The catastrophe: After a period of instability in the mid-20th century following a bloody war with the Dominican Republic and the temporary U.S. military occupation of the island, Haiti had a glimmer of hope when François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, a popular health minister, was elected president (in a military-rigged election). But Duvalier was not exactly the humanitarian ruler Haitians had hoped for. Duvalier quickly set about consolidating his power over the state and security services, enriching himself and his cronies through bribery and extortion, and building his own personality cult. He lined his coffers with millions in U.S. aid money during his early years in power. An estimated 30,000 Haitians were killed during Duvalier's reign of terror and many more fled into exile.
After his death in 1971, he was succeeded by his 19-year-old son Jean-Claude, known as "Baby Doc." After continuing his father's policies of repression and corruption, Baby Doc finally abdicated and fled the country under pressure from the Reagan administration in 1986. But the Duvalier dynasty left Haiti with a legacy of corruption and poverty from which it has never recovered.
The catastrophe: In 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected in what was considered Haiti's first fair election. A former priest who had helped lead the opposition to the Duvalier regime, Aristide seemed a natural choice to help the country regain its footing. But the country's experiment in democracy was to be short-lived. Aristide was overthrown in a military coup just a few months later and forced into exile. Over 1,500 people were killed. Thousands of refugees fled to the United States in rickety boats, prompting President George H.W. Bush to enact a blockade against the country.
In 1994, the United Nations authorized the use of force to remove the military dictatorship, and the United States took the lead in forming a multinational military to enforce the mandate. Twenty-thousand military personnel landed unopposed, returning Aristide to power.
The catastrophe: Aristide was legally barred from running for president again in 1995, but he returned to power five years later in what was widely considered a fraudulent election, losing much of his international support in the process. The first military coup attempt happened only a year later. Frustration over Aristide's election grew into increasingly violent protests from 2000 to 2003.
In February 2004, a rebel group calling itself the National Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Haiti, comprised of ex-military officers including several notorious Duvalier-era figures, captured Gonaives, Haiti's fourth-largest city, and began advancing toward the capital. Although the United States had helped Aristide return to power after his last ouster, the George W. Bush administration remained neutral this time, blaming Aristide's years of corruption for the rebellion. Aristide fled Haiti in late February, blaming U.S. pressure for forcing him from power.
Shortly after the coup, the United Nations authorized a atabilization mission in Haiti, including a military peacekeeping force led by the Brazilian military. Despite the presence of the blue helmets, however, political violence, extrajudicial killings, and arrests of opposition members continued under the interim government.
The catastrophe: As if the political turmoil weren't bad enough, nature struck Haiti in 2004 to devastating effect. Just one month after the coup, flash floods hit the Haitian-Dominican border, leaving more than 1,600 dead. Then in September, Hurricane Jeanne decimated Gonaives, leaving more than 3,000 dead. The interim government was almost entirely bankrupt and unable to effectively respond.
The flooding was further exacerbated by deforestation. Because of poor environmental management and poverty, more than 98 percent of the country's forestland land had been cleared, eliminating the topsoil that could have held the water. The 8,000 strong U.N. peacekeeping force, which had been intended to help Haiti form a government, struggled to cope with the humanitarian disaster. The U.S. military, controversially, halted the delivery of aid during the first set of floods because of a lack of resources.
The catastrophe: A small measure of political stability was restored with the election of President René Préval in 2005, but the calm didn't last. By 2008, 80 percent of Haitians lived on less than $2 per day, and the country found itself in the grips of a food crisis. The international media shocked readers with reports of Haitians making cookies out of packed dirt.
In April, after the price of rice doubled over the course of six months, protesters descended on Port-au-Prince to demand that the government either take steps to lower the cost of living or step down. Protesters built barricades and tried to use garbage cans as battering rams to break their way into the national palace. Caught between the mob and the government they were charged with stabilizing, U.N. peacekeepers fired rubber bullets into the crowd. One protester told Reuters, "If the police and U.N. troops want to shoot at us, that's OK, because in the end if we are not killed by bullets we'll die of hunger." In the end, the government survived the crisis, but its credibility was sunk, and the desperation of Haiti's people continued.
The catastrophe: In the fall of 2008, Haiti was hit by hurricanes, and Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike in the space of a month, leaving more than 800 dead and more than a million homeless. The long-suffering city of Gonaives again took the brunt of the devastation. It was rendered largely uninhabitable, and government ministers said much of it would simply have to be moved. Sixty percent of the starving country's harvest was destroyed, and the debris was still being cleared this year.
While other countries in the region, including the Dominican Republic and Cuba, were hit almost as badly by the storms, Haiti's death toll was nearly 10 times higher because of environmental degradation that exacerbated the flooding and the government's inability to respond. U.S. anthropologist and longtime Haiti activist Paul Farmer called the hurricane season an "unnatural disaster," saying that a "Marshall Plan" was needed to rebuild Haiti's political institutions or the country would "have a hard time surviving the hurricane season." But the damage unleashed this week by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake was probably more than even he could have imagined.