Carnival in violence-wracked Haiti: good business or bad taste?

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Port-au-Prince (AFP) – Haiti is gearing up for its annual Carnival celebration, but the Mardi Gras festivities are controversial in a country struggling with gang violence, kidnappings and political unrest.

Some say the money generated by the colorful parades is much needed in the impoverished Caribbean nation. Others believe the partying is wildly misplaced and in poor taste.

“How can anyone think about going to Carnival and dancing without being able to get home safely, with the risk that you could be killed, kidnapped or shot at?” said one official who asked not to be named.

The official was standing on the main square in the capital Port-au-Prince where the annual parade usually takes place — amid the charred ruins of the grandstands that went up in flames this week.

Since the start of the year, Haiti has seen an uptick in kidnappings for ransom, against the backdrop of constant gang violence in poor urban areas.

In the face of the crime wave, police in Port-au-Prince protested Monday, demanding better working conditions and the right to unionize.

At the end of that demonstration, the parade grandstands were set alight.

“An officer just starting out makes 19,000 gourdes a month,” or about $180, said one cop taking part in a fresh protest on Wednesday.

Dressed in civilian clothes, but carrying his service weapon and wearing a mask, the officer said he had not been able to pay his daughter’s school fees for five months.

– Not just a party –

Despite the destruction of the parade stands and several vehicles, and amid calls for Carnival to be cancelled for the second year in a row, Prime Minister Jean-Michel Lapin said the festivities would go ahead on schedule — and along the usual route.

In a street adjacent to the central Champ de Mars, dance instructors observe young girls rehearsing their parade routines.

Like most everyone in Port-au-Prince, Pierre Kerense is stressed out by the tense atmosphere in the city caused by the seemingly endless violence and crime.

But the 45-year-old choreographer says that the three-day Carnival ending on Mardi Gras is more than just a party.

“This is also business — many people depend on Carnival every year to pay their rent and their children’s school fees,” he said.

Carnival is the most intense period each year for the country’s seamstresses and tailors.

The workshop of Arnelle Laguerre is buzzing with activity — fabric is cut, feathers are attached and sequins are sewn into costumes by hand.

“In the days leading up to Carnival, we work flat out, with lots of extra people — I can sometimes have 40 people working by day and others who come to take the night shift,” says Laguerre, who has worked on costumes for the festival for 20 years.

– Deadly protests in 2019 –

In February last year, at least seven people were killed in violent incidents as protesters demanded the resignation of President Jovenel Moise and an improvement in their standard of living.

The upheaval prompted the government to cancel Carnival — a bitter pill to swallow for all of the professionals who depend on the festivities to make ends meet.

“We had started to do the work, and to spend money,” recalls Laguerre, who stocks up several months before Carnival in anticipation of the costume orders she usually gets.

“We still had to pay (the workers).”

Given the steep lending rates at Haiti’s banks, many artisans rely on informal loans, which can threaten the stability of their small businesses if things go sour — and their ability to keep workers on the payroll.

Surrounded by piles of half-made costumes, Laguerre prefers not to do the math on how much she has laid out this year.

“Power in the neighborhood just went out. We have to turn on the generator. All that adds to the costs,” says the 58-year-old.

In her studio, everyone knows how many sewing machines can be plugged in at the same time without blowing the power.

Every day, the electricity cuts only magnify the stress and fear among the residents of Port-au-Prince, who flee the streets of the capital when night falls to avoid being the next kidnapping victim.

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