BANGLADESH and Haiti vie for the wooden spoon of the unluckiest country in the world. But there is really no competition: Bangladesh is plagued by frequent floods that take away its top soil and the lives of its people; but it is a functioning democracy with relative stability and good relations with its former colonial master.

By contrast it is difficult to name anything that Haiti has going for it and now it has been hit by a punishing earthquake. Yet when the slaves in its sugar plantations won their freedom from the French in 1804 Haiti was the first independent nation in Latin America. France responded by imposing a naval blockade and demanding reparations which over the years took 80 per cent of Haiti's budget and bankrupted the country.

Later the United States became the villain, supporting corrupt regimes, including Papa Doc and his Tonton Macoutes militia, as it did in many Latin American countries; US Marines were stationed in Haiti between 1915 and 1934. At an election in 1990 Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a priest from the Port-au-Prince slums, won a landslide reforming victory but after one year vested interests forced him into exile. President Clinton restored him to office and he won another election in 2000 only to be sent into exile by a military coup in 2004. From South Africa where he now lives he said yesterday that he is ready to return to Haiti. He may be the benighted country's only real hope for the future.