He isn’t even president yet and he’s already ignited a war — a Kanaval turf war.
Standing before a delirious crowd last Sunday in a storm-ravaged Les Cayes, Haiti’s President-elect Jovenel Moïse, still two weeks from his Feb. 7 swearing-in, put his foot down in a Trump-like fashion.
The National Carnival — that festival of song and debauchery that marks the beginning of Lent — would be relocating this year from Port-au-Prince to Les Cayes, he said. Beside him: former President Michel Martelly, the swivel-hipped band leader known as Sweet Micky, who stepped down 11 months ago but remains a