HAITI IS A DRAMATIC COUNTRY in its terrain, history, and culture. In comparison with other countries in the Caribbean, Haiti is described in superlatives: it is the most rural in its settlement pattern, the poorest, and the most densely populated. It is also the only country in the region that was born of a successful slave rebellion, and it is the first modern black republic.
Many observers have described Haitian society as stagnant, but in recent years, changes have begun. By the 1980s, the population of Haiti surpassed 5 million. Although the country continued to be overwhelmingly rural, urbanization was accelerating as the impact of soil erosion and land fragmentation on agricultural productivity forced increasing numbers of peasants to migrate to Port-au-Prince and even overseas. The population of Port-au-Prince was expected to reach 1 million by the end of the 1980s. Haiti's peasants had traditionally relied on the extended family and cooperative labor as a means for taking care of each other, but by the late 1980s, this aspect of the culture had disintegrated. Deteriorating economic conditions were forcing the poor to find new ways to eke out a living from the land, or to survive in urban slums. An unstable, but politically significant, black middle class had emerged between the traditional, mainly mulatto, elite and the peasantry. Migration and the penetration of foreign missions and nongovernmental organizations to the more remote parts of Haiti created new kinds of relationships with the outside world. The transportation and the communications systems had been greatly improved, and Creole-language radio brought news of domestic and international affairs to the country's isolated villages.
The weight of the past bore heavily on the daily lives of all Haitians in the 1980s. The country's legacy of slavery and French colonization had left a lasting imprint on the culture. In the past, members of the upper class cherished Franco-Haitian culture because the French language and manners separated them from the masses whom they wished to rule. At the same time, former slaves created a peasant culture, but always in the shadow of their urban superiors. Haiti's dual cultural heritage resulted in negative attitudes toward Haitian peasant life, particularly toward the Creole language, traditional marriages, and voodoo, the folk religion. The recent emergence of a middle class has only exacerbated the debate over what should be considered "true" Haiti.
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