World Cup Fervor Eases Haiti's Burden - Briefly

WHILE foreign editors request stories about the effects of the economic embargo, the mass exodus of boat people, and reactions to the changes in United States policy (the US decided Wednesday that seafaring Haitians seeking asylum be sent to Panama instead of the US), Haitians want to talk about World Cup soccer.

Just about everything is being rescheduled in order to watch soccer matches.

The only thing that has remained constant is what was most unreliable until World Cup began: electricity. The National Electric Company is supplying service 24 hours a day. Until May, they provided about 12 hours of electricity a month.

Observing Haitians watch these matches provides a window on Haitian society. The poor huddle around communal radios or televisions. Their cries of delight or despair drown out the proverbial barking dogs, crowing roosters, and incessant car-honking in the streets.

The middle class sit in their modestly furnished homes entertaining friends. Their shouts seep through the barred windows and hover over mountains of uncollected garbage on the sidewalks.

The rich sit in mansions, placing bets on Argentina, Brazil, or the team they love to hate - the US. Their cries echo across the vast mountain vistas and bay-side panoramas.

And hordes of foreign journalists, whose daily budgets surpass a year's salary for many Haitians, gather around the lobby of the Montana Hotel watching an oversized television screen, rooting for their home teams. Some have been here for weeks, others months, waiting with long faces and cynical comments for something to happen so they can pack up their bags and get out of here.

Television crews have become upset with their producers when asked to go out on assignment during a scheduled match - or when the network wants to use their satellite for work rather than feed the hacks' frenzy for soccer.

Propaganda by the National Television station, which broadcasts the games, does not go unnoticed. Journalists shout at the screen when, during half-time, TNH shows footage of the US invading Panama: images of burning buildings and corpses behind an echoing NO from the middle of the screen.

Local gossip is that the Army chief's recent withdrawal of $500,000 from the National Bank was used in part to pay for the broadcast of World Cup on TNH.

The news spreading through local rumor mills is not lacking in imagination. Every weekend there's talk of an internal military coup dtat or a foreign invasion. Soldiers are said to wear women's clothing under their uniforms in case they have to bail out in a hurry. Weapons like those the US would use in an invasion are supposedly being distributed so that, when it happens, Haitian soldiers will be able to settle personal vendettas and blame it on the Marines.

Some of the more bizarre stories, however, aren't just rumors. The National Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, a right-wing paramilitary group, has called for a return to traditional weapons, including ice-picks and powder, and they threaten to contaminate the water in order to get rid of foreign enemies.

Maybe it's working. Several journalists have come down with undiagnosed illnesses and cut their assignments short. Others believe that nothing will happen until World Cup is over on July 17, so they may as well get paid to watch the matches. Once it's over, they figure, there will either be an invasion, or they will be sent home. Haitians hope so too.

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