Football, Disappearances and Disasters in Haiti

The horrible tale of football star Joe Gaetjens's football triumphs, his torture and disappearance by Haiti's US's supported dictatorship.

Joe Gaetjens in action.

Tonton Macoute is the bogeyman of Haitian myth that steals misbehaving children in the dead of night into immortal slavery. That’s why, during the 1960’s, the members of a 25,000-member paramilitary group that carried out President for Life François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s every vindictive whim, were known as Macoutes. Their official name was the Milice Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale (MVSN). They stole away citizens displaying signs of political dissent to torture, dismember, or disappear them. Women were routinely raped by the MVSN to subdue rural protests and tanks of acid were specially prepared for political prisoners.

One of its unfortunate victims just so happened to be one of Haiti’s greatest football heroes. Joseph Edouard “Joe” Gaetjens was born in 1924 straight into the cushioned arms of the (minuscule and prominently white) German-Haitian elite. His lineage can be traced back to a business emissary sent to the island by King Frederick William III of Prussia. This German elite, while remaining an incredibly small percentage, was and still is staunchly in control of much of the country’s financial sector.

Regardless of Gaetjen’s removed genetic history, by all accounts he was an impressive footballer and the upstanding pride and joy of many Haitian fans. His debut came in 1938 for Etoile Haïtienne, a Port-au-Prince side. When he first donned their kit at the age of 14, the Fédération Haïtienne de Football had already survived an explosion at the National Palace, two violent Presidential overthrows, and a brutal occupation by U. S. military forces. Nevertheless, the sport had grown immensely in the country.

Yet, unable to make a living from playing football, Gaetjens accepted a scholarship from the Haitian government to study Accounting at Columbia University in New York, where he played for the Brookhattan Football Club. There, he was noticed by U. S. scouts, eventually securing a spot on the 1950 World Cup’s squad of his new country.

In the tournament, held in Brazil, England was the favorite to win by a long shot. The inventors of football had a stacked lineup and a royally stacked bank account. But thirty-eight minutes in at the game against the United States, Walter Bahr’s shot from 25 yards out was deflected by his teammate Gaetjen’s charging forehead, sending the ball to the left and just passed the reach of England’s keeper.

“Whether Joe’s getting a piece of it was by accident or design I don’t know, but I know he went after it with his head. It’s the mystery goal,” Bahr said years later.

The Three Lions were unable to recuperate and, when the final whistle blew, Belo Horizonte’s Estádio Independência erupted. The unlikely hero was carried off the field on the shoulders of beaming fans, wave upon wave of cheering Brazilians following behind.

After the goal there was instant fame and glory for Gaetjens and an international playing stint for French clubs Racing Club de Paris and Olympique Alès. Then, in 1954, he went back to Port-au-Prince where he settled down with his new wife, opened a small dry cleaning business and resumed his spot on Etoile Haïtienne.

Ten years later, on July 8th, 1964, about a month after Papa Doc’s self-proclamation as “President for Life,” Gaetjens was thrust into the back seat of a MVSN car, with a gun pressed to the back of his head, never to be seen again.

A football star with absolutely no political aspirations seems an unlikely target. But for a dictator that once ordered the ice-packed head of a rebel to be sent to his office for spirit communication, or that all the black dogs in Haiti be exterminated, anyone is fair game.

Gaetjens had the added misfortune of his younger brother’s association with a group of exiles in the neighboring Dominican Republic with aspirations to overthrow Papa Doc. But his death didn’t erase his memory. Ask anyone over the age of 30 in Haiti about football and most will mention the legendary 1950 goal, Gaetjen’s murder, and the injustice committed by the Duvalier regime.

  1. Disaster

“According to witnesses and U.N. investigators, they stormed into a soccer match during halftime, ordered everyone to lie on the ground and began shooting and hacking people to death in broad daylight as several thousand spectators fled for their lives.”

This is an excerpt from a Miami Herald article in 2005 reporting on an August 20th attack in Port-au-Prince. Caught on video, the brazen murders were carried out during a football game that was sponsored by the U. S. Agency for International Development to promote peace in the shantytown of Cité Soleil.

