President Obama has declared that the United States will not forsake Haiti in its moment of agony. Honoring this commitment would be a first for Washington.
To prevent a deepening spiral of death, the United States will have to do things differently than in the past. American relief and development institutions do not function properly, and to believe otherwise would be to condemn Haiti's poor and dying to our own mythology.
In Haiti, we are facing not only a horrific natural disaster but the tectonics of nature, poverty and politics. Even before last week's earthquake, roughly half of the nation's 10 million inhabitants lived in destitution, in squalid housing built of adobe or masonry without reinforcements, perched precariously on hillsides. The country is still trying to recover from the hurricanes of 2008 as well as longtime social and political traumas. The government's inability to cope has been obvious, but those of us who have been around Haiti for many years also know about the lofty international promises that follow each disaster -- and how ineffectual the response has been each time.
In the past two decades, U.S. interventions have done much more harm than good to the Haitian economy. In the early 1990s, Washington thought it did Haiti a favor by imposing a crushing trade embargo to bring about democratization -- specifically, the reinstatement of democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The embargo destroyed Haiti's fragile manufacturing industries.