Brazil is Haiti’s national football team

Most teams have 12 starting players — 11 on the field and a roaring chorus in the stands. Brazil’s national side will always have a 13th player: Haiti.

Brazilian national team players Neymar and William. Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

On a balmy evening in Port au Prince in 2013, I was on my way to meet folks from Radio Metropole, Haiti’s historic radio station, to begin the groundwork on a compilation of Haitian music largely recorded under Papa Doc Duvalier’s reign. It was a weekday, just before rush hour which meant bottlenecked traffic jockeying for road space with UN armored vehicles, yet the streets were dead silent. Normally bursting with sounds of school children and faint fragrances of scotch bonnet peppers and griot pork, the silence could be mistaken for an arbitrary curfew. 

The eerie emptiness had only one culprit: Brazil’s national football team. It was merely an international friendly match to prepare for the World Cup a year later, hosted in Brazil. Host nations qualify automatically, so international friendlies are necessary for tactical experimentation, team cohesion, and fitness, but  entirely inconsequential affairs.

Yet it brought Haiti to a standstill.

I asked one man huddled around a TV with poor reception at half time in the little Kreyol I had picked up: “Poukisa Brazil (Why Brazil)?” He placed his two index fingers parallel, pointing and motioning in the same direction. “Brezil, Ayiti,” he said.

Brazilian football has won hearts and minds across the Global South. They perhaps offer a vision to some countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, whose below par national teams stagnate from one failed qualifying campaign to another; of what a country tormented by colonization’s spiritual and physical legacies can achieve in one of the few major global gatherings where political and economic power offer little guarantee of success. More importantly, Brazilian football offers parts of the world not in control of their own stories or image what scintillating, trophy-winning football can do for a country’s global image, a key determinant of national esteem.

In Haiti, it runs even deeper. Brazil is, in many ways, Haiti’s national side.

After Brazil’s labored 2-0 win against Costa Rica, a video shared on Twitter showed crowds, akin to carnival troupes, celebrating in the streets of Jérémie, a town in far western Haiti. It’s not Brazil’s style of play, an endearing feature of iconic Brazilian sides, nor their penchant for outrageous displays of skill, charming characters, or lovable nicknames that won Haiti, nor is it football alone that sustains a complicated solidarity.

Latin America’s brief but impactful 21st century flirtation with leftist politics, an audacious democratic attempt to stifle U.S. tampering, had its winners and losers. Haiti came out on top. Brazil’s Lula da Silva internationalized its foreign policy, focusing on Global South solidarity, as did Hugo Chavez. Both turned their sights to Haiti. Chavez provided Haiti with 90 percent of its oil products at cut rates with favorable financing terms and no strings attached. When I roamed around Haiti in 2013, stickers and murals of his face were plentiful. Lula’s face was almost nowhere to be seen, but Brazil’s presence in Haiti is no less profound. 

Under Lula, Brazilian peacekeepers led the UN stabilization mission to Haiti. “Brazilian engagement in Haiti,” writes Leonardo Miguel Alles in Brazilian Foreign Policy and Non-Indifference: An Analysis of the Lula Years, “represents the most complete example of diplomatic activities base on solidarity.” 

When the earthquake struck in 2010, Brazil was the first country to pledge money — U.S. $55 million — to the Haiti Reconstruction Fund, and kept its troops in the country. 

Thousands of Haitian refugees fleeing the earthquake’s devastation sought a new home in Brazil. Paulo Sergio de Almeida, then the president of Brazil’s national immigration council, said in an interview with Global Post in 2012 that “it was the first time” Brazil had dealt with Haitian migration. “The Brazilian military presence in Haiti had contributed to Brazil’s reputation as a welcoming, opportunity-filled country.” Welcoming countries are in high demand and short supply.

Perhaps Lula saw his overtures to Haiti as the culmination of Brazil’s internationalist dream of the early 1960s, in the wake up of the Non-Aligned Movement, to foster strong ties with a decolonizing Africa, as detailed in Jerry Dávila’s fascinating work: Hotel Trópico: Brazil and the Challenge of African Decolonization. Haiti, the first black republic hard-won while slavery persisted across the Americas, unsuccessfully applied for membership to the African Union.

