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The nation of Haiti makes up the western third of the island of Hispaniola, located in the Caribbean Sea south-east of Cuba. Haiti shares the island with the Dominican Republic which makes up the eastern two-thirds of the island. In total, Haiti is approximately 27,700 square kilometres, making it less than half the size of Tasmania. Haiti has a population of around 9.6 million, with 95 percent of the population of African descent.

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A former French colony, Haiti was to become the first independent black republic, and the only nation ever to have been formed from a successful slave revolt. Haiti became the second independent country in the Americas (after the United States) when it declared its independence on January 1, 1804.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Haiti's Government changed hands 22 times. In 1915, the US invaded and occupied Haiti following massive civil unrest. The US upgraded public administration and significantly improved the physical infrastructure. Opportunities for foreigners to invest and own property in Haiti were expanded substantially. Nationalist rebels, called the "Cacos," waged strong guerilla warfare and, as a consequence, the US controlled government created a National Guard which would eventually evolve into the Haitian Armed Forces. Resentment grew over the US occupation, and at elections in 1930 (the first in 13 years), the resulting government negotiated a full withdrawal of US military personnel by August 1934.

Haiti was then governed by a succession of unstable regimes in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1957 Francois Duvalier was elected in the country's first universal suffrage election, however, it is believed that the election was controlled by the military. In 1964 Duvalier declared himself President for life and kept control over the public with a secret police comprised of active death squads adept at eliminating any threat or perceived threat to Duvalier's power. Upon Duvalier's death in 1971, his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, succeeded him as President for Life, carrying on the same authoritarian regime which his father had fostered.

Over the next 15 years, despite the Duvaliers' repression, social unrest continued to grow, destabilising the government. In 1986, the Duvaliers agreed to accept exile in France leaving the Government in the hands of the military. Political instability continued until 1990, when a provisional government led by Supreme Court Justice Ertha Pasqualle Trouillot set elections for December of that year.

The 1990's saw more political turmoil for Haiti. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the elected President, was deposed in October 1991, before being returned as president following the intervention in 1994 by a Multi-National Force headed by the US under a UN mandate. Rene Preval was then elected president and continued in that position from 1995 to 2000. He was not able to provide the political stability needed to foster economic development.

In 2000, Aristide was again elected President of Haiti. However continuing political crisis with the opposition parties in Haiti led to the near economic collapse of the country. Following unsuccessful coup attempts, civil unrest reached climatic proportions at the end of 2002. Haiti was on the edge of civil war. By the beginning of 2004, clashes between supporters of the opposition and supporters of the government were the norm, and Aristide left Haiti and went into political exile. At the end of 2004, the UN decided to mount a peacekeeping operation in Haiti. 8,000 peacekeepers from the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) have been deployed to maintain civil order in Haiti. The UN mission has not, so far, been effective in preventing violent unrest in the country, including the food riots in 2008.

Elections due for late 2005 were pushed back until February 2006. Despite accusations of electoral fraud on both sides, Preval was announced as the winner and was inaugurated in May 2006. Civil unrest has continued in Haiti, and remains a serious concern for the Government. However, Preval's Government has, so far, been relatively stable, but it is making little headway in meeting the promises Preval identified for his second government, particularly improved security and the alleviation of poverty.

Haiti gained full membership of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) on 2 July 2002.

Political system

Haiti's political system is a Presidential-style Republic. The President of Haiti is the Head of State. The Prime Minister, chosen by the President from the largest party in Parliament, is the Head of Government. Executive power is exercised by the Government, and legislative power is vested in both the Government and the two chambers of the National Assembly of Haiti. The Assembly comprises a 30-member Senate (the upper house), which is elected for six-year terms in staggered elections, with one-third of seats being contested every two years, and a 99-member Chamber of Deputies.

Political Outlook

Despite an overall improvement in security since Preval's inauguration in May 2006, violent incidents in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, continue to highlight the still-fragile nature of the stability that has largely prevailed since the February 2006 elections. Preval enjoys strong support from the foreign governments and multilateral agencies involved with the country. His government appears to be benefiting from the goodwill, at least for the time being, of the majority of Haitians. Possibly the greatest threat to Preval's Presidency will be if the government is unable to improve the living conditions of ordinary Haitians.

To consolidate improvements in the security situation made since the start of 2006, rapid movement will also be needed in increasing economic opportunity for marginalised groups, disarmament, and the reform and strengthening of the PNH (Police Nationale d'Haiti, the national police force). Strengthening the rule of law will also be a prerequisite for the government's strategy of attracting private investment to foster economic growth, as will reform of the judicial and penal systems to combat corruption and public mistrust of these institutions.

A UN presence is likely to be necessary for several years. It is also possible that the UN's mission in Haiti will eventually be broadened to offering developmental assistance and training as well as providing aid in reforming police, penal and judicial systems.

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Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with 80 percent of the population living in abject poverty. Haiti's GDP was US$6.1 billion in 2007-08 and GDP per capita was around US$1,300. Haiti suffers from a lack of skilled and unskilled labour and two-thirds of the labour force is formally unemployed. Haiti's export sector is made up of cocoa, oils, mangoes, coffee, and manufactures, with over 80 percent of these commodities being imported by the US. Haiti is reliant on formal international economic assistance for fiscal sustainability.

Haiti's social and economic woes have been exacerbated by the substantial damage to life and property caused by hurricanes and tropical storms in both the 2007 and 2008 storm seasons. In September 2008, Australia provided A$1 million in aid relief efforts in the Caribbean to help the victims of Tropical Storm Fay and Hurricanes Gustav, Hanna and Ike; A$300,000 was directed to relief efforts in Haiti. Australia's assistance was provided through the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies for relief supplies, temporary shelter, health services and other emergency relief activities.

Australia's bilateral trade with Haiti is minor. In 2006-07, imports/exports with Haiti totalled AUD 1.4 million, with over 50 percent of this involving textiles and clothing.

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The support of the governments of the US, France and Canada, Haiti's main trade partners and aid donors, as well as that of multilateral agencies such as the IMF, the UN and the World Bank, will be needed to ensure the continuation of both multilateral and bilateral aid flows in 2008 and onwards. Haiti will continue to be heavily reliant on the US as over 50 percent of Haiti's imports and over 80 percent of their exports are with the United States. Budget spending allocations reflect the government's priorities as disclosed in 2007. A large part of the allocation for public works is intended for road building, while the majority of the allocation for the Justice Ministry is destined for spending on the enlargement and professionalisation of the PNH and represents a 90% increase on the previous allocation.

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Australia has diplomatic relations with Haiti but no formal representation there. The Australian High Commissioner in Trinidad and Tobago has non-resident accreditation to Haiti and is responsible for the conduct of the full range of diplomatic business with Haiti.

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Last Updated: May 2009

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