Thousands of American troops are expected to arrive in Haiti today. The security that their presence will provide is urgently needed, with reports of law and order fraying in the capital Port-au-Prince. The efforts of US soldiers should be invaluable in the relief effort too. Army medical teams can help the injured, and troops can distribute food.
But the docking of the carriers USS Carl Vinson and USS Bataan in Haitian waters will also be a symbolic moment in the relations between these two nations. America has a special responsibility towards this poor and now utterly stricken Caribbean neighbour.
From the earliest days of both republics, Washington has regarded Haiti as part of its sphere of influence. The human ties go deep. The US has an immigrant Haitian community of 420,000. And Washington has a long record of intervention in Haitian politics, on several occasions even invasion.
The US supported the brutal regimes of "Papa Doc" and "Baby Doc" Duvalier in the Cold War to ensure Haiti did not go the way of Cuba. It aided the military coup in 1991 which deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and set off a vast exodus of refugees to the US.
And the careless dumping of food aid has undercut local agricultural producers, stunting the Haitian economy and cementing its status as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Haitian governments have long been unstable and many of its leaders corrupt. But its political and economic development has hardly been helped by its powerful neighbour.
In fairness, there have been signs of a growing awareness in Washington of its responsibilities. The US supported a $1.2bn debt write-off for Haiti last year by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. And Washington now backs constitutional government.
And though the speed of the earthquake emergency response might have been disappointing, the scale of the effort announced by President Obama last week is nonetheless impressive. Indeed, it is still going up. The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has announced that a hospital ship and more helicopters will be despatched in the coming days. Total troop numbers will rise to 10,000.
Meanwhile, a temporary amnesty has been announced for the 30,000 illegal Haitian migrants in the US who were facing deportation. It would, clearly, have been a sick joke to even contemplate deporting people to this broken nation. The US should surely now go further and make the amnesty permanent, allowing these Haitians to stay and work in the US. Their remittances would help rebuild their homeland. France, the old colonial master, should do the same for its own illegal Haitian migrants.
America needs to recognise that its responsibilities extend further than simply helping Haitians deal with the immediate disaster. The institutions of Haiti's government, from the presidential residence, to the Supreme Court, to the interior ministry, have literally collapsed. Hundreds of thousands of people are homeless and desperate. The US has the wealth and influence not only to pick Haiti up, but also to set it on a more prosperous road. This tragedy is an opportunity for the US to make amends for the combination of shameful meddling and malign neglect which, up until now, have characterised its relations with its benighted neighbour.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies