By Jean H Charles
President Michel Martelly has bet that the National Carnival that will take place in different cities of the Republic will foster regional development. Like the host of the Super Bowl, the winning city should expect a huge economic windfall in the aftermath of the event. Last year the southern city of Les Cayes was the host of the national carnival; this year the northern colonial city of Cap Haitien is the happy host of the debauchery connected with Catholic sinners who engaged into three festive days of bacchanal before entering into the penitent days of Lent.
Jean Hervé Charles LLB, MSW, JD, former Vice-Dean of Students at City College of the City University of New York, is now responsible for policy and public relations for the political platform in power in Haiti, Répons Peyisan. He can be reached at: jeanhcharles@aol
Albeit a son of Cap Haitien, I argued last year in a meeting at the national palace for the Carnival to take place in Les Hinche, the capital city of the central state of Haiti. My reasoning, the city of Cap Haitien would not be prepared on time to receive such an avalanche of visitors. Cap Haitien in particular, the northern part of Haiti in general has suffered some sixty years of neglect and abuse from the authorities of Port au Prince. Proud sons and daughters of King Henri Christophe, the people of the north, have fought with the same vigor the dictatorial regimes of the Duvalier as well as the anarchic ones of the Lavalas governments. As such they were punished with ostracism and denial of funds for development for more than half a century.
It is only lately that major infrastructural projects have been taking place around Cap Haitien, such as the rehabilitation of the international airport to receive large Boeing jets, the Caracol industrial park, the Henry Christophe University and the repaving of the streets of Cap Haitien. After all, the city of Cap Haitien is the second city of the Republic; politics has precedence over other considerations. The president has decided that Cap Haitien could not wait to be the winner of the National Carnival this year.
Ready or not, Carnival will take place on the boulevard of Carenage in 2013. Major infrastructural works that were lagging for decades have been undertaken within weeks, the junction between Gonaives and Cap Haitien, a headache for drivers for decades, is now an easy and smooth ride, the road leading to Labadie, the renowned tourist site, is fully repaired, a second bridge linking the city with the isthmus of the northeast built in less than two months. Port au Prince, which knows how to put in a carnival infrastructure, descended upon Cap Haitien to build one, ignoring the sour grape complaints of the people of the north that claimed lack of consultation.
I arrived in Cap Haitien one week before the event to captivate the mood, observe the preparation and take the pulse of the population. On Wednesday before the Carnival, the city was bursting with activities, almost at a standstill in the colonial small streets of the city. On Thursday, the authorities decided to close the doors of the city to commercial traffic, including the many tap taps that produce a tohu-bohu much bigger than Times Square at peak time. It was a big change; Cap Haitien, which is combination of Old Puerto Rico, the French Quarter of New Orleans or Charleston, North Carolina, became a livable city where the pedestrians rule.
Thursday was dedicated to the children; well manicured, they were adorable in their attire. After all, the tradition of carnival must be passed on early to the next generation so the roots will remain strong for the future.
On Friday, the not so young, the college students had their field day, parading all over the city, with masquerade and big band music providing the ambiance. Saturday was the ball of queens at the ancient palace of Sans Souci built by Henry Christophe in the city of Milot. Haiti returned to its yesteryear of king, queen and baron, when being rich like a Creole was the ambition of any young man from Newport to Baltimore circa 1800.
The chair of the regional Carnival Commission Mr Nonce Zephir knows how to put on a party; he gave his daughter in marriage recently in a wedding that could compete with any society event anywhere in the world.
In fact, the Henry Christophe palace is available for upscale charity balls or weddings that suit the magnificence of such a unique decorum that represents the Acropolis of the New World. The Haiti Ministry of Culture is the venue to apply for booking and arrangements.
The carnival parade started in proper on Sunday, there were first the artistic troops followed by the big bands on giant floats, preceded by thousand of revelers wining lasciviously. There was clear indication that the women in comparison to the men observed few restraints in mimicking sexual pleasure. The clear winner this year was Ti Vice with its theme Posé Haiti (Stay put Haiti!) that came back with its whip sound to beat the rivals. In clear second was the Septentrional Orchestra, a 60-year-old big band that beat its rival the 50-year-old Tropicana very much in vogue lately.
The crowd three to four million strong every night, on the stands or behind the floats danced all nights for three nights. There were no recorded injuries, certainly no deaths or stabbings. It was mainly a Haitian crowd, with very few tourists meandering into this huge mass of people.
In between the events, I took time to visit with friends who traveled from Port au Prince to the picturesque village of Labadie that you can access only by boat. The next day we headed east to visit Caracol and the industrial park, as well as the brand new Henry Christophe University in Limonade.
We visited also the towns of Le Trou, and Grande Riviere. With the exception of Grande Riviere, where the greenery is everywhere, and an urban renaissance is taking place, the desolation is visible in the other towns due to decades of neglect and lack of government intervention.
There was some outcry in the national and international press that the government, which foots the bill for Carnival, was engaged in selective contracts with the band leaders, in particular those with theme songs hostile to the Martelly/Lamothe presidency. Is it a cardinal principle that he that pays the bill sets the rules?
The national theme for the carnival was: One Haitian, One Tree. The environmental degradation in Haiti is so grave that one tree for the newborn and one for the dead should be included in the crusade. The government has dedicated this year as the year of the environment.
Carnival 2013 is over in Haiti as well as in Rio or New Orleans. As all good penitents, Ash Wednesday reminds us that we shall all become ash one day, penance is necessary to save the soul from the flittering moments of the body’s debauchee of Mardi Gras. Carnival Haiti style is pursuing its trajectory towards Gonaives next year. The organizers should avoid the mistake of Cap Haitien of not including the artistic contribution of each town of the state in its plan. In doing so, the whole Haiti will be reflected in this unique event, which is enjoyed today mostly by the locals. I could notice only handful tourists in this giant human wave. Haiti will have to concentrate on enriching its huddled mass of dignified and resilient citizens. The tourists will come anyway, as icing on the cake.
Hopefully in the near future, Haiti will become, along with Rio, New Orleans and Trinidad and Tobago, the fourth alternative to escape from the weather, which is on the freezing mark at that time, in the United States, in Canada and in Europe.
for photos of Cap Haitien preparing for Carnival 2013.