Kanaval 2018, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

By Garry Pierre-Pierre

In a few weeks, the largest bacchanal in the Caribbean takes place in Haiti with millions of people expected to descend in cities and towns across this politically-troubled country to celebrate carnival.

The three-day festivities usher in the Lent season. It is a much awaited event and is widely called the “people’s party” because most Haitians can’t afford to attend private parties and rarely have a chance to see bands perform live. So carnival is one of the rare occasions where the vast majority of folks are able to get their groove on without having to plunk down $20 USD or more to attend a bal.

But this year, Haiti, always known as an unstable nation, appears to be reeling. Since last July major protests have shut down the capital, Port-au-Prince, and provincial cities across the country. Just a few days ago, the country came to a screeching halt as thousands took to the streets for a series of demands, including accountability of the PetroCaribe funds and insisting that President Jovenel Moise packs his bag and leave the country once and for all. Violence was widespread as local media reported.

So how do you celebrate in such chaotic and uncertain times? Well that’s never been a problem in the past as people cast aside their misery, at least for 3 days of dancing and drinking. But I believe that this time the population finds itself in a foul mood and is tired of the shenanigans from the governmental and private sector elites who are looking out for their best interests at the expense of everyone else.

If Moise is a responsible leader,  he needs to cut the roughly $2 million that the government has set aside for the carnival budget to its barebone and put the onus on the private sector or the bands to invest in their promotional needs. Anything less would be inappropriate. That money is significant for a country that struggles to pay its civil servants.

To be sure, I am not anti-carnival. The opposite is true. For nearly a decade, the Haitian Times participated in carnival. We built a viewing stand along the parade route and promoted the newspaper and Kreyolfest, the all-day event we organized in Brooklyn. I saw it purely as a marketing opportunity for the business because so many Haitian Americans travel back for carnival. It was also a way to pour some money into the country’s economy, so I told myself.

In 2010, the earthquake forced the cancellation of carnival and the year after we thought it was a little bit decadent to participate while millions of people remained homeless. I felt there were more urgent needs to be addressed instead of organizing a party. Since then, we’ve stopped investing because in the ensuing years, I have come to understand the depth of the corruption and the odious stench that precede carnival.  

I never understood why the government would invest millions of dollars to put on carnival when the major benefactors are the soft drinks, alcohol and cigarette companies with millions of people consuming copious amount of their products. While the private sector contributes money to sponsor their favorite bands, the return on investment is considerably more than their financial contributions. It’s a no brainer. For the government, however, such expenses is akin to throwing good money after bad.

But things are never that simple in Haiti. A few years ago, I got a glimpse of the corruption that surrounds the carnival committee from a conversation I had with Manno Charlemagne, the late mayor of Port-au-Prince and a former musician. Charlemagne told tales of handing out bags of cash to band leaders and how they knew that kickbacks were expected. He was matter fact and nonplussed as he recounted the exchange. It was not his first rodeo. 

One of my colleagues asked sarcastically if there were no banks in this country. Charlemagne looked at us and had a look of pity in his face because he found the question so naïve.

I never looked at carnival the same way again and I stopped going regularly and moved on for good after we were no longer organizing Kreyolfest in Brooklyn.  

Complicating the situation even more this year is that Moise declared a national emergency saying that Haiti is broke and cannot pay its bills and that hard currencies are in a severe shortage. If this was a household, the parents would take a serious and deep look at their finances and call it a day.

But in Haiti, carnival is the time when many people —  from elected officials, to carnival organizers to bands – have a chance to make some money without much of a trace or accountability.  Furthermore, Moise is one of the weakest presidents we’ve seen in a long time and that’s saying a lot considering the country has been led by a successive string of incompetent and corrupt leaders the last 25 years.

I’m not sure how he is going to provide a safe environment for carnival goers to enjoy the fete. The police have been under pressure and are paid sporadically and they are in no mood to fire at the population to protect Moise’s reign.

And in an ironic twist of fate, failure to organize the carnival can be the political undoing of Moise because he will be unable to withstand the barrage of protests that he is likely to face from the masses who felt cheated out of their party.

This is not an ideal situation for any leader but Moise appears to be totally out of his league. He has no political base, no mass support, tepid backing from the economic class as the country’s economy descends into an abyss.

I don’t have a dog in this fight except that I know if Haiti was a functioning republic, we all would be better off. So I don’t think Moise’s departure will solve anything. If he were to resign or be forced out, his successor would face the same wrath from  a restless people within a few months. The mass is poorly educated and informed and are vulnerable to misinformation and easily manipulated by bad actors who are defending their narrow self-interests instead of those of the country.

Garry Pierre-Pierre

Garry Pierre-Pierre is a Pulitzer-prize winning, multimedia and entrepreneurial journalist. In 1999, he left the New York Times to launch the Haitian Times, a New York-based English-language publication serving the Haitian Diaspora. He is also the co-founder of the City University Graduate School of Journalism‘s Center for Community and Ethnic Media and a senior producer at CUNY TV.

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