Haitians have long been prey to hurricanes and coups, their nation ravaged by erosion and corruption, mudslides and marauders, poverty and violence. Now the few economic and political gains made over five years of relative stability have been buried along with thousands of corpses in the rubble of a magnitude 7.0 earthquake. The presidential palace, parliament, government ministries and hospitals -- indeed most of the capital of Port-au-Prince -- are in ruins. An already dysfunctional state now lacks even the edifices of government. Gone too are some of the buttresses: the archbishop and his cathedral; the head of the United Nations mission and some of his top aides, who died when their headquarters collapsed.
Not even a developed country could completely withstand such a powerful temblor so close to the Earth's surface and city center. Yet the full extent of Haiti's devastation is a result of its broken state, where 80% live below the poverty line. Port-au-Prince quadrupled to nearly 3 million people in the last 25 years as Haitians fled a denuded countryside in search of food and work. They built shanties out of watered-down concrete on precarious hillsides. They didn't have water and electricity, let alone zoning and inspectors to insist on safety. The international community has made some headway in building a civilian police force to provide security, but not as much in bolstering a civilian government to provide for its people. A school to train magistrates was to reopen this month; parliamentary elections were to be held in March and a presidential election in December. Tentative investments were trickling in to tourism and industry. All of that came to a screeching halt in seconds.