Population of Haiti

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Demographic Profile

The estimated population of Haiti in 1989 was 6.1 million, with an average population density of 182 people per square kilometer. Some 75 percent of the population lived in rural areas, while only 25 percent remained in urban areas; this was one of the lowest urban-to-rural population ratios in Latin America and the Caribbean. The estimated annual population growth rate between 1971 and 1982 was 1.4 percent. The crude mortality rate in 1982 was estimated to be 16.5 percent, with a crude birth rate of 36 percent. A profile of the population reveals that the majority of Haitians are young.

Haiti has conducted only a few censuses throughout its history. A survey taken during 1918 and 1919 indicated that there were about 1.9 million people in the country. The first formal census, taken in 1950, showed that the population had reached 3.1 million. The second census, in 1971, indicated a population of 4.2 million. Critics have argued that these censuses, along with one taken in 1982 (the final results of which were still unavailable as of 1989), were deficient and that they seriously undercounted the population.

Urban areas, particularly Port-au-Prince, grew significantly in the 1970s and the 1980s. The annual population growth rate of metropolitan Port-au-Prince was estimated to be 3.5 percent between 1971 and 1982, substantially above the 1.4 percent national rate for that period. The growth rate for other urban areas was estimated at 2.4 percent. Metropolitan Port-au-Prince, which includes the capital and the suburbs of Delmas and Carrefour, was by far the largest urban area, in 1982, with a population of 763,188, or about 61 percent of the total urban population. The population of the second largest city, CapHaïtien , was estimated to be 64,400 in 1982. The next two largest towns, Gonaïves and Les Cayes, had estimated populations of slightly more than 34,000. Six other towns had populations greater than 10,000.

The rural population, which grew about 1 percent a year between 1971 and 1982, was estimated to be 3.8 million in 1982, 3.4 million in 1971, and 2.7 million in 1950. In 1982 there were about 464 people per square kilometer in rural areas, one of the highest population densities in the Western Hemisphere.


The population growth rate in Haiti's rural areas has been lower than the rate for urban areas, even though fertility rates are higher in rural areas. The main reason for this disparity is outmigration. People in rural areas have moved to cities, or they have emigrated to other countries, mostly the United States and the Dominican Republic. An estimated 1 million people left Haiti between 1957 and 1982.

Many of the emigrants in the 1950s and the 1960s were urban middle-class and upper-class opponents of the government of François Duvalier (1957-71). Throughout the 1970s, however, an increasing number of rural and lower-class urban Haitians emigrated, too. In the 1980s, as many as 500,000 Haitians were living in the United States; there were large communities in New York, Miami, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Thousands of Haitians also illegally emigrated to the United States through nonimmigrant visas, while others entered the United States without any documentation at all.

The first reports of Haitians' arriving in the United States, by boat and without documentation, occurred in 1972. Between 1972 and 1981, the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) reported more than 55,000 Haitian "boat people" arrived in Florida. The INS estimated that because as many as half of the arrivals escaped detection, the actual number of boat people may have exceeded 100,000. An unknown number of Haitians are reported to have died during their attempts to reach the United States by sea.

Though poorer than earlier immigrants, the boat people were often literate and skilled, and all had families who could afford the price of a passage to Florida. About 85 percent of these boat people settled in Miami.

In September 1981, the United States entered an agreement with Haiti to interdict Haitian boats and return prospective immigrants to Haiti. Under the agreement, 3,107 Haitians had been returned by 1984. Nevertheless, clandestine departures by boat continued throughout the 1980s. The Bahamas was another destination of Haitian emigrants; an estimated 50,000 arrived there by boat during the 1980s. The Bahamas had welcomed Haitian immigrants during the 1960s, but in the late 1970s, it reversed its position, leading to increased emigration to Florida.

