Haiti became the world's first black-led republic and the first independent Caribbean state when it threw off French colonial control and slavery in a series of wars in the early 19th century.
However, decades of poverty, environmental degradation, violence, instability and dictatorship have left it as the poorest nation in the Americas.
A mostly mountainous country with a tropical climate, Haiti's location, history and culture - epitomised by voodoo - once made it a potential tourist hot spot, but instability and violence, especially since the 1980s, have severely dented that prospect.
Haiti achieved notoriety during the brutal dictatorships of the voodoo physician Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude, or "Baby Doc". Tens of thousands of people were killed under their 29-year rule.
Hopes that the election in 1990 of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest, would herald a brighter future were dashed when he was overthrown by the military a short time later.
AT A GLANCE
Politics: Democratic rule was restored in 2006, two years after a violent revolt ousted former leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide; bitter divisions persist. Presidential, parliamentary elections were held on 28 November 2010
Economy: Economy in ruins, unemployment chronic, severe deforestation
International: The UN has deployed peacekeepers; international aid is seen as key to recovery
Although economic sanctions and US-led military intervention forced a return to constitutional government in 1994, Haiti's fortunes did not pick up, with allegations of electoral irregularities, ongoing extra-judicial killings, torture and brutality.
A bloody rebellion, and pressure from the US and France, forced Mr Aristide out of the country in 2004.
Since then, an elected leadership has taken over from an interim government and a UN stabilisation force has been deployed. But Haiti is still plagued by violent confrontations between rival gangs and political groups and the UN has described the human rights situation as "catastrophic".
Meanwhile, Haiti's most serious underlying social problem, the huge wealth gap between the impoverished Creole-speaking black majority and the French-speaking minority, 1% of whom own nearly half the country's wealth, remains unaddressed.
1770 - Earthquake devastates Port-au-Prince
1842 - Quake destroys Cap-Haitien, other cities
1935 - Storm kills 2,000
1946 - Tsunami kills 1,790
1954 - Hurricane Hazel kills hundreds
1963 - Hurricane Flora kills 6,000 in Haiti and Cuba
2008 - Three hurricanes and tropical storm kill 800
2010 - Quake hits Port-au-Prince, killing tens of thousands
2010-11 - Cholera outbreak kills nearly 6,000
Sources: AP, US Geological Survey
Many Haitians seek work and a better life in the US or other Caribbean nations, including the neighbouring Dominican Republic, which is home to hundreds of thousands of Haitian migrants.
Furthermore, the infrastructure has all but collapsed and drug trafficking has corrupted the judicial system and the police.
Haiti is also ill-equipped to deal with the aftermath of the tropical storms that frequently sweep across the island, with severe deforestation having left it vulnerable to flooding. It also lies in a region prone to earthquakes.
Natural disaster struck with full force early in 2010, when the capital Port-au-Prince was hit by a
magnitude 7.0 earthquake
- the country's worst in 200 years. Tens of thousands of people were killed and much of the capital and its wider area devastated, prompting a major international aid effort.
Ten months later, with the country still struggling to recover from the earthquake, an outbreak of cholera added to Haiti's woes.
Michel Martelly, who first made his name on the Haitian music scene, was inaugurated as president in May 2011 after coming out of nowhere to win 68% of votes in the run-off of a hotly-contested presidential election in March.
Mr Martelly was known for his charismatic performances in his previous career as a singer
Mr Martelly ran an unusually slick campaign, enlisting the help of election consultants to project a more serious image than that of the flamboyant musician who made his name playing compas dance music in the 1980s.
Mr Martelly had eschewed any involvement in the growing opposition to the Duvalier regime in the 1980s, and only became politically active in opposition to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first freely-elected president in 1991.
Mr Martelly's shows were patronised by some leading figures in the violent military dictatorship that ousted Mr Aristide later that year, which is when he acquired the nickname of "Sweet Micky". After Mr Aristide's return to Haiti in 1994 Mr Martelly largely concentrated on his musical career.
Mr Martelly's pledge to rebuild a country still reeling from the after-effects of the devastating January 2010 earthquake appealed to the poor and unemployed, and he became especially popular with younger voters.
However, he courted controversy in 2012 by advocating the re-establishement of Haiti's army, which was scrapped in the 1990s because of its history of coups and violence. He faced protests in October 2012 at enduring corruption and his failure to alleviate poverty.
The son of an oil company executive, Mr Martelly was educated at a prestigious Roman Catholic school in Port-au-Prince and attended junior colleges in the US, although he never graduated.
Prime Minister: Laurent Lamothe
Foreign Minister Laurent Lamothe, whom parliament approved as prime minister in May 2012, was President Martelly's fourth nomination for the post since taking office a year earlier.
Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe
A successful businessman and close associate of the president, Mr Lamothe has a reputation for drive and competence both in commerce and government.
He replaces Garry Conille, who resigned in February after disputes with the president and his own ministers over a parliamentary inquiry into the nationality of senior officials.
Mr Lamothe, born in 1972, comes from an intellectual background, attended business school in the US, and was one of the founders of the Global Voice Group telecommuncations company, which has extensive interests in Africa. He also represented Haiti in the Davis Cup international tennis competition.
Like his predecessor and President Martelly, he has made infrastructure repair, transparency in aid disbursement and attracting foreign investment his priorities. His strong anti-contraband stance is likely to be put to the test by Haiti's porous border with the Dominican Republic.
Radio is Haiti's key news medium, and it came into its own after the January 2010 earthquake.
Some FM stations in Port-au-Prince were back on air within hours. Radio was used to "mobilise the population and facilitate social solidarity", Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said.
While media freedom has improved since the fall of Aristide, a lack of training for journalists limits the availability of "diverse, quality" coverage, RSF observed in 2011.
Social media were used as a communications channel after the 2010 quake. The first images of the disaster came from citizens' mobile phones. There were one million internet users by March 2008 (via Internetworldstats).
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