Turned away by U.S., Haitian athletes will have to face the music at home.

Andres Viglucci
Date Published: 
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad -- It has been one of the strangest and saddest defection attempts ever.

Sixteen members of the Haitian national soccer team, dressed in red-and-blue warm-up suits, lined up at the U.S. Embassy here to beg for political asylum. The players, in Trinidad for the Caribbean soccer championships, said they'd rather die than return to their violent homeland.

But when consular officials rejected their bid, it left the 16 bewildered young men -- Haiti's biggest sports stars -- in a tight corner.

Now, after days of nerve-racking indecision, at least one fistfight among teammates and intense public debate in this Caribbean nation over the Haitians' fate, the players have said, in effect, "Never mind.''

On Wednesday, all but one accepted an offer by a Caribbean soccer federation to pay their way home. Human rights activists were still hoping to persuade more to stay in Trinidad, but the 15 players seem set on leaving for Port-au-Prince, perhaps as early as Thursday.

The question now is obvious:

Having publicly pronounced themselves against Haiti's repressive military regime, how can they risk going back home?

"We aren't afraid,'' said Patrick Nertilus, 23, a defender on the squad. "We are very happy to be going home. We are the stars in our country.''

But some observers here worry about what could happen to the politically naive athletes, especially those who were the most vocal, and whose statements have been broadcast on radio in Haiti.

"I'm wondering if they really understand the gravity of the statements they made,'' said Guy Delva, a Miami-based journalist with the Haitian Creole Service who has spent several days with the team. "I don't think they're really aware of the risks.''

Like almost everything else related to the political turmoil in Haiti, the players' story is a fractured tale.

After years of losses in international competition, the young squad -- comprised of the best players in soccer-mad Haiti -- had upset the Dominican Republic's national team to qualify for the prestigious Caribbean Cup tournament.

When the Haitian soccer federation said it could not afford to send the team to Trinidad, a league in Miami offered to raise funds. The Caribbean Football Union, the regional soccer governing body, advanced the team $17,000. The players say they were also promised a stop in Miami on the way home.

There, people close to the team say, at least some of the players planned to ask for political asylum.

Several team members have told reporters here that they or family members have suffered persecution at the hands of Haiti's military. One team member, who asked that his name not be used, said his brother was found shot in the street after he was kidnapped by soldiers.

Haitian sports delegation officials, who included at least two army officers, grew suspicious. They took the players' passports and told them there would be no trip to Miami.

After the team was eliminated from competition last week, 16 of the 18 players refused to go home. They got their passports back, but were left behind in Port of Spain with no money and no place to stay.

So April 14 they took a vote and decided to march to the U.S. embassy. There, a top embassy official says, the players were told they could not apply for U.S. asylum in Trinidad, but could do so only in Haiti or on U.S. soil.

Five players filled out visitors' visa applications, but were turned down when they admitted to consular officers that they meant to stay in Miami as long as the military regime remained in power at home. The rest were too discouraged to fill out applications.

Their plight made front-page news in Trinidad and Tobago, an oil-rich and relatively prosperous Caribbean nation off the Venezuelan coast. The country is a melting pot of white, African and Asian people that prides itself on hospitality to strangers.

"People here were very concerned about opening themselves up to charges of brutality by sending them back to such a place as Haiti,'' said Cuthbert Joseph, a retired diplomat and government minister who is advising the players. "We Trinidadians have an open heart to the world.''

So why are the players going back?

They realized it could be months before their status was legalized, said Ernst "Nono'' Jean-Baptiste, a former Haitian soccer star and national-team coach, now living in Miami, who has been trying to help the players.

The players, most of them in their early 20s, also came under pressure from parents, wives and family members in tearful phone calls from Haiti, Jean-Baptiste said.

Some told confidants they feared reprisals against their families.

Only one player, star goalkeeper Jacques Tomaney, and a journalist who was traveling with the team, chose to stay and request asylum in Trinidad.

Tomaney is a star. His last-minute penalty kick enabled the Haitians to qualify for the cup tournament. He hopes to join a pro team here.

Tomaney said he had no job in Haiti, and supported his wife and two children on meager pay from his soccer club. He was also frightened by the political violence, which he said had claimed the lives of six of his friends.

"A lot of crazy things are happening,'' said Tomaney, 25. "It's tough, really tough.''

On Tuesday evening, at a farewell party for the team, tensions flared. Two players -- one supporting the military, the other a member of a pro-democracy group -- got into a loud argument and had to be restrained by teammates.

Sports authorities say they will mount a publicity campaign to ensure the players aren't harmed when they go home.

"I will use my international connections to make sure these guys will not be punished in any way,'' said Jack Warner, Caribbean Soccer Union president and an official of FIFA, the influential world soccer body.

But the players' supporters are worried.

"We are concerned because Haiti is such an arbitrary place in terms of human rights,'' said Asad Mohammed, leader of a local human rights group that has helped the Haitians.

"The one thing they have going for them is that they are the national soccer team. To the military, the word of (Jack) Warner is worth more than that of our own government. But who is to say what will happen? If someone wants to harm them, who in Haiti will stop them?''