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Date: Wed, 14 Feb 1996 05:37:51 -0600
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>>> Item number 7720, dated 96/02/12 18:26:56 -- ALL
Date: Mon, 12 Feb 1996 18:26:56 GMT
Reply-To: Haitian Information Bureau <hib@igc.apc.org>
Sender: Activists Mailing List <ACTIV-L@MIZZOU1.MISSOURI.EDU>
From: Haitian Information Bureau <hib@igc.apc.org>
Subject: Haiti Info v.4 No.7 CARNICAL

Carnival in Haiti

Haiti Info, Vol. 4 #7, 10 February 1996

Carnival is a tradition that dates back to antiquity, so long ago that its original form and the original conditions under which it was born have not yet been definitely discovered. In its Christian manifestation, it is a celebration that begins on Epiphany, a Jan. 6 holiday to honor the visit of the Magi to Jesus Christ, and runs up to Ash Wednesday.

The tradition did not originate with Christianity. The same kind of popular celebration is found among almost all peoples. The Egyptians had the festival of Isis and Osiris, the Greeks had the Bacchanalia, and the Romans, the Saturnalia. Despite its profane character and attributes of complete licentiousness and abandonment, as with other pagan holidays, the Christian church tolerated it and simply put some order into it so as not to be in direct opposition with a profound popular tradition.

Carnival in Haiti is a time for people to assemble to parade, sing, dance, amuse themselves, let go; a time when society accepts any and almost all kinds of behavior. Coming as it does before Lent, a time for penitence and sacrifice, people traditionally used holiday - three days long in Haiti since a decree of President Stenio Vincent during the first U.S. occupation - to release inhibitions and satisfy pent-up desires so they could avoid temptation later. Psychologists and sociologists see it as a kind of equilibrating period necessary to make up for the interdictions and rules of society and of the church which hold during the rest of the year, because no matter what one's class or social standing, everyone is supposedly thrown together to revel.

But despite the myth of the disappearance of classes, in Haiti, the bourgeoisie buy spots in stands above the street, and after everyone dances all night, in the morning, most people have nothing to eat. There is also a tradition of people donning masks to ask for charity.

More recently, carnival has lost many of its traditional aspects and has become a time when businesses do a lot of advertising, sponsoring stands or floats. Drinks, decorations and costumes are all big sellers. The bands are paid extravagant fees by the municipality or sponsor. Politicians often take advantage to award contracts to friends.

Carnival also has a very strong political dimension, at least in Haiti. Although three-quarters of the songs are about women because of the strong male-chauvinism in Haitian society, a community's scandals, the gossip and the salient events of the year, flattery or mockery of famous people which cannot be said openly are all heard in carnival songs, says enthnologist Dr. Ferere Laguerre.

During the first U.S. occupation of Haiti, for example, after the U.S. commander sent his wife, Angelica, back to the U.S. because of marital problems, a song was born which is still heard today: Anjeliko, Anjeliko, ale kay manman ou... (Angelica, Angelica, go on back to your mother's house...) While its words concern a wife who does not know how to wash and iron and is sent back home, its true meaning was clear to all. Jean Fouchard, author of Meringues et Danses d'Haiti, calls it the first cry of Yankee go home! It was repeatedly played by popular and bourgeois bands to express the population's desire to have their country un-occupied.

In 1986, only weeks before the flight of Jean-Claude Duvalier, in St. Marc a popular band practicing for carnival paraded with a coffin stuffed with effigies of Duvalier and Michele Bennet. Police and their attaches soon heard about it, attacked, and killed four people. During the coup d'etat, there was a very well- known song a popular band from Bel-Aire would sing that ran something like: I lost one of my shoes. Who can help me get my pair back? Pe is pair and is also father, and here meant Father Aristide.

Carnival also contains a contradiction, however, since while it represents a space where people can express their political frustrations or demands, at the same time it can be used by the government as a diversion to distract the population from political problems, taking the heat off and allowing it to gain some time. This aspect explains why the putschist governments were so interested in promoting carnival, and despite major financial problems like the embargo, still put a great deal of money into it.