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a879: Political Notes Fill Carnival in Haiti (fwd)

From: JD Lemieux <lxhaiti@yahoo.com>

Political Notes Fill Carnival In Haiti
Music Underscores Nation's Discontent
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

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

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 Saline.

"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."

 2002 The Washington Post Company

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