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a772: Washington Post (fwd)
From: Robert Benodin <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Washington Post Foreign Service.
Political Notes Fill Carnival In Haiti. Music Underscores Nation's
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 13, 2002; Page A22
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
"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
"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 Pétion-Ville 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."