Whatever conflict may surround the government, Haiti throws a huge national block party at this time every year. Carnival is something people can count on in a place where not much falls into that category.
Less lavish than Rio de Janeiro's run-up to the austerity of Lent, the festival that began here Sunday and ended tonight has a personality reflecting an unruly, rarely happy nation. While the government views the party as a diversion for the masses, carnival also serves as perhaps the most important bellwether of Haiti's mood and a vast showcase for discontent.
What has emerged from the streets this year is an unpleasant twist for a president who once benefited from carnival's fulminations: Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his party are suffering most from the darts of the most popular songs. Haiti admires its many artists, far more than its politicians, and the throbbing "roots rock," slow Haitian merengue and bouncy carnival tunes that blare from every street-corner shop have long been the lingua franca of a country in which a large percentage of the population is illiterate.
The carnival music is politically important enough to be analyzed by foreign diplomats here, and last week U.S. officials were seeking out the lyrics to a song called "Rice" by Sweet Mickey. Once a favorite of the thugs who worked on behalf of the hated Duvalier family dictatorship before its 1986 collapse, Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly is now so popular that his fans refer to him as "president." The title of his smash-hit carnival song refers to recent riots at a dockside warehouse here that were sparked by word that officials from Aristide's party were stealing from a food program for the poor.
"They don't see what is happening in this country. The official car is in front, the rice truck in the middle, the security behind. Protect the rice," the lyrics go. "They see, but they never understand. Give me the country. You're gone, you're gone, you're gone."
The criticism comes at a difficult time for Aristide, who is reeling from a Dec. 17 coup attempt that came as political violence and economic deprivation have mounted in the hemisphere's poorest nation.
It was not always like this. Aristide was chosen as the country's first freely elected leader in 1990, only to be toppled by a military coup the next year. The next two carnivals, which Aristide spent in exile, were dominated by his absence. Musicians shouted for the return of the diminutive former priest and champion of Haiti's downtrodden, defying coup leaders who at times cut off electricity in hopes of silencing the carnival songs. Aristide returned in 1994 with the help of 20,000 U.S. soldiers.
But this year Aristide tried to limit criticism that could be aimed at his government. At a meeting with musicians last month, he requested that their carnival songs focus on his national literacy campaign or promote Haiti's bicentennial in 2004. His request has been mostly ignored.
"I prefer to be inspired, not instructed," said Richard Morse, whose band RAM has been at the center of some of carnival's most dramatic moments in recent years. Morse, manager of the fabled Hotel Oloffson, wrote some of the most important protest music against the coup that ousted Aristide.
The band's roots rock draws from rhythms boiling up from the masses -- the vivid, soulful music of a country that was born of a slave revolt and became the world's first black republic. His song "Fey" was perhaps the definitive anti-coup anthem, and its lyrics -- "Where are the people? We don't see them," referring to the government in exile -- rang out over the broad central plaza known as the Champs de Mars as the coup leaders looked on.
Since then, Morse has had problems with Aristide's Lavalas Family party, including an incident before carnival five years ago when the Lavalas mayor sent armed men to the Oloffson and ordered RAM's float dismantled. The mayor, a singer himself, interpreted one of RAM's songs to be a veiled accusation of corruption. Things between Morse and the government have deteriorated since then.
The government said it spent $800,000 this year on what was once a celebration subsidized almost entirely by the private sector. The money went to erect bleachers, buy building materials and create about 3,000 temporary jobs in a country where the majority of the population lives on less than $2 a day.
"We're trying to get back to a cultural carnival that could be seen as a tourist event," said Guy Paul, minister of culture and communications.
On the streets, the "battle of decibels," as Paul described the rival floats and bleacher parties, has been deafening, a party more to be felt through chest-pounding bass than heard. For the last three nights, men have sold beer from wheelbarrows. Women wearing bandannas and garish face paint have danced in conga lines. And with a million revelers to reach, carnival was an advertising bonanza. Signs posted on bleacher marquees promoted enterprises from tire shops to nonprofit organizations.
Flatbed trucks, carrying bands and stacked with walls of speakers, moved slowly along a parade route that led from City Hall past the National Palace to the Champs de Mars. Cane liquor flowed, and for the only time of the year, the rich, light-skinned elite traveled down from the comfortable hills of Petionville to dance in the streets with the poor of Cite Soleil and La Saline.
"Then it's over," said Johnny Duval, a 31-year-old resident of the dirt-street neighborhood of Delmas, frolicking with a 16-ounce beer in his hand. "And everybody returns to their homes."