I first remember seeing glimpses of Haiti and Brazil’s bonds working at a global news desk, where photo correspondents’ packages in the earthquake’s aftermath showed children with Brazilian flags painted on their skin, adorned almost solely in Brazil’s yellow and green kit. Brazil’s footballers have arguably always been their country’s greatest ambassadors. Brazil’s government caressed Haiti in its time of need, and Haitians repay the gesture by aligning national joy with, say, a sweet strike from Carioca playmaker Philippe Coutinho.

The Brazilian-led peacekeeping mission departed Haiti just last year, leaving behind a bittersweet legacy. Initial, genuine goodwill gave way to a cholera outbreak and sexual abuses by a multinational peacekeeping force under Brazil’s watch. 

Once-welcomed soldiers began to resemble an occupation force. In a major road artery in Port au Prince, Brazilian peacekeepers took it upon themselves to become traffic cops. “Nobody wants to do what they say,” my friend Samuel told me while in the driver’s seat. The peacekeeper directing traffic looked more a matador taunting Haitian motorists with his illegitimacy. Another time, I saw a peacekeeper hanging off an infantry vehicle thrust his boot to kick a bystander out of the way. Samuel and I were once held up in traffic because Brazilian blue helmets were cat-calling Haitian women from their vehicle.

Yet Haiti still celebrates with Brazil, even in remote towns like Jérémie. 

Haitian memories are longer than a 13-year UN force. Brazil and Haiti’s bond is sustained by a deep cultural linkage spanning the modern history of the Atlantic. Both received large numbers of enslaved peoples from what is today Benin. Dahomey Vodoun religious and cultural traditions are embedded deeply within Haitian society and Brazil’s northeast state of Bahia. The processions, deities, dress, and rhythms of Haitian Vodou and Brazilian Candomblé are nearly identical. The Nago, a Yoruba speaking people from the Bight of Benin, left their mark on both Haitian and Brazilian culture well into the 20th century. Nago became a measured Haitian Vodou rhythm, revived and used by golden era orchestras of the 1960s and ’70s. “Nagô” is also a gorgeous Candomblé hymn, reworked in the early ’70s by legendary Sao Paolo band, Trio Mocoto. 

When Haitian broadcasting infrastructure modernized after the Second World War, the first batch of songs on the airwaves were from the Dominican Republic and Brazil. Many of the beloved Haitian musicians and singers I met with often pointed to Brazilian music as a source of learning and inspiration. Some of the best bands from Papa Doc Duvalier’s era, like Tabou Combo, performed at major music expos in Rio de Janeiro. 

The years leading up to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Brazil brought a huge demand for Haitian labor to construct sporting venues and expand infrastructure. Lured by a cemented impression of fairness and openness, Haitian workers found themselves trapped in what Sao Paolo’s own Labour attorney general office called “slave-like conditions.”

That treatment and Brazil’s downward economic spiral in 2016, its worst economic recession since the 1980s, made some Haitian expatriates rethink and relocate to the United States. But even as Brazil’s economy suffered, it maintained its monthly allocation of 2000 humanitarian visas to Haitians, visa program that has survived even the austere, right wing presidency of Michel Temer. In total, about 85,000 Haitians had been allowed to resettle in Brazil, but by 2016, The Miami Times reported that 35 percent of Haitians left Brazil.

And yet, Haiti still celebrates with Brazil, a bond sealed eternally by the Atlantic and shaped by the politics of solidarity within the Global South. In Brazilian football, Haiti sees the best reflection of the Brazil they know — the Brazil whose door and hand is always open. In Brazil, Haiti sees a stillwater reflection of itself, united by a paralleled past, and in the hope of a similar trajectory. Through abuse and exploitation, Haiti and Brazil’s kinship appears unconditional. 

This was the scene after Brazil beat Serbia at the end of the first round of games. Most teams have 12 starting players — 11 on the field and a roaring chorus in the stands. Brazil’s national side, whatever the outcome, will always have thirteen.

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