Since the early twentieth century, the Dominican Republic has received both temporary and permanent Haitian migrants. The International Labour Office estimated that between 200,000 and 500,000 Haitians resided in the Dominican Republic in 1983. About 85,000 of them lived on cane plantations. In the early 1980s, about 80 to 90 percent of the cane cutters in the Dominican Republic were reported to be Haitians. Through an accord with the Haitian government, the Dominican Republic imported Haitian workers to cut cane. In 1983 the Dominican Republic hired an estimated 19,000 workers. Evidence presented to the United Nations (UN) Working Group on Slavery revealed that the Dominican Republic paid wages that were miserably low and that working and living conditions failed to meet standards set by the two governments. According to some reports, Haitian cane cutters were unable to leave their workplaces, and they were prevented from learning about the terms of the contracts under which they had been hired.

Emigration helped moderate Haiti's population growth. Furthermore, annual remittances from abroad, estimated to be as high as US$100 million, supported thousands of poor families and provided an important infusion of capital into the Haitian economy. At the same time, emigration resulted in a heavy loss of professional and skilled personnel from urban and rural areas.

Fertility and Family Planning

A number of studies show that Haiti's fertility rate declined significantly from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. As was true in other countries, there appeared to be a correlation among declining fertility rates, urban residence, and literacy. The 1977 Haitian Fertility Survey found that between 1962 and 1977, the fertility rate of urban literate women declined by 33 percent. In contrast, the rate for rural illiterate women declined by only 7 percent during the same period. Moreover, the fertility rate of literate rural women declined by 27 percent, while that of illiterate urban women declined by 15 percent.

Haitian women interviewed in the 1977 survey indicated that they desired between three and four children, but at that time, the average woman had more than five children.

Expressed desire for family planning services exceeded available programs, and many women lacked access to modern contraceptives and birth-control information. The survey found that, despite the widespread desire for fewer children, only 7 percent of women of childbearing age were using modern contraceptives. Haitian men traditionally shunned the use of condoms. The fertility survey reported a condom-use rate of only 1 percent. The absence of more recent surveys made it impossible to determine whether or not condom use had risen in response to the high incidence of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in Haiti.


As a result of the extinction of the indigenous population by the beginning of the seventeenth century, the population of preindependence Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) was entirely the product of the French colonists' slaveholding policies and practices. The major planters and government officials who constituted the ruling class carefully controlled every segment of the population, especially the majority of African slaves and their descendants. Society was structured for the rapid production of wealth for the planters and their investors in France.

In the colonial period, the French imposed a three-tiered social structure. At the top of the social and political ladder was the white elite (grands blancs). At the bottom of the social structure were the black slaves (noirs), most of whom had been transported from Africa. Between the white elite and the slaves arose a third group, the freedmen (affranchis), most of whom were descended from unions of slaveowners and slaves. Some mulatto freedmen inherited land, became relatively wealthy, and owned slaves (perhaps as many as one-fourth of all slaves in Saint-Domingue belonged to affranchis). Nevertheless, racial codes kept the affranchis socially and politically inferior to the whites. Also between the white elite and the slaves were the poor whites (petits blancs), who considered themselves socially superior to the mulattoes, even if they sometimes found themselves economically inferior to them. Of a population of 519,000 in 1791, 87 percent were slaves, 8 percent were whites, and 5 percent were freedmen. Because of harsh living and working conditions, many slaves died, and new slaves were imported. Thus, at the time of the slave rebellion of 1791, most slaves had been born in Africa rather than in Saint-Domingue.

The Haitian Revolution changed the country's social structure. The colonial ruling class, and most of the white population, was eliminated, and the plantation system was largely destroyed. The earliest black and mulatto leaders attempted to restore a plantation system that relied on an essentially free labor force, through strict military control, but the system collapsed during the tenure of Alexandre Pétion (1806-18). The Haitian Revolution broke up plantations and distributed land among the former slaves. Through this process, the new Haitian upper class lost control over agricultural land and labor, which had been the economic basis of colonial control. To maintain their superior economic and social position, the new Haitian upper class turned away from agricultural pursuits in favor of more urban-based activities, particularly government.

