Real urban life is limited to the capital and to five or six large towns. Port-au-Prince—whose metropolitan area grew to include more than 10 times the population of the second city, Cap-Haïtien—was founded in 1749; it became the colonial capital in 1770 because its central location was believed to be more suitable for future development, defense, and commerce than the position of Cap-Français (later Cap-Haïtien) on the north coast. The city retained few buildings from the colonial period and the early 19th century, however, because of fires and war damage. On January 12, 2010, a magnitude-7.0 earthquake shook Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area, causing catastrophic death and injury, extensive population displacement, and severe damage to property and infrastructure.

Wooden “gingerbread-style” houses, most now fallen into disrepair, remain a testimony to Victorian influences in the once-fashionable districts of Bois-Verna and Turgeau. Pétionville, a middle-class suburb in the hills to the west, is now part of the metropolitan area, as are the cities of Carrefour and Delmas. The vast majority of Port-au-Prince residents live on meagre incomes, and shantytowns surround the city. The largest shantytown in the capital is Cité Soleil; situated on swampland near the seafront and vulnerable to flooding, Cité Soleil is home to hundreds of thousands of people.

Cap-Haïtien, the original capital of the colony, was founded in 1670. Its neat gridiron street plan encompasses small blocks of old-fashioned houses with courtyards. The city also has large numbers of impoverished or homeless people, but its pace of life is much slower than that of Port-au-Prince. The other major towns are Carrefour and Delmas (within the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area), Gonaïves, Les Cayes, and Jacmel.

Demographic trends

Haiti’s population grew dramatically after 1900. Life expectancy, however, has been among the lowest in the world. The rates of birth and infant mortality are high, and about one-third of the population is under 15 years of age.


Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere by many measures. Some four-fifths of its population lives in absolute poverty, and as much as three-fifths of the population is unemployed or underemployed. Haiti’s limited resource base has been depleted, first through intensive colonial exploitation and later through unplanned development and corruption. A few multinational corporations are active in the country.

Agriculture dominates the economy, but the domestic food supply has not kept pace with demand. As much as one-fifth of the food consumed in Haiti is imported or, sometimes, smuggled from the Dominican Republic or the United States; the imports have lowered overall food prices in Haiti, thereby further impoverishing the nation’s struggling farmers and compelling more people to migrate to urban areas.

Conventional steady wage-earning positions are much less common than casual jobs or self-employment, and the great majority of Haitians are at work almost every day in the so-called “informal” sector, which includes street vending, doing odd jobs, working abroad (and mailing remittances to family members in Haiti), and engaging in illegal activities such as smuggling. The country is a major transshipment point for illegal drugs between South America and the United States. Haitians labouring in other countries remitted considerable amounts of money during the late 19th and the 20th centuries; remittances grew at an accelerating pace in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, when Haitians overseas contributed substantially greater sums to the economy than the amounts that came from foreign aid or foreign direct investment.