Haiti with severe commercial isolation, which devolved into a now familiar trend of internal power struggles and coups. Violence is still a part of daily life, evident in the security measures taken at my hotel in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville. The hotel was surrounded by 40 armed guards at night and warned visitors not to leave after dark, especially during election season when kidnappings are common.
Haiti's endless cycles of political disorder have been partly defined by its geography, which is divided into three main regions. Haiti occupies the western portion of the island of Hispaniola, which extends in two ragged pincers toward Cuba and Jamaica. The nation's geographic core sits in the crook between the two spits of land, stretching from the Artibonite River south to the Chaine de la Selle, the mountains that screen off the southern coast. This region includes the capital city and is known colloquially as the "Independent Republic of Port-au-Prince." This was nearly true in the colonial period, when the center was home to ungovernable privateers and a plantation elite that ignored orders from the colonial capital to the north.
The second region occupies the northern coast and extends from the Artibonite River, encompassing the northern peninsula and the city of Cap-Haitien on the northern coast. This was the cradle of Haitian independence, and it was here that the slave revolt began that sparked the revolution. The third region consists of the southern peninsula, centered on the city of Jacmel. This is the origin of many of Haiti's intellectuals and retains a strong French influence. It was also the site of the nation's first port. Both the northern and southern regions are dominated by rugged highland terrain. The word "Haiti" itself means "land of the high mountains" in the language of the native Arawak people. This is an apt description – Haiti has five mountain ranges that cover two-thirds of the country's territory.
The dynamic that has continually unsettled the Haitian political system is north-south competition for the prize of Port-au-Prince. This began immediately after the revolution when King Henri Christophe, ruler of the north, and Alexandre Petion, ruler of the south, fought to capture national power. Time and again, strongmen have emerged in one of the peripheral regions, taken the center and then used that position to fend off fresh challengers while subduing the commercial elite headquartered in the mansions of Petionville and Montagne Noire. This was the case with the more recent national leaders, Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Rene Preval, who rose from the south and north respectively.
This dynamic is slowly breaking down as politicians begin to emerge directly from Port-au-Prince, signaling the end of the role of the mountainous north and south in mobilizing people and power. But in less tangible ways, the power of the peripheral mountains will always endure in Port-au-Prince — and everywhere on the island. These rugged areas are the cradle of Voodoo, the Haitian folk religion that blends West African spiritual beliefs with occult practices and Christian saints' cults. Voodoo still plays a major role in daily life everywhere. Politicians also believe that it undergirds their political power. Former Haitian President Francois Duvalier and Aristide both engaged in Voodoo rituals to protect themselves from rivals. Former military junta head Joseph Raoul Cedras also used it in hopes of preventing the1994 U.S. intervention, which eventually unseated him.
But Haiti needs more than Voodoo to protect it from outside meddling, which is all but inevitable because of the island's geopolitical position. Haiti is located adjacent to the Caribbean Sea's Windward Passage, which passes between Guantanamo Bay and Haiti's northwest coast. This strait is about halfway between the Panama Canal and the U.S. ports of New York and New Jersey. Following the 1898 Spanish-American War, which brought the sea under U.S. control, the U.S. navy moved to secure the nearby Mona Passage, between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, as well as the Florida Strait, east of Florida. It then needed to control only the Windward Passage in order to control the key sea lanes between Central America and the sea. This motivated the 1915 U.S. intervention in Haiti under the pretext of restoring order following the assassination of President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. The occupation lasted until 1934. Many Haitian politicians use this — and the earlier French reprisals following the revolution — to justify the island nation's continued need for foreign aid. Many of the Haitians I spoke to also mentioned the period with bitterness, forgetting that the United States built much of the island's infrastructure and all of its major roads.