Haiti loves a bacchanal.
On Friday, the country kicked off perhaps its biggest carnival yet with the opening of the Caribbean Festival of the Arts, CARIFESTA XII, on its Champ de Mars.
A nine-day, $8.6 million fete, the Caribbean cultural showcase opened with a kaleidoscope of colors and a parade of nations featuring stilt walkers from Barbados, drummers from Guyana and costumed riders on horseback from host nation Haiti.
“We’re here to celebrate Caribbean culture,” said Irwin Laroque, secretary general of the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM), which founded the event in 1972 and holds it every two years. “Culture is a way of binding us, bringing the Caribbean together.”
The only French speaking member of CARICOM, Haiti has been working in recent years to break its isolation and show that it, too, can host large-scale regional events despite myriad political problems and the occasional natural disaster. The country also wants to boost tourism.
“This will bring a lot of visibility to the country and allow us to develop better relations with other Caribbean nations and with the people,” Prime Minister Evans Paul told the Miami Herald. “Even though we live in the same region, we don’t know each other. We don’t all speak the same language. Even air connections, to get to one country, we have to pass through Miami.”
In fact, Miami was Paul’s first foreign trip as prime minister. He traveled to the city in May, four months after his appointment, to make a pitch for CARIFESTA.
“It’s a big deal for Haiti,” he said during the visit.
Haiti’s Tourism Minister, Stéphanie Balmir Villedrouin, said she and President Michel Martelly made the pitch to host the event because they saw it as a “super opportunity” to show Haiti’s potential in hosting such a huge cultural event, as well as the new hotel rooms that have opened since the country’s devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.
However, some say they don’t need convincing and hope that other Caribbean nations will take note.
“I’ve been here since 2013 and Haiti has hosted a number of international events,” said Capt. Godfrey Rolle, the Bahamas’ ambassador to the country. “I have no doubt this is going to be an extravagant affair. I know they are going to do a fantastic job.”
Still, concerns remain about whether the country will be able to pull off the event despite two years of planning. On Friday, as performers and artists prepared for show time, workers were still putting finishing touches on the Champ de Mars. Others have criticized such a huge expenditure at a time when the country’s domestic currency is devaluing and just held a chaotic $38 million overdue vote to restore parliament.
There was also concern about Hurricane Danny. Although it did not pose an immediate threat for Haiti on Friday, it could in coming days. At the very least, torrential rains from the storm could affect air travel to and from the Eastern Caribbean, and produce flooding on the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. The storm is not likely to reach Haiti — if it does — until the middle of next week.
But until then, delegations from around the Caribbean and South Florida — North Miami Mayor Smith Joseph, Miami-Dade Commissioner Jean Monestime and Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness all flew in for the weekend — were prepping themselves to enjoy everything from steel pan workshops to soca to Haiti’s konpa.
“We are all excited,” said steel pan musician Veron Henry, 48, of Antigua and Barbuda. Henry, who also makes the instruments, said 22 musicians flew in as part of Antigua’s 50-member delegation.
“We’re ready to showcase our musicians’ talents,” he said, adding that this is his first visit to Haiti and his third CARIFESTA.
Another country that’s equally excited to show off its talents is Barbados, which will be hosting the 13th edition of the festival. One of its best known artists, Alison Hinds, will be hitting the stage during the event. Known for her women empowerment lyrics, Hinds once collaborated with the Haitian band, Harmonik. Their 2011 single, Let’s Go, was a hit among konpa fans, who saw that both genres of music had more in common than most people thought.
Other Caribbean artists who will attend the festival before it ends on Aug. 30 include Trinidadian Leroy Clark and Raging Fyah from Jamaica.
“CARIFESTA is a powerful tool,” said Holness, the Broward commissioner, who is pitching to bring the festival to South Florida during one of its off years.
Holness said the event isn’t just about music, but about celebrating Caribbean food, music, fashion and “that indomitable feisty, celebratory spirit, that no matter what hits the Caribbean, they will still strive.”
Meanwhile, Miami officials say they hope their attendance in Haiti during the festival will allow them to build on the cultural exchanges that exist in the region, given that Miami is already considered the “gateway to the Caribbean.”
“We would like for Caribbean businesses and organizations to not just come through Miami, but to stop and use our services, visit our hotels and engage our business partners,” said Sandy Dorsainvil, managing director of the Little Haiti Cultural Center.
In addition to Dorsainvil, Miami City Commissioner Keon Hardemon and the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO William Talbert also were visiting.
Meanwhile, with 40 artists, the Bahamas’ Rolle hopes that the event will help others from the Caribbean see a different side of Haiti.
“When you hear a story from somebody second hand, you change perceptions by interacting with people,” Rolle said. “I think the benefit to Haiti is that [people from] other Caribbean countries who might not have been to Haiti, but might have heard all the negative things, when they come and see reality their perception changes.”