The Republic of Haiti, with a population of over 9 million people, is located on the western part of the island of Hispaniola, sharing a 224-mile border with the Dominican Republic. The country is slightly smaller than the US State of Maryland. The terrain includes rugged mountains, rain forests, palm tree lined beaches, and small coastal plains and river valleys. There are several islands, including the famous island of Tortugas (Ile de la Torture) located off the coast of northern Haiti.
Once a prosperous French colony, the nation declared its independence in 1804 as the first independent black-led republic. Originally "discovered" by Christopher Columbus, the native inhabitants, the Taíno-Arawak peoples, fought against the Spanish until conquered and incorporated into the imported African slave population. French settlement of Hispaniola began in 1625 and was formally claimed in 1664. The fertile island became the richest colony in the Western Hemisphere, exporting sugar and coffee. In 1790, free blacks and slaves revolted together to form the only successful slave revolt in world history that led to claiming independence in 1804. The free black nation chose to keep the original Taíno-Arawak name "Ayiti" meaning "mountainous land".
Now, considered the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti has struggled with political instability for most of its history. The United States, concerned about foreign powers attempting to influence the island, invaded and occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934. In 1957, Dr. Francois Duvalier "Papa Doc" came to power and ruled as dictator from 1964 until his death in 1971. His son Jean-Claude, "Baby Doc", then succeeded him to the dictatorship. The Duvalier governments were internationally criticized for corruption and massive human rights violations.
The priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president in 1990, becoming Haiti's first democratically elected leader, but was deposed in a military coup less than eight months after his inauguration. The military ruled for three years before a second US invasion and occupation in 1994 returned Aristide to power.
In 1996, former Prime Minister, Rene Preval, constitutionally succeeded Aristide to the office of President. Aristide was re-elected in 2001. After an armed rebellion led Aristide to flee to exile in 2004, an interim government took office to organize new elections under the auspices of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). After many delays, Haiti finally inaugurated a democratically elected president, Rene Preval, and parliament, under Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis, in May of 2006.