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a767: Washington Post -- Political Notes Fill Carnival In Haiti(fwd)

From: Max Blanchet <MaxBlanchet@worldnet.att.net>

 Political Notes Fill Carnival In Haiti

 By Scott Wilson

 PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Feb. 12 -- Whatever conflict may surround the
government, Haiti throws a huge national block party at this time every
year. Carnival is something people can count on in a place where not much
falls into that category.

 Less lavish than Rio de Janeiro's run-up to the austerity of Lent, the
festival that began here Sunday and ended tonight has a personality
reflecting an unruly, rarely happy nation. While the government views the
party as a diversion for the masses, carnival also serves as perhaps the
most important bellwether of Haiti's mood and a vast showcase for

 What has emerged from the streets this year is an unpleasant twist for a
president who once benefited from carnival's fulminations: Jean-Bertrand
Aristide and his party are suffering most from the darts of the most popular
songs. Haiti admires its many artists, far more than its politicians, and
the throbbing "roots rock," slow Haitian merengue and bouncy carnival tunes
that blare from every street-corner shop have long been the lingua franca of
a country in which a large percentage of the population is illiterate.

 The carnival music is politically important enough to be analyzed by
foreign diplomats here, and last week U.S. officials were seeking out the
lyrics to a song called "Rice" by Sweet Mickey. Once a favorite of the thugs
who worked on behalf of the hated Duvalier family dictatorship before its
1986 collapse, Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly is now so popular that his
fans refer to him as "president." The title of his smash-hit carnival song
refers to recent riots at a dockside warehouse here that were sparked by
word that officials from Aristide's party were stealing from a food program
for the poor.

 "They don't see what is happening in this country. The official car is in
front, the rice truck in the middle, the security behind. Protect the rice,"
the lyrics go. "They see, but they never understand. Give me the country.
You're gone, you're gone, you're gone."

 The criticism comes at a difficult time for Aristide, who is reeling from a
Dec. 17 coup attempt that came as political violence and economic
deprivation have mounted in the hemisphere's poorest nation.

 It was not always like this. Aristide was chosen as the country's first
freely elected leader in 1990, only to be toppled by a military coup the
next year. The next two carnivals, which Aristide spent in exile, were
dominated by his absence. Musicians shouted for the return of the diminutive
former priest and champion of Haiti's downtrodden, defying coup leaders who
at times cut off electricity in hopes of silencing the carnival songs.
Aristide returned in 1994 with the help of 20,000 U.S. soldiers.

 But this year Aristide tried to limit criticism that could be aimed at his
government. At a meeting with musicians last month, he requested that their
carnival songs focus on his national literacy campaign or promote Haiti's
bicentennial in 2004. His request has been mostly ignored.

 "I prefer to be inspired, not instructed," said Richard Morse, whose band
RAM has been at the center of some of carnival's most dramatic moments in
recent years. Morse, manager of the fabled Hotel Oloffson, wrote some of the
most important protest music against the coup that ousted Aristide.

 The band's roots rock draws from rhythms boiling up from the masses -- the
vivid, soulful music of a country that was born of a slave revolt and became
the world's first black republic. His song "Fey" was perhaps the definitive
anti-coup anthem, and its lyrics -- "Where are the people? We don't see
them," referring to the government in exile -- rang out over the broad
central plaza known as the Champs de Mars as the coup leaders looked on.

 Since then, Morse has had problems with Aristide's Lavalas Family party,
including an incident before carnival five years ago when the Lavalas mayor
sent armed men to the Oloffson and ordered RAM's float dismantled. The
mayor, a singer himself, interpreted one of RAM's songs to be a veiled
accusation of corruption. Things between Morse and the government have
deteriorated since then.

 The government said it spent $800,000 this year on what was once a
celebration subsidized almost entirely by the private sector. The money went
to erect bleachers, buy building materials and create about 3,000 temporary
jobs in a country where the majority of the population lives on less than $2
a day.

 "We're trying to get back to a cultural carnival that could be seen as a
tourist event," said Guy Paul, minister of culture and communications.

 On the streets, the "battle of decibels," as Paul described the rival
floats and bleacher parties, has been deafening, a party more to be felt
through chest-pounding bass than heard. For the last three nights, men have
sold beer from wheelbarrows. Women wearing bandannas and garish face paint
have danced in conga lines. And with a million revelers to reach, carnival
was an advertising bonanza. Signs posted on bleacher marquees promoted
enterprises from tire shops to nonprofit organizations.

 Flatbed trucks, carrying bands and stacked with walls of speakers, moved
slowly along a parade route that led from City Hall past the National Palace
to the Champs de Mars. Cane liquor flowed, and for the only time of the
year, the rich, light-skinned elite traveled down from the comfortable hills
of Petionville to dance in the streets with the poor of Cite Soleil and La

 "Then it's over," said Johnny Duval, a 31-year-old resident of the
dirt-street neighborhood of Delmas, frolicking with a 16-ounce beer in his
hand. "And everybody returns to their homes."