The presidential palace was, at least at the time of my visit a little over a year ago, one of the most solid-looking buildings in Port-au-Prince. Located at the center of the Champ de Mars plaza, the white structure was said to have been modeled after the White House and meant to inspire reverence.
But as we drove around the potholed streets surrounding the plaza and saw the piles of garbage and rows of crumbling buildings located within a few blocks, I remember thinking of the everyday plight of ordinary Haitians.
Sadly, the building and its neighborhood have now collapsed. And no one knows how many people may be trapped in the rubble. Yesterday's 7.0-magnitude earthquake has left the presidential palace in ruins, as well as the national cathedral located downtown and a large hospital in the suburb of Pétionville. As the news continue to trickle in, I fear that many more parts of Port-au-Prince, other large cities and parts of the countryside have fallen to pieces, leaving thousands dead or missing, and without shelter.
I visited Haiti in October 2008, hoping to explore the issue of development aid in the country. I wanted to see for myself whether the large influx of outside money and peacekeeping troops helped Haitians, or whether, like I often suspected, it made it worse for them. I arrived within a couple of weeks of a string of powerful hurricanes, and witnessed a difficult situation on the ground that made a huge impression on me. Soon, it became clear to me that the country and a majority of its people were not only dependent on that outside help, but were also vulnerable to instability and manipulation.
As I read a series of real-time Twitter messages and blogs, I am reminded of the little time I spent in Haiti and the friends I made, and how I hope to see them someday again. I am happy to hear back from Ezequiel, a Cuban friend who lives with his wife and baby daughter in Port-au-Prince. They are all doing OK. "But I am crying," he says. "Haiti was already in bad shape, and now, it is laying in ruins."
*Ruxandra Guidiis a contributing blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org based in San Francisco, California. She is Communications Director for the San Francisco-based non-profit Amazon Watch, and one half of the collaboration group, Fonografia Collective.
Read more about how to help in Haiti.