During a live interview aired on Radio Scoop FM (107.7) 48 hours before Haiti’s carnival festivities, President Michel Martelly dispelled all rumors surrounding band selections for Cap-Haitien’s 2013 Carnival procession. “It was I, who personally decided to exclude bands from the carnival parade,” declared the president. “The decision to exclude bands, such as Brothers Posse from the carnival parade was taken by myself alone,” he added, declarations that rattled the Caribbean nation, as opinion and opposition leaders, columnists and editorialists denounced a deliberate assault on free speech and a leap toward authoritarianism.
Following the president’s remarks, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe’s office released a note reminding the population of unavoidable disappointments the band selection process presented many groups each year. Martelly appointed an 18-member carnival committee that selected 15 bands to entertain an expected 1.5 million revelers, hoping to lure tourists to Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s second largest city. His government reportedly spent close to $5 million to organize the annual event this year, nearly doubling last year’s budget.
Nevertheless, Lamothe’s note did little to dissuade skeptics or reverse damages the interview caused, setting the opposition ablaze, amplifying its anti-Martelly rhetoric. “The population must boycott the carnival,” pleaded some; “Censorship today, dictatorship tomorrow,” cried others. On Scoop FM, the Head of State compared excluded bands, particularly Brothers Posse, whose undisputed hit meringues the past two seasons: 2012’s “Stayle” and this year’s “Aloral” portrayed his administration as an “all talk, no action” government, to someone going over his house to curse him out. “You just don’t let him in,” he said.
Quoted in the Miami Herald, “It’s not a party that’s being organized; it’s not a protest” emphasized Martelly. “The carnival is not like it was a long time ago. Before it was do as you like, take to the streets.” In his defense, the president said automatic selection of particular artists did not exist and that Brothers Posse’s “Aloral,” which is at the heart of the controversy, was inconsistent with this year’s environmental theme: “One Haitian, one tree, let’s make it Happen.” It was not the kind of ambiance his government sought for the tourist-tailored event, he explained. However, critics quickly rejected Martelly’s arguments, pointing out the automatic pre-selection of two of the president’s sons: Olivier and Sandro Martelly, whose meringues were neither as popular as Brothers Posse’s nor consistent with the carnival theme.
The essence of Haitian Carnival…
Meanwhile, Rodolphe Joazile, who heads Haiti’s Defense Ministry, evoked a rather distinct imagery of the annual celebration. “Haitian Carnival is the expression forum for the Haitian soul: its values, culture, creativity, passion, dreams, desires, needs and fantasies,” wrote Joazile in his message to the nation about the essence of carnival. “The Haitian stretches and pours his imagination, exuberance, fancies, extravagances and illusions,” stressed Joazile’s letter, “This is the magical moment where political and social hierarchies disappear, which flattens the social projectile.”
Observers and participants alike agreed with Joazile eloquent depiction of the Mega celebration and Jacmelitude, Jacmel’s traditional carnival, attested to its originality. The vibrating colors, radiating smiles, tantalizing meringues and intoxicating beauties did not disappoint. Haitians, young or old, light or dark, male or female, set all of their differences aside and rallied around national unity, patriotism, freedom of speech and even activism. Together, they danced on a cultural rainbow, sang their collective frustrations, aspirations, having some fun in the process. Some called it the greatest display of Haitian culture and/or collective, peaceful demonstration. Jacmelitude was however the calm before the storm. Carnaval Les Cayes, Petit-Goave’s Douce Marcos and Cap-Haitien delivered yet more euphoria to revelers, each celebration more grandiose than the year before.
The importance of Haitian Carnival to all sectors of national life is no exaggeration; investors do not underestimate its economic, political, social and international dimensions. The private sector’s strategic investments, anticipating a large influx of tourists to descend upon the grand cultural event, justified carnival fever inhibiting the business sector, particularly entrepreneurs, during that period. Carnival presents unique opportunities to not only improve Haiti’s image, but also to attract new investment opportunities. It is also a big pay-day for selected bands that collect an estimated $30,000 to deliver three entertainment-filled days to revelers, at the end of which, the carnival committee crowns a winner.
The Power of the Metaphor…
Beyond cultural and economic factors, “Carnival is FUN, it’s time to relax, to party hard,” wrote State University professor and blogger Nadeve Menard. “But carnival in Haiti is also serious business and both the population and authorities recognize it as such,” she added in “The Power of the Metaphor,” posted last season on her blog Tande. For many people, the annual celebration is a finger on the nation’s pulse and the meringues with the most accurate depiction of Haitian actualities wrapped in metaphors and humor resonate with the population.
Whether advocating for government accountability, wishing peacekeepers off the national territory, or demanding justice for cholera or rape victims, parodies and satires find their intended targets through carnival rituals, meringues and ethic dances. This year’s edition varied no less; it was–to a large extent–a referendum on the Martelly administration and its inability to crystallize campaign promises. Capturing that reality, Menard wrote, “Meringues have helped topple governments or at least signaled their impending demise, it’s the power of the metaphor,” something President Martelly, whose popularity exploded on carnival floats prior to taking office, is very familiar with. He even acknowledged it during the interview. “Songs have the power to overthrow government,” he said, unveiling the fears of his increasingly unpopular administration that faced 128 public protests throughout the country between August and October 2012, according to “Governing Haiti: Time for National Consensus,” an International Crisis Group report released in early February.
Part two coming soon….
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