HAITI FORMALLY RENOUNCED its colonial bond with France in January 1804, as the result of the only successful slave rebellion in world history. The country's longevity as an independent nation in the Western Hemisphere is second only to that of the United States. Over this span of almost two centuries, however, the country has never known a period free of tyranny, repression, political conflict, racial animosity, and economic hardship.
Haiti, the first black republic in modern times, sprang directly to self-governance from French colonialism, a system that had a profound impact on the nation. Haiti's colonial origins had demonstrated that an illiterate and impoverished majority could be ruled by a repressive elite. The slaveholding system had established the efficacy of violence and coercion in controlling others, and the racial prejudice inherent in the colonial system survived under the black republic. A lightskinned elite assumed a disproportionate share of political and economic power.
The chaotic and personalistic nature of Haitian political culture combined with chronic underdevelopment to provide fertile ground for a succession of despots, strongmen, and dictators. Even the few national leaders whose election apparently reflected popular sentiment, such as Dumarsais Estimé (1946-50) and François Duvalier (1957-71), rejected constitutional procedures in favor of retaining personal power. The popular revolt that deposed President for life Jean-Claude Duvalier (1971-86) demonstrated the Haitian people's rejection of parasitic despotism. At the same time, however, the revolt reaffirmed another lesson of Haitian history: violence has often been the only effective route to change.
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