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Haiti carnival turns dark as it returns after quake

Carnival has returned to Haiti, a year after the devastating earthquake, but this time it is darker and more menacing rippling with violent under tones as Haitians seek to exorcise their demons.

Papier-mache artist Jean-Marc Turin created a sculpture dubbed “Haiti Kolera” for this year’s carnival in the coastal town of Jacmel.

The striking cardboard figure of a red and blue woman, vomiting down her front representing the cholera epidemic stalking the nation, is a far cry from the happy, fantasy-filled figures which usually make up joyful carnival parades in this beloved Haitian spectacle.

Thirteen-year-old Jameson Joseph created a “Kolera” mask featuring a three-headed demon. He was unsure why he created that particular design, except that he believes firmly, “All evil things have three heads.”

Another papier-mache artist Romain Sylvance also drew inspiration from the current mood of unrest, creating the sculpture “Pe Lebrun”, which is of a round tire with two demon heads projecting from either side.

The tire sits atop an oil drum, painted in Haiti’s signature blue and red, and highlights the “necklace burnings” which happened in the 1990s, when attackers threw a tire over an enemy’s head and set it on fire.

Sylvance said the sculpture is not just about Pe Lebrun, but all the ways he has seen Haitians express themselves through fiery protest in recent months amid political upheaval in this ravaged nation.

Carnival was canceled across Haiti in the wake of the January 12, 2010 earthquake which killed 250,000 people and left 1.3 million homeless.

But it’s back this year, with many believing art has the potential to invigorate the tourism industry and restore the human spirit here.

The weeks-long festivities though have stirred debate here, with the cost of putting on a carnival seen by many as unseemly with hundreds of thousands of homeless still squatting in tent cities.

And even though the festivities are driven by a desire to celebrate Haitians’ creativity, art and love of music, drinking has come to dominate the party, turning a family festival into a dangerous, chaotic street scene.

Teenager Joseph, who entered his “cholera” mask into Sunday’s parade in Jacmel, was by early afternoon roaming the alleyways, playing music and taking long drags off a bottle of cheap rum.

Daytime hours were a riot of colorful papier-mache masks and intricate costumes, but by night the streets had become a rowdy no-go area for most, with women and children fleeing to escape the drunken crowds.

Popular radio D.J. Carel Pedre had advocated against the event this year.

“You can see what happens. It’s a bunch of people listening to music and fighting and that’s it,” he told AFP. “I don’t think that’s the carnival that Haiti should present to the world after the disaster last year.”

Haiti’s Minister of Tourism Patrick Delatour, who attended the weekend events, said Jacmel was engaging in “a cultural manifestation.”

“Regardless of what happened on Jan. 12,” Delatour told AFP, “And by the way, I lost my mom, my dad, and our family home; this country has to survive, out of its love, its arts and its crafts.”

The national government, however, opted not to support carnival events in the capital Port-au-Prince, where arts play less of a role, and which kick off this Sunday for three days.

Delatour, who is not attending, said municipal mayors were free to do as they please and so the capital city will launch celebrations with funding from its own budget.

Ordinarily, as in Jacmel, observers with money to spend watch street festivities from the safety of elevated wooden stages.

But Port-au-Prince’s carnival will not have stages this year, which is one of the reasons the popular band, Carimi, opted not to participate and for the first time headlined events in Jacmel, but will eschew the capital.

Lead singer, Michael Guirlan, said it was a question of safety and priorities, not propriety, saying organizers in Port-au-Prince had failed to make appropriate arrangements for the massive downtown party.

“I personally don’t feel comfortable getting on a float and going through the parade route. There would be no stands. You have the tents on the ground.

The people are still living on the streets,” he said.

“It’s kind of crazy that you’re putting all this money into the float and people are still living on the street.”

Even outside the capital, security remains a pressing issue.

The city of St. Marc will also celebrate carnival, despite recent security problems on the coastal road after a spate of shootings.

Despite the challenges, Jacmel Mayor Edo Zenny told AFP the city spent $250,000 on carnival this year.

Michaele Craan, a long-time organizer, said the figure was about “eight times too low”. She said artists were forced to spread the funds too thin.

Carnival has the potential, she said, to be a huge economic boost to the area. The city welcomed 30,000 to 40,000 people, staying in nearby hotels and at the homes of friends.

But DJ Pedre said the carnivals were a missed opportunity to work more collaboratively with corporate sponsors, such as phone companies Digicel and Voila.

“To me it proves once again we are a poor country with poor leaders with no sense of creativity at all and we can’t do things how they should be done,” he said. (AFP)