The nineteenth-century Haitian ruling class consisted of two groups, the urban elite and the military leadership. The urban elite were primarily a closed group of educated, comparatively wealthy, and French-speaking mulattoes. Birth determined an individual's social position, and shared values and intermarriage reinforced class solidarity. The military, however, was a means of advancement for disadvantaged black Haitians. In a shifting, and often uneasy, alliance with the military, the urban elite ruled the country and kept the peasantry isolated from national affairs. The urban elite promoted French norms and models as a means of separating themselves from the peasantry. Thus, French language and manners, orthodox Roman Catholicism, and light skin were important criteria of high social position. The elite disdained manual labor, industry, and commerce in favor of the more genteel professions, such as law and medicine.

A small, but politically important, middle class emerged during the twentieth century. Although social mobility increased slightly, the traditional elite retained their economic preeminence, despite countervailing efforts by François Duvalier. For the most part, the peasantry continued to be excluded from national affairs, but by the 1980s, this isolation had decreased significantly. Still, economic hardship in rural areas caused many cultivators to migrate to the cities in search of a higher standard of living, thereby increasing the size of the urban lower class.

The Upper Class

In the 1980s, Haiti's upper class constituted as little as 2 percent of the total population, but it controlled about 44 percent of the national income. The upper class included not only the traditional elite, which had not controlled the government for more than thirty years, but also individuals who had become wealthy and powerful through their connections with the governments of François Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier. Increased access to education helped carry some individuals into the ranks of the upper class. Others were able to move upward because of wealth they accrued in industry or export-import businesses.

The traditional elite held key positions in trade, industry, real estate, and the professions, and they were identified by membership in "good families," which claimed several generations of recognized legal status and name. Being a member of the elite also required a thorough knowledge of cultural refinements, particularly the customs of the French. Light skin and straight hair continued to be important characteristics of this group. French surnames were common among the mulatto elite, but increased immigration from Europe and the Middle East in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries had introduced German, English, Danish, and Arabic names to the roster.

The only group described as an ethnic minority in Haiti was the "Arabs," people descended from Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian traders who began to arrive in Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean in the late nineteenth century. From their beginnings, as itinerant peddlers of fabrics and other dry goods, the Arabs moved into the export-import sector, engendering the hostility of Haitians and foreign rivals. Nevertheless, the Arabs remained. Many adopted French and Creole as their preferred languages, took Haitian citizenship, and integrated themselves into the upper and the middle classes. Formerly spurned by elite mulatto families and excluded from the best clubs, the Arabs had begun to intermarry with elite Haitians and to take part in all aspects of upper-class life, including entry into the professions and industry.

The Middle Class

The middle class was essentially nonexistent during the nineteenth century. But at about the time of the United States occupation (1915-34), it became more defined. The creation of a professional military and the expansion of government services fostered the development of Haiti's middle class. Educational reform in the 1920s, an upsurge in black consciousness, and the wave of economic prosperity after World War II also contributed to the strengthening of the class. In the late 1980s, the middle class probably made up less than 5 percent of the total population, but it was growing, and it was becoming more politically powerful.

The mulatto elite dominated governments in the 1930s and the early 1940s and thwarted the political aspirations of the black middle class. President Dumarsais Estimé (1946-50) came to power with the aim of strengthening the middle class. The Duvalier government also claimed the allegiance of the black middle class, at least through the 1970s. During the Duvalier period, many in the middle class owed their economic security to the government. A number of individuals from this class, however, benefited from institutionalized corruption.

Some members of the middle class had acquired political power by the 1980s, but most continued to be culturally ambivalent and insecure. Class solidarity, identity, and traditions were all weak. The criteria for membership in the middle class included a nonmanual occupation, a moderate income, literacy, and a mastery of French. Middle-class Haitians sought upward mobility for themselves and their children, and they perceived education and urban residence as two essential keys to achieving higher status. Although they attempted to emulate the lifestyle of the upper class, middle-class Haitians resented the social preeminence and the color prejudice of the elite. Conflicts between the FrancoHaitian and the Afro-Haitian cultural traditions were most common among the middle class.


