Many nations around the world elect one singular person to act as their head of state, a representative of their nation at home and abroad. Many Democratic nations call their head of state the president. While the President of the United States is often the most famous holder of this title, many others have held this title over the course of history. Although lacking the limelight of the U.S. presidency, the tiny island nation of Haiti has been electing presidents to guide the nation since gaining independence in 1804.
Haiti has a long history of strife that has been characterized, at times, by the men elected to lead the nation as the President of Haiti. With 44 individuals having served as the head of state in Haiti since its independence in 1804, a handful of these men standout for the imprint they left on Haiti.
Beginning in 1791, the slaves of Haiti would join forces with free people of color in demanding the abolition of slavery and greater rights for all citizens of the island. The first leaders of Haiti were forged in the fire of revolution, leading their countrymen to freedom and acting as the leaders of the young nation.
Jean-Jacques Dessalines was chosen as Haiti’s “Emperor for Life” by the loyal troops he guided to victory over the French during the revolution. After declaring Haiti’s independence on 1 January 1804, he moved quickly to establish a free black nation on the greater island of Hispaniola. During his despotic rule, the French Creole population of Haiti fled the island nation en masse to avoid persecution. Having grown up a slave on Haiti, Dessalines detested the use of slavery on the island. He fought mightily to keep the nation’s sugar plantations producing without the use of slavery. Dessalines possessed a deep hatred and mistrust of white French colonists. His most infamous deed is considered the 1804 Haiti Massacre in which he ordered all white minorities on the island killed.
Dessalines helped establish a free black nation in Haiti, but also set forth an agenda of discrimination similar to that faced by his people for centuries. He not only declared that no white person was allowed to own land or property in Haiti, but also established what became known as agrarian militarism. His forces helped firmly control a system in which all the citizens of Haiti either worked the plantations to help the nation’s sugar and coffee industries, or served in the armed forces to protect the country. Although he never officially carried the title of President of Haiti, Dessalines is revered in Haitian history for securing the nation’s independence and serving as its first head of state.
After the death of Dessalines in 1806, three men would share power in controlling a young and divided nation of Haiti until 1821. The nation was split into the Kingdom of Haiti in the north, and the Republic of Haiti in the south. Henri Christophe ruled the kingdom in the north as King, while Alexandre Petion ruled the republic in the south as Haiti’s first true President.
The two men could not have been more different. Christophe spent his early years a slave, then worked as a mason, sailor, and even hotel manager after gaining his freedom. Petion on the other hand was a gens de couleur libres, or free person of color. While Christophe was forced to work in slavery and later earn everything he gained, Petion was born to a black mother and wealthy white father in Haiti. He was later educated at the Military Academy in Paris, France. Christophe and Petion were political foes who had different visions for the future success of Haiti.
Christophe was a firm believer in autocratic rule, much like Dessalines. Under his rule the kingdom continued Dessalines ideals of agrarian militarism, as well as starting massive building campaigns to benefit the people of Haiti. Petion, however, was a firm believer in democracy and equal rights for all. As President of the Republic of Haiti, in the south of Hispaniola, Petion seized plantations from wealthy land owners and allowed the citizens of Haiti to work the land themselves.
While Christophe’s policies kept the northern economy humming along and provided a relative level of wealth for the kingdom, Petion’s policies slowed the pace of the southern economy, destroying the government’s revenue streams and reducing the wealth of the republic.
Christophe ruled the Kingdom of Haiti from 1806 till he took his own life in 1820. Petion ruled the Republic of Haiti from 1806 till his death from yellow fever in 1818. General Jean Pierre Boyer succeeded Petion in 1818 and would eventually reunite Haiti in 1820. Later, Boyer united the whole of Hispaniola, ruling until his exile in 1843. Boyer was a free person of color, like Petion, who parlayed a successful military career to the post of president. His best acts in office include encouraging the emigration of freed slaves in America to Haiti, promising them land and opportunities in nation that allowed only black immigrants. His worst acts include pulling Haiti away from subsistence farming to semi-feudal system that tied workers to property and paying France a crippling sum to recognize the independence Haiti on gained through blood and toil on the battlefield.
Over the next century a number of men held the post of President of Haiti. It was not until a father-son duo took charge in the mid-20th century that charisma and controversy returned to the presidency. Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier took over as President of Haiti on 22 October 1957, and would rule until being succeeded by his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier on 21 April 1971.
Papa Doc received a degree in medicine from the University of Haiti in 1934 and would go on to earn fame fighting tropical diseases such as yellow fever, yaws, and malaria in Haiti. Duvalier was elected president in 1957 after running on a platform of Black Nationalism. Duvalier may have fought for the little man before becoming president, but during his presidency he corrupted the military, formed massive rural militias to cement his power, and did all in his power to retain the presidency through patronage, political killings, and repression. Papa Doc named himself President for Life through rigged votes to amend the constitution.
Papa Doc’s repressive, authoritarian rule ended with his death on 21 April 1971. He was succeeded by his 19 year old son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Although it appeared Baby Doc was changing the systems put in place by his father, they proved to be merely cosmetic. Baby Doc delegated many of his decisions to advisers, allowing torture, repression, and poverty to continue. Baby Doc lived a lavish lifestyle that included a state-funded wedding in 1980. He was ousted by a popular uprising in 1986.
In the wake of political turmoil and natural disasters in the late 20th and early 21st century, the Haitian people recently elected a new president. Joseph Michel Martelly was elected President of Haiti in a runoff election on 4 April 2011. Martelly is the son of middle-class parents from Haiti and spent significant portions of his life living in the United States. Martelly was a successful musician for years, even using his musical skills to help with the “Knowledge is Power” campaign in 1997. The campaign was aimed at curtailing the spread of HIV in Haiti.
As President of Haiti, Martelly faces the difficult task of continuing the reconstruction of the nation after the 2010 earthquake that killed 300,000 people and rendered upwards of 1.6 million Haitians homeless. Martelly’s presidential goals include reinstating a national military and improving business and economic conditions in Haiti.