Haiti in Crisis

After yesterday’s devastating earthquake, it seems Haiti can’t seem to catch a break. From organized crime to food riots, hurricanes, and mudslides, Mark Leon Goldberg on why the persistent island nation deserves our support.

Haiti’s prime minister has told CNN that “hundreds of thousands” of people have died following Tuesday’s earthquake, and said he had nowhere to sleep tonight since both the presidential palace and his private home were flattened in the earthquake. Below, VIEW PHOTOS of the destruction. The quake was the strongest earthquake to hit the island, experts say, since 1770. The headquarters of the U.N. mission to the island is among the collapsed buildings, and 150 of its employees are missing. Obama promised to address with a "swift and aggressive" relief effort.

Below, Mark Leon Goldberg on why the island nation that can't catch a break from organized crime, food riots, and Mother Nature deserves our support. Plus, view our gallery of the quake devastation and donate now to aid groups.

Haiti just can’t catch a break. For nearly five years, the small island nation has made slow but steady progress toward economic development and political stability. But it seems that just as the country is poised to turn a corner, an act of God, like yesterday’s devastating earthquake, sends Haiti reeling back. The epicenter of the 7.0-magnitude quake—the largest recorded in the region in over 200 years—was just Southwest of Port au Prince, leaving the capital city without electricity, countless homes leveled, and the National Palace and headquarters of the United Nations mission destroyed. It’s too soon to tell how many people have died, or to what extent humanitarian efforts in Haiti have been setback. But the costs will be significant.

Click Below to View Photos of the Destruction in Haiti

The world wants Haiti to succeed. Both the United States and the UN have invested blood and treasure into Haiti’s transformation from the basket case of the Western Hemisphere to a country on the path toward peace and prosperity. In July 1994, 20,000 U.S. Marines landed in Port au Prince to oversee the re-installation of Jean Betrand Aristide, the popular, democratically elected president who had been deposed in a military coup. Ten years later, the shaky peace imposed by the U.S.-led intervention had fully collapsed. By then Aristide had become considerably less popular and less democratically elected. In February 2004, he fled the country amidst a rebellion.

This is Haiti’s tragedy: Just as the trend lines shift in the right direction, calamity strikes.

How to Help HaitiThe Daily Beast’s full Haiti coverageThe post-Aristide government appealed to the United Nations to send peacekeepers to provide security during the country’s transition to democracy. Soon, there were about 7,000 troops in Haiti, mostly from Brazil. The peacekeeping mission, known by its French acronym, MINUSTAH, has been credited with ushering in an era of security unprecedented in recent decades. It has helped train local police and has fought against notorious organized criminal groups that operated openly in the sprawling slums of Port au Prince.

In 2005, MINUSTAH helped to oversee the country’s first post-Aristide elections in which Rene Preval, a former aid to Aristide, won the presidency. Preval enjoys wide international support, which is critical because, Haiti remains dependent on the goodwill of donor countries—chiefly the United States.

With memories of Haitian “boat people” on Floridian shores and deployments of U.S. Marines to the island, the United States has largely obliged, in part out of self-interest. In May 2008, Congress passed the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement Act (HOPE II), which granted wide tariff exemptions and preferences to Haitian businesses. The development economist Paul Collier called the act “the best trade deal on earth” that could potentially provide a jobs boom as Haiti breaks into the U.S. garment market.

It would seem that with a respected political leadership provided by Preval, increased security provided by the UN, and robust economic support from the United States, Haiti is poised to turn the corner. But for every step in the right direction, Haiti has been dealt an equal and opposite blow. In April 2008 there were widespread riots to protest the rising cost of food. Similar riots occurred elsewhere in the developing world, but in Haiti, it resulted in the death of a peacekeeper and the ouster of the prime minister.

The World Bank offered Haiti an emergency bailout to help mitigate the food emergency, but even as that crisis was settling, Haiti was hit again—and again, and again, and again. In the span of 30 days in the fall of 2008, Haiti was hit by four hurricanes and tropical storms. Flooding and mudslides killed an estimated 800 people and devastated crop harvests. The port city of Gonaives was virtually destroyed. Millions were internally displaced.

This is Haiti’s tragedy: Just as the trend lines shift in the right direction, calamity strikes. But even with our limited and early information, the January 12, 2010 quake seems beyond comparison. Hospitals have crumbled and city blocks are flattened. Even the presidential palace, which presumably would be among the sturdiest of buildings, has caved in on itself. This is clearly a scary time for Haiti. Still, Haitians can take some comfort in its unique relationship with the United States. For one, the country has a champion in the husband of the current secretary of state. In May 2009, former President Bill Clinton was appointed a UN Special Envoy to Haiti, meaning that even as the public’s focus turns away from Haiti in the coming weeks, he will remain a high profile advocate for reconstruction. Also, a large and politically active Haitian Diaspora community in the United States ensures that Congress will keep an eye on Haiti’s progress.

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It is clear that recovery will not be an easy task. There will be setbacks along the way. But that is no reason to give up. Even in the face of persistent natural disasters, Haiti is trudging along on the right course. That kind of persistence deserves our support.

Mark Leon Goldberg writes the UN and Global Affairs blog UN Dispatch.

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