The country has faced more than its fair share of catastrophes. Hundreds died in Port-au-Prince in an earthquake back in June 1770, and the huge earthquake of 7 May 1842 may have killed 10,000 in the northern city of Cap Haitien alone. Hurricanes batter the island on a regular basis, mostly recently in 2004 and again in 2008; the storms of September 2008 flooded the town of Gonaïves and swept away much of its flimsy infrastructure, killing more than a thousand people and destroying many thousands of homes. The full scale of the destruction resulting from this earthquake may not become clear for several weeks. Even minimal repairs will take years to complete, and the long-term impact is incalculable.
What is already all too clear, however, is the fact that this impact will be the result of an even longer-term history of deliberate impoverishment and disempowerment. Haiti is routinely described as the "poorest country in the western hemisphere". This poverty is the direct legacy of perhaps the most brutal system of colonial exploitation in world history, compounded by decades of systematic postcolonial oppression.
The noble "international community" which is currently scrambling to send its "humanitarian aid" to Haiti is largely responsible for the extent of the suffering it now aims to reduce. Ever since the US invaded and occupied the country in 1915, every serious political attempt to allow Haiti's people to move (in former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide's phrase) "from absolute misery to a dignified poverty" has been violently and deliberately blocked by the US government and some of its allies.
Now, I know what some of our readers may think of this kind of criticism. They will ask, is it not time to put aside our political differences and contribute to the poor and downtrodden, to the victims of this disaster? However, we should reject this false dilemma: to help the victims it is necessary to grasp their historico-political situation: a long series of Western interventions and concomitant impoverishment of a majority of Haitians.
One wants to hope that Haiti will not be forced, at some point in the process of receiving aid, to accept more neo-liberal reforms as a condition for receiving it. If this seems outlandish to you, read Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, especially page 487 (Chapter 19) and following.