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Opinion: Haiti's cycle of disaster

While natural disasters are difficult to prevent, so are man-made ones without more buy-in from Haitians.

A resident looks at debris being removed from the national palace after an earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Jan. 13, 2010. The death toll in Haiti's catastrophic earthquake could run to tens of thousands. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

NEW YORK — Haiti's devastating earthquake, which virtually destroyed the U.N.'s peacekeeping mission there, will undoubtedly make things harder for the poorest, most embattled nation in the Western Hemisphere.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission, which has for the last five years worked to bring political stability to the country following the 2004 armed uprising against Haiti's President Jean Bertrande Aristide, reports many of its personnel missing and presumed dead along with tens of thousands of others in the virtually destroyed capital Port-au-Prince, a city that used to house about 2 million people.

The rescue operation to unearth, house, feed, treat and, in too many cases, bury the victims will likely take months and is mobilizing the international community in ways unseen since the 2004 tsunami in Asia. Indeed, this earthquake could turn out to be the deadliest natural disaster since that tsunami.

But Haiti seems to be in a never-ending cycle of disasters, both natural and man-made. The island was hammered by four hurricanes in 2009 that killed more than 800 people and now it has been rocked by its worst earthquake in 200 years. These disasters have badly damaged the country's already ailing infrastructure. Haiti's unsustainable farming and deforesting has led to an environmental nightmare of increased flooding and soil erosion. In 2008, Haitians, no strangers to hunger and poverty, rioted when food prices increased by more than 50 percent.

And although there's been relative political calm in the last few years under President Rene Preval, Haiti still faces issues of governance. In October 2009, Michele Pierre-Louis was ousted from her post as prime minister for failing to do enough to alleviate the poverty that plagues the country. "The unceremonious dumping of the prime minister revived memories of Haiti’s recent past, in which in-fighting among grasping politicians denied it both government and foreign aid," wrote The Economist of the political move. Her predecessor was ousted the year before in the wake of the food crisis.

In 1990, Jean Bertrande Aristide became the first democratically-elected president after decades of dictatorship and he was supposed to mark a new chapter in the tumultuous country's history. Instead his rule ended in bloody turmoil 15 years later.

Despite continuous international support, Haiti's development has remained both slow and tenuous. Nearly 80 percent of the population continues to live on less than $2 per day, more than half live on less than a dollar a day. A 2009 Columbia University U.N. Studies report notes that after 20 years of U.N. involvement and more than $5 billion in assistance in foreign assistance from the United States, "the country still suffers from extreme poverty, severe environmental degradation, unpredictable bursts of violence and the near absence of government at all levels of society." The Columbia University report notes that the core of Haiti's fragility is the people's lack of trust that the government will be able to provide for their basic needs.