By Jacqueline Charles
PORT-AU-PRINCE — Across the grand central plaza downtown, a sound truck with an expansive dance floor pulls up in front of the broken presidential palace. The DJ revs up the crowd as two dozen girls in eye-catching red and white mini-skirts take their positions. Backs to the crowd, they hold on tight to the railing and shake their rumps to thunderous applause.
A year after an earthquake-ravaged Haiti was forced to not hold its biggest and most boisterous block party, the show is back on. But the return of carnival — or kanaval — is triggering debate about whether a nation still reeling from its worst natural disaster and in the midst of an intense presidential election can afford the debauchery.
“I don’t see carnival,’’ said Sedio Laviolette, 53, who has lived for more than a year in a tent on the Champ de Mars, the downtown public plaza that once hosted carnival’s many grand stands but today hosts an estimated 16,000 homeless quake victims.
“I don’t see how we can be thinking about enjoying ourselves when we, the poor people are still living in misery. Any serious government wouldn’t even be thinking about carnival.’’
But neighbor and mother of four Marie-Lourdes Regis disagrees, arguing in favor of the three-day celebration that begins a week from Sunday in Port-au-Prince and other major Haitian cities.
“We are miserable. But we need to enjoy ourselves as well,’’ she said.
The national debate over carnival is a lively one, and — some say — a welcomed one from the ongoing election debacle that has consumed the country since its controversial and flawed Nov. 28 presidential and legislative vote. It is taking place in grocery store lines and in tent cities, among friends at tony restaurants and over radio airwaves where the carnival meringues have been replaced with vociferous banter over money and morality.
Carnival always has been a barometer of Haiti’s socio-political landscape and this year is no different. Last year, Haitians, still mourning from the catastrophic Jan. 12 earthquake, collectively turned away from carnival.
Although carnival is taking place, not all the music bands are on board: most have not created any new tunes this year.
“I don’t even feel like singing a carnival song,’’ said Joseph “Ti-Joe’’ Zenny of the band Kreyol-la. “Morally, I don’t feel inspired. The people are tired; they are tired of the tire burnings, the crisis. Look at the country. It’s better they take the money, remove the people from underneath the tents.’’
Zenny said fans should not expect to see him and his band traveling from the waterfront up to the Champ de Mars. For one thing, it costs about $200,000 just for a float — money that Haiti’s business community has told him it doesn’t have.
Meanwhile, fans have been hard-pressed to hear even old meringues — satirical tunes often lampooning politicians — on the radio. Many radio stations are refusing to play them. Radio personalities pushing for low-key celebrations have been accused by some mayors of “assassinating culture.” Other mayors accuse them of wanting to deprive artisans who rely heavily on carnival revelers, of the year’s biggest pay day.
“What we are saying is let’s take another approach,’’ said Yvenert Joseph, 42, a journalist and commentator on Radio Caraibes. The station recently called on Port-au-Prince-area mayors and the government to offer a more low-key carnival affair with small discussion groups about the tradition and to promote neighborhood block parties.
Joseph said a survey of Haitians, some in the capital’s crumbled neighborhoods, revealed that “the people do not have a problem with carnival as a cultural element but the moment isn’t right.’’
“You have a lot of people who are walking around and they look fine, but psychologically they are not fine,’’ he said. “I understand we don’t want to lose the tradition but the government has an obligation to lead the people and re-orient them. It should say, ‘Here is the kind of carnival we will have this year.’”
Marie Laurence Lassegue, Haiti’s minister of culture and communications, said carnival isn’t just a cultural tradition but it’s an economic stimulator for Haiti’s financially strapped cities.
“Port-au-Prince is not Haiti,’’ she said.
In the seaside tourist town of Jacmel, hotel rooms have been sold out for Sunday’s carnival. The city boasts Haiti’s most colorful carnival with its costumes, masks and characters who parade throughout the city with marching bands and rum-drinking revelers.
“Jacmel was financially and severely hit by the earthquake and we helped those artisans get back on their feet. It’s essential we use carnival to get attention back to them,’’ Lassegue said.
Lassegue said the Haitian government has severely slashed its carnival budget from $2.75 million to $1.25 million to help local municipalities organize carnival.
“You see the results of the debate every Sunday in the pre-carnival parties,’’ she said. “There are thousands of people on the streets. You have marching bands and all of this despite the financial difficulties and the reality of people living in tents.’’
Last Sunday, as a local television network reported live from the Champ de Mars, girls in Daisy Dukes and boys with bleached white tennis shoes looked on with glee. The chaotic scene featured ragtag bands crisscrossing each other across the square. Some blew tubas and trumpets, others rattled maracas to a carnival beat.
“This is helping us,’’ Fred Francois, 34, a father of three, said over the blaring music. “A lot of us are sad and frustrated. We need a release.’’