Haiti's peasantry constituted approximately 75 percent of the total population. Unlike peasants in much of Latin America, most of Haiti's peasants had owned land since the early nineteenth century. Land was the most valuable rural commodity, and peasant families went to great lengths to retain it and to increase their holdings.

Peasants in general had control over their landholdings, but many lacked clear title to their plots. Haiti has never conducted a cadastral survey, but it is likely that many families have passed on land over generations without updating land titles. Division of land equally among male and female heirs resulted in farm plots that became too small to warrant the high costs of a surveyor. Heirs occasionally surveyed land before taking possession of it, but more frequently, heirs divided plots among themselves in the presence of community witnesses and often a notary. Some inherited land was not divided, but was used in common, for example, for pasture, or it was worked by heirs in rotation. Families commonly sold land to raise cash for such contingencies as funerals or to pay the expenses of emigration. Purchasers often held land with a notarized paper, rather than a formal deed.

There were strata within the peasantry based on the amount of property owned. Many peasants worked land as sharecroppers or tenants, and some hoped eventually to inherit the plots they worked. Some tenant farmers owned and cultivated plots in addition to the land they worked for others. The number of entirely landless peasants who relied solely on wage labor was probably quite small. Agricultural wages were so low that peasants deprived of land were likely to migrate to urban areas in search of higher incomes. Wealthier peasants maintained their economic positions through the control of capital and influence in local politics.

Peasants maintained a strong, positive identity as Haitians and as cultivators of the land, but they exhibited a weak sense of class consciousness. Rivalries among peasants were more common than unified resentment toward the upper class.

Cooperation among peasants diminished during the twentieth century. Farms run by nuclear families and exchanges among extended families had formed the basis of the agrarian system. Until the middle of the twentieth century, collective labor teams, called kounbit, and larger labor-exchange groups were quite common. These groups were formed to carry out specific tasks on an individual's land; the owner provided music and a festive meal. After the 1940s, smaller groups, called eskouad,began to replace the kounbit. The eskouad carried out tasks on a strictly reciprocal basis or sold their collective labor to other peasants.

Although Haitian peasant villages generally lacked a sense of community and civic-mindedness, some civic-action groups had emerged over the years. After the 1960s, wealthy peasants led rural community councils, which were supervised by the government. These councils often served more to control the flow of development resources into an area than to represent the local population. In the 1980s, a countervailing movement of small peasant groups (groupman) emerged with support from the Roman Catholic Church, principally in the Plateau Central. The groupman discussed common interests and undertook some cooperative activities. Both the Duvalier governments and the succeeding National Council of Government (Conseil National de Gouvernement--CNG), headed by Lieutenant General Henri Namphy, took steps to curb the activities of these peasant groups.

The first generation of Haitian peasants pursued selfsufficiency , freedom, and peace. The necessity of devoting at least some share of their limited hectarage to the production of cash crops, however, hindered the peasants' ability to achieve self-sufficiency in the cultivation of domestic staples. Although they acquired a degree of freedom, they also found themselves isolated from the rest of the nation and the world. In the second half of the twentieth century, the Haitian peasantry gradually became much less isolated. Several factors accelerated the peasants' involvement with the outside world in the 1970s and the 1980s. Road projects improved the transportation system, and foreign religious missions and private development agencies penetrated the rural areas. These organizations brought new resources and provided an institutional link to the outside world. Many people from almost every community had migrated to Port-au-Prince or overseas, and they sent money home to rural areas. Cassette tapes enabled illiterate people who had traveled far from home to communicate with their families. Creole, which became widely used on radio, brought news of Haiti and the world to remote villages. And in 1986, media coverage of the fall of the Duvalier regime put rural Haitians in touch with the political affairs of the nation.

Urban Lower Class

The urban lower class, which made up about 15 percent of the total population in the early 1980s, was concentrated in Port-au- Prince and the major coastal towns. Increased migration from rural areas contributed greatly to the growth of this class. Industrial growth was insufficient, however, to absorb the labor surplus produced by the burgeoning urbanization; unemployment and underemployment were severe in urban areas. The urban lower class was socially heterogeneous, and it had little class consciousness. One outstanding characteristic of this group was its commitment to education. Despite economic hardships, urban lower-class parents made a real effort to keep their children in school throughout the primary curriculum. Through education and political participation, some members of the lower class achieved mobility into the middle class.

The poorest strata of the urban lower class lived under Haiti's worst sanitary and health conditions. According to the World Bank, one-third of the population of Portau -Prince lived in densities of more than 1,000 people per hectare in 1976. The poorest families consumed as few as seven liters of water per person, per day, for cooking, drinking, and cleaning, and they spent about one-fifth of their income to obtain it. For many of these families, income and living conditions worsened in the 1980s.


In rural areas, men and women played complementary roles. Men were primarily responsible for farming and, especially, for heavy work, such as tilling. Women, however, often assisted with tasks such as weeding and harvesting. Women were responsible for selling agricultural produce. In general, Haitian women participated in the labor force to a much greater extent than did women in other Latin American countries. Haiti's culture valued women's economic contribution to the farm in that all income generated through agricultural production belonged to both husband and wife. Many women also acquired sufficient capital to become full-time market traders, and they were thus economically independent. The income that they earned from nonfarm business activities was recognized as their own; they were not required to share it with their husbands.

The most common marital relationship among peasants and the urban lower class was known as plasaj. The government did not recognize plasaj as legitimate marriage, but in lowerclass communities, these relationships were considered normal and proper. The husband and wife often made an explicit agreement about their economic relationship at the beginning of a marriage. These agreements usually required the husband to cultivate at least one plot of land for the wife and to provide her with a house. Women performed most household tasks, though men often did heavy chores, such as gathering firewood.

For the most part, lower-class men and women had civil and religious marriages for reasons of prestige rather than to legitimize marital relations. Because weddings were expensive, many couples waited several years before having them. In the 1960s, this pattern began to change among Protestant families who belonged to churches that strongly encouraged legal marriage and provided affordable weddings. It was not unusual for peasants to have more than one marital relationship. Some entered into polygamous marriages, which only a few men could afford.

Legal marriages were neither more stable nor more productive than plasaj relationships. Also, legal marriages were not necessarily monogamous. In fact, legally married men were often more economically stable than men in plasaj relationships, so it was easier for them to separate from their wives or to enter into extramarital relationships.

Men and women both valued children and both contributed to child care, but women generally bore most of the burden. Parents were proud of their children, regardless of whether they were born in a marital relationship or as "outside children." Parents took pains to ensure that all of their children received equal inheritances.

Family structure in rural Haiti has changed since the nineteenth century. Until the early part of the twentieth century, the lakou, an extended family, usually defined along male lines, was the principal family form. The term lakou referred not only to the family members, but to the cluster of houses in which they lived. Members of a lakou worked cooperatively, and they provided each other with financial and other kinds of support. Land ownership was not cooperative, however, and successive generations of heirs inherited individual plots. Under the pressure of population growth and the increasing fragmentation of landholdings, the lakou system disintegrated. By the mid-twentieth century, the nuclear family had become the norm among peasants. The lakou survived as a typical place of residence, but the cooperative labor and the social security provided by these extended families disappeared. Haitian peasants still relied on their kin for support, but the extended family sometimes became an arena for land disputes as much as a mechanism for cooperation.

Family life among the traditional elite was substantially different from that of the lower class. Civil and religious marriages were the norm, and the "best" families could trace legally married ancestors to the nineteenth century. Because of the importance of intermarriage, mulatto elite families were often interrelated. Marital relationships have changed somewhat since the mid-twentieth century. Divorce, once rare, has become acceptable. Elite wives, once exclusively homemakers surrounded by servants, entered the labor force in increasing numbers in the 1970s and the 1980s. The legal rights of married women, including rights to property, were expanded through legislation in the 1980s. In addition, the elite had a broader choice of partners as economic change and immigration changed the composition of that group.

SOURCE: Library of Congress Country Studies/Area Handbook

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