PORT-AU-PRINCE – Walking the streets of Port-au-Prince these days, you may think you are in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Green and yellow flags line the city’s trafficked streets, Haitian children and adults alike sport Kaka’s jerseys, and even the countless graffiti against President Preval and MINUSTAH seem for once to have been supplanted by freshly painted signs in support of the World Cup’s most anticipated participant.
Argentina, Haiti’s second favorite team, follows suit, but the rivalry between the two South American teams has not transferred over to their euphoric Haitian fans. Instead, the 2010 World Cup, which opened last Friday in South Africa, has all Haitians united in the common need to have something to look forward to and celebrate.
“This is just a huge party for everyone,” said Teddy Maindre, an Argentina fan who nonetheless impatiently waited for Brazil’s first game on Tuesday. In a devastated Port-au-Prince, still struggling to recover from the earthquake that hit it almost five months ago, the need for the joy and excitement brought by the World Cup is palpable.
In anticipation of a relatively minor game against unthreatening North Korea, the atmosphere everywhere resembled that of a final, with huge speakers blasting the cup’s soundtracks, girls in green and yellow makeup and nails, and young boys wrapped in flags improvising acrobatics on their motorcycles. Port-au-Prince’s stadium, which in the aftermath of the quake had turned into an improvised refugee camp, now welcomes people to watch the game on maxi screens, for a few cents.
“This year we didn’t get to have a carnival because of the earthquake,” said Francois Mackenson, the young founder of a local Brazil fan club, which set up a flat screen in the shell of a collapsed building on Delmas 57. Mackenson says the festivities for Brazil’s “inevitable” victory will make up for the missed tradition, which usually takes place in February. “It’s giving us the strength to start again,” he said.
“I don’t know why Brazil,” he said, trying to explain the Haitian national obsession with this country. “It’s a blood thing, because Brazilians also came from Africa,” he added. Ivory Coast can’t compare, he smiled when asked why Haitians wouldn’t then choose to cheer for the African team.
Mackenson added that Haitians’ love for Brazil is limited to football, but declined to comment on past controversies involving the Brazilian contingent of the UN mission in Haiti, often criticized for its use of violence.
“We don’t mix football and politics,” he said.
Others, however, believe the collective exhilaration over the football tournament is only delaying a degenerating political situation in the country.
“The world cup is going to give Preval a break,” said Hans Muselaire, a high school professor. Muselaire claims he had dreamt about the January earthquake before it happened and now speculates that with the end of the world cup, the demonstrations that have increasingly been taking place in Port-au-Prince, over the last few months, will escalate out of control. “If Brazil wins the night of the final, who knows, there might even be a coup,” he said.
While during the game the traffic is lighter than usual, and Haitians of all ages are glued to the many TV sets and radios available in refugee camps and street-side businesses, a beefed up number of policemen patrols the streets to ensure security.
Peguito Merisier is a young officer in the Haitian National Police and another fan of Brazil, “because it’s the best team of course,” he said. Merisier, however, won’t be watching the games but the fans, to make sure the excitement doesn’t translate into trouble. “Especially when they drink all this alcohol,” he added. During the game, small bottles of the popular Bakara rum sold for less than $1.
Merisier says he will focus of his work but will check the game’s result in the end.
“Haitians go crazy for football, they forgot the earthquake already,” he added pointing to people dancing and waving flags among the rubble. “All that’s on their minds now is Brazil and Argentina. But when the cup is over it will be politics.”
While with some 1.5 million still displaced and large sections of the city still in ruins the earthquake is hardly forgotten, to many, this much awaited world cup offers a chance to move on.
“This time the world cup will be different because so many people died and things are so difficult,” said Pascal Germana, another Brazil fan who prepared for the world cup by getting a generator, to ensure no game will be cut short by the frequent power cuts. “But we are here, thank god, and we are going to enjoy this.”