The Spaniards used the island of Hispaniola (Haiti occupies the western part and the Dominican Republic occupies the eastern) as a launching point to explore the rest of the Western Hemisphere. French buccaneers later used the western third of the island as a point to pirate English and Spanish ships. In 1697, Spain ceded the western third of Hispaniola to France. As piracy was gradually suppressed, some French adventurers became planters, making Saint Domingue -- as the French portion of the island was known -- the "pearl of the Antilles" and one of the richest colonies in France's 18th century empire.
During this period, African slaves were brought to work on sugarcane and coffee plantations. In 1791, the slave population revolted and gained control of the northern part of the French colony, waging a war of attrition against the French.
By January 1804, local forces defeated an army sent by Napoleon Bonaparte, established independence from France and renamed the area Haiti.
With 22 changes of government from 1843 to 1915, Haiti experienced numerous periods of intense political and economic disorder.
From February 1986 -- when the 29-year dictatorship of the Duvalier family ended -- until 1991, Haiti was ruled by a series of provisional governments. Most of those governments had been ruled by a member of the former army forces (general or colonel). In March 1987, a constitution was ratified that provides for an elected president to serve as head of state; and a prime minister, cabinet, ministers and supreme court appointed by the president with parliament's consent. The Haitian Constitution also provides for political decentralization through the election of mayors and administrative bodies responsible for local government.
In December 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a charismatic Roman Catholic priest, won 67 percent of the vote in a presidential election that international observers deemed largely free and fair. Aristide took office in February 1991, but was overthrown that September in a violent coup led by dissatisfied members of the army and supported by many of the country's economic elite. The coup contributed to a large-scale exodus of Haitians by boat. The U.S. Coast Guard rescued a total of 41,342 Haitians at sea during 1991 and 1992, more than the number of people rescued in boats from the previous 10 years combined.
With his term ending in February 1996, and barred by the constitution from succeeding himself, President Aristide agreed to step aside and support a presidential election in December 1995. Rene Preval, a prominent Aristide political ally, was sworn in to a five-year term, during what was Haiti's first-ever transition between two democratically elected presidents.
After an armed rebellion in February 2004, an interim government organized new elections under the auspices of the United Nations. Continued instability and technical delays prompted repeated postponements, but Haiti inaugurated a democratically elected president and parliament in May 2006, followed by contested elections in 2010.
A massive magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010 had its epicenter about 15 miles west of the capital, Port-au-Prince. Estimates are that more than 300,000 people were killed and some 1.5 million left homeless. The earthquake was assessed as the worst in this region over the previous 200 years.
Source: The World Factbook, 2014.