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Haiti: poor, crowded, and illiterate

LAND: About the size of Maryland, Haiti is 600 miles southeast of Florida in the Caribbean. It shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, which controls the eastern two-thirds. Much of Haiti has been deforested by people scavenging firewood and erosion is a serious problem. Many areas are mountainous and semi-arid. THE PEOPLE: With a population of about 6 million, it is one of the world's most densely populated countries. About 95 percent of the people are descended from West African slaves brought to the country during colonial times. The remainder include people of mixed African-Caucasian ancestry and a few people of European or Levantine stock. The illiteracy rate stands at 77 percent. About 75 to 80 percent are Roman Catholic and many of the remainder are members of increasingly active Protestant evangelical groups. Voodoo is widely practiced. THE ECONOMY: Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Its annual income is about $2 billion, which is about the same as a medium-sized US city, according to World Bank figures. The total value of exports in 1984-85 was $230 million, about $130 million of that in exports of goods assembled in Haiti. The United States is Haiti's main trading partner, accounting for about 50 percent of exports and imports. The World Bank estimates that less than half of 1 percent of the country's population controls 40 percent of the wealth. HISTORY: Hispaniola was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and was used by Spain as a jumping-off point for explorations. France eventually gained control of the island and imported slaves to work the plantations. In 1791, Toussaint L'Ouverture led a slave uprising and took over the northern part of the island. In 1804 slaves gained independence from France and established Haiti as the world's first black republic. A series of 22 dictators ruled the country from 1843 to 1915, when the United States sent in an occupation army. The occupation ended in 1934, but US influence in Haiti's economic and, to a more limited extent, political affairs remains strong.