Small-time gang lords run these slums, a legacy of the MVSN. After the John F. Kennedy assassination in 1963, the United States reluctantly entered into a soft alliance with Duvalier, providing support of upwards of $15 million per year. The Cuban Revolution and the United States’ Cold War strategy positioned the Caribbean as a bulwark to impede the potential spread of Communism and Duvalier took advantage: “Communism has established centers of infection… No area in the world is as vital to American security as the Caribbean… We need a massive injection of money to reset the country on its feet, and this injection can come only from our great, capable friend and neighbor the United States,” Duvalier said in that same 1963.

Most of these “injections” were placed in the pocket of the dictator himself or his Macoutes. Several accounts point to the high probability that the MVSN were trained by U. S. military forces in the early 1960’s and were outfitted with donations of U. S. weaponry.

And though the regime’s guns may have been American, their repressive strategy was distinctly Haitian. Many of those that made up the MVSN legion were Vodou leaders and wielded cultural clout to terrorize the countryside adorned with flashy clothes and sunglasses, a trademark of the powerful deity Baron Samedi. They killed mercilessly and without provocation, randomly stoning or burning victims alive. Bodies were strung up on the streets as warnings and signs of fidelity to Duvalier.

The reign of the Tonton Macoutes officially ended in 1986 when Papa Doc’s son Jean-Claude Duvalier fled the country. The vestiges of the MVSN came to be known as “attachés” that would work as vigilante government security forces or crooked political organizations. Some attachés ran minor drug cartels in the country; others rooted themselves in Cité Soleil, their younger counterparts responsible for the 2005 football stadium attack.

The brutality and randomness of the stadium massacre is directly handed down from MVSN tactics–an exercise of aleatory violence in a space of Haiti’s most beloved sport. This self-obliteration of core Haitian identity is a keystone of the Cult of Duvalier. Luckner Cambronne, the head of the Macoutes, a man known as the “Vampire of the Caribbean” once said: “a good Duvalierist is prepared to kill his children [for Duvalier] and expects his children to kill their parents for him.”

This totalitarian psychology helps explain why Joe Gaetjens and the targeting of football in its entirety were targeted–they were symbols of a game that represents a certain Haitian individualism and independence from the clutches of the ghosts of the regime.

In 2010, economy and infrastructure severely weakened from decades of abusive leadership, a 7.0 Mw earthquake hit Haiti, laid waste to many of the urban centers, and chalked up a death toll of over 200,000. Included in the devastation was Haiti’s prized Sylvio Cator football stadium, leveled with team members and FHF officials inside.

Out of 50 people present at the stadium when the quake struck, 32 died and 12 were severely injured. National football memorabilia was devastated, “We also lost inventories of national equipment; the federation’s archives were not recovered. Our trophies, the awards we have received throughout the history of the federation, pictures of witnesses of our glorious years were not found in the rubble. It was a complete disaster,” recalls FHF president Yves Jean-Bart. Thousands of displaced Haitians relocated to the dilapidated stadium in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, but were forcibly removed in April of that year as rehabilitation efforts began.



  1. Resistance (or Hope)

But in the middle of those rehabilitation efforts, the whole of international football was witness to Haiti’s determined resilience. Only two months after the disaster and loss of their coach Jean-Yves Labaze, the women’s national under-17 team competed in a qualifying tournament for the World Cup. A team gleaned from the Haitian diaspora together with a few national players was gathered to compete in a men’s World Cup qualifying match in Port-au-Prince in 2011.

Jean-Bart reveals the collective hope embedded deep within Haiti’s football community, “Since 2003 we’ve been going from one catastrophe to the next. Personally, I never imagined that there was so much solidarity in our family, such a passion to get back on track, everyday I see that the courage and the willpower is getting stronger and stronger.”

Edson Tavares, the team’s Brazilian coach, is constantly moved by the thousands of Haitian fans that simply want to be around football, in any way possible. They turn up in droves for warm ups, cool downs, and crowd around the team buses.

After the earthquake, football in Haiti was stripped of what little it had, in a larger metaphor for the country itself, truly revealing the fervor and passion of its essence. Football is married to the Haitian identity, for better or for worse. The violence of the Caribbean nation is played out in the political theater of the pitch along with its joy. The game holds generational memories that not even the cruelest of dictators or disasters can strip away. In the tired tradition of Latin American development, international funds from FIFA and private corporations are being injected into new Haitian stadiums and kits, but the lifeblood of football will always come from the island’s streets. As National Team player James Marcelin said in 2011: “We only have one thing left, and that’s football. You can play and all the world is watching you. The flag can fly everywhere because of football. It’s the one thing that people live for now.”

Further Reading