Carnival returns to Haiti, with some darker themes

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Across Haiti’s rubble-strewn capital, rara drums, trumpets and bamboo horns blared the music of revival, an exultant cacophony in a place that hasn’t been in much of a mood to party.

Carnival was back in Port-au-Prince this week for the first time since last year’s devastating earthquake. No one considered staging events last year, after the Jan. 12 quake killed more than 300,000 people and left more than a million homeless.

Plenty of misery remains, but musical groups filed a petition with city officials seeking the return of Carnival, calling it an essential economic activity for them. The mayor’s office agreed but fretted about the cost, receiving government funding only the week before, and having no private sponsors. The festivities began Sunday and were to end Tuesday night.


“We didn’t decide to have Carnival,” Herve Saint Preux, coordinator for Port-au-Prince’s Carnival committee, said recently at the mayor’s office. “It’s on the calendar, it happens automatically.”

This year, the festivities were dubbed a “celebration of life” to acknowledge the losses and move gradually toward normality.

“The city cannot die,” Saint Preux said. “The catastrophe turned the city upside down.… We have to redouble our effort to live.”

But as raucous bands made their way past tent encampments, not everyone was ready to welcome Carnival back yet — even if this edition was more modest.

Some residents said it was indecent for the government to spend funds — the cost was $625,000, a quarter of the usual budget — on the noisy street party.

On top of that, the traditional site of Carnival festivities is a plaza, called Champs de Mars, across from the quake-toppled National Palace. The parade route coursed past the plaza, now crammed with tents holding thousands of Haitians left homeless in the disaster.


“The country is upside down,” said Rene Henri-Clef, a 38-year-old taxi driver. “It’s not time to party.”

Carnival in Haiti has always offered release, with participants mingling across class lines and acts alluding to political issues of the time. This year, release felt more needed and more difficult, given the current conditions.

Since Sunday, the streets of Port-au-Prince have been filled with revelers in elaborate, colorful costumes touching on sometimes dark themes. Some people painted their faces and pantomimed to evoke cholera, highlighting the nation’s woes over the epidemic that has killed more than 4,600 Haitians since October.

Another group included actors depicting the United States, Canada, Britain, France and the U.N. as they carried a coffin draped in the Haitian flag.

Those scenes were interspersed with gaggles of scantily clad, glitter-laden young women dancing in formation. As evening fell each day, the route was filled with trucks blaring kompa music, and Haitians of all ages dancing alongside them. Street vendors hawked rum, party masks and barbequed food.

But overall, this year’s Carnival was a restrained affair. Thousands of people took to the streets, but there were fewer floats and stands for spectators.


Yet the event marked a small step toward recovery for Port-au-Prince and, in some ways, offered telling clues about where the city stands a year after the earthquake.

Fifi Belle-Fleur, 50, stood back quietly, taking in the festivities at the edge of her tent settlement, saying Haiti needs to see beautiful things. By next year’s Carnival, she hoped to be living somewhere other than the cramped and leaking tent she’s in now.

“Next year will be better,” she said, “if we don’t die first.”

Gaestel is a special correspondent.