Editor's note: Daniel P. Erikson is senior associate for U.S. policy and director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., where he manages the Dialogue's Haiti project. He is the author, most recently, of "The Cuba Wars: Fidel Castro, the United States, and the Next Revolution."
(CNN) -- Haitians have long been accustomed to the metaphorical earthquakes that have rippled through their proud but troubled country.
Ever since achieving independence in 1804 to become the world's first free black state, Haiti has been beset by turbulent, often violent, politics and a gradual but seemingly unstoppable slide from austerity to poverty to misery.
During the past two centuries, Haiti has experienced 34 coups d'etat, several military interventions by the United States, and the gradual withering of an economic base once dependent on agriculture, manufacturing, and even some tourism.
Still, by Haitian standards, the past decade has been especially tumultuous.
In 2004, the forced ouster of President Jean Bertrand Aristide led to the establishment of a U.N. peacekeeping mission charged with stabilizing the country.
In 2006, Haiti elected President Rene Preval, who was left to grapple with the monumental challenge of leading a nation virtually devoid of functioning institutions. Haiti's precarious location in the path of one of the Caribbean's major hurricane corridors contributed to its devastation by major storms in 2004 and 2008. And now this: A literal earthquake, measuring magnitude 7.0 on the Richter scale, has laid waste to the largest population center, the teeming, vibrant and chaotic capital of Port-au-Prince.
The first images of the aftermath were haunting. An unearthly cloud of dust lingered in the evening air as night fell over the crushed remains of the country's fragile infrastructure.
Thousands of modest, humble homes transformed in moments to powder and rubble. The Hotel Christopher, which served as the nerve center for the thousands of U.N. peacekeepers stationed in Haiti, became the site of calamity and heartbreak.
And the ornate, almost incongruously pristine National Palace, which housed the offices of the president, crumpled and collapsed. I have visited that building often over the years, most recently when I was part of a delegation that met with President Preval in that impressive structure early in his tenure, where we discussed the challenges that he confronted in Haiti.
"The problem here is that every institution is weak," he told us. "Every single one, including mine, the office of the presidency itself." Still, the magnificent palace itself was capable of evoking a sense of mystery and power. But that too is gone.
The tragedy cuts especially deep because, in the past few years, there were glimmers of hope that Haiti was making progress.
In February 2006, Preval had been elected with a slight majority of the total vote in the first round of voting. During the next few years, Haiti notched several important successes: the restoration of an elected parliament, a return to economic growth, and the establishment of basic security due to improvements in the U.N. mission.
Substantial progress was made on rebuilding the Haitian police force, and the U.S. Congress passed special trade preferences for Haiti that were beginning to lure investors back into the country.
Perhaps most vitally, the heated political conflicts in Haiti had begun to lessen, and Haiti's rusty democratic institutions started to function, ever so tentatively. While an outbreak of rioting about skyrocketing food prices led to the ouster of one Haitian prime minister in 2008, and another was forced out after parliamentary bickering last fall, the newly appointed successor Jean-Max Bellerive was quickly confirmed and won both domestic and international support.
To its credit, the Obama administration quickly absorbed the scale of the suffering and pledged a massive and rapid response. If this tragedy can provide a basis for a stronger and more effective U.S. engagement in Haiti, then that may be the silver lining to the clouds hanging over the country.
But the international community must seek to work hand in hand with Haitian partners to help Haiti get back on its feet, by empowering Haitian officials and drawing on the skills and talents of Haitian civil society and grassroots organizations.
The people of Haiti have already lost so much. The earthquake and its aftermath may deliver one last, tragic casualty if the Haitian people lose faith in themselves.
The opinions in the commentary are solely those of Daniel P. Erikson.