Last Tuesday Haiti’s Under-17 National Football team was sent home from Jamaica after two players and a coach were diagnosed with malaria. The decision was presented as a public health measure — the Jamaican public health ministry described the sickness as “imported” — and resulted in an effective forfeit for the team from the CONCACAF competition. There are still many questions about the decision, for it seems a little unlikely — given the relatively regular movement between Haiti and Jamaica of travelers, including aid workers — that the presence of the footballers really represented a public health menace. And it has incited strong and impassioned response among some Haitians, who have decried the fact that the young player’s crucial moment of competition was taken away from them as a result of the diagnosis.
Today, Jacqueline Charles of the Miami Herald reporting on a protest march to the CARICOM building in protest of the decision, including young players and supporters wearing team jerseys. A few thousand people attended the march. Protestors attacked the decision as discriminatory, and some have called for a boycott on Jamaican products — and even on reggae music on the radio.
Although Haiti’s national teams have had difficulty in international competitions during the past decades, their is tremendous pride in the players and coaches who go overseas for such competitions. Last Fall, Laura Wagner described her discussions with members of Haiti’s under-17 women’s team, who suffered a humiliating loss at the hands of the U.S. — after having lost players and coaches in the earthquake — but remain committed to training and competing overseas. The international appearances of Haiti’s football teams are a rare chance for the country to represent itself overseas in a way that challenges stereotypes, and places them — at least in principle — on an equal footing with other richer and more powerful nations. So the incident in Jamaica is hurtful, particularly because it was directed at young players who have overcome tremendous odds to be on the team and compete internationally. And for many Haitians it obviously calls up many other previous cases in which they were discriminated against overseas based on accusations that they were carrying disease to other countries. (The most of famous of these, of course, was the period in the 1980s when Haitians were accused of bring AIDS to the United States, analyzed in Paul Farmer’s book AIDS and Accusation). Especially given that the country is suffering under the burdens of a cholera outbreak — it has afflicted at least 200,000, and left many thousands dead — that was most likely brought to the country from outside, this accusation about the danger of the spread of malaria hits particularly hard.
Jamaican and CONCACAF authorities presumably didn’t imagine their decision would ignite such controversy. But, given the history of discrimination against Haitians — and the intense passion with which many fans follow the sport — they easily could have predicted that they would be pricking the pride of Haitians and approached the whole matter more carefully and diplomatically. It’s hard to say whether today’s protests will continue or peter out. But part of the ethic of international competition must be respect for the dignity of the countries and players who participate in them. In this case, it wouldn’t have taken too much to understand that the actions would be taken by some as a deep insult, and a significant theft of hope, in a context where hope is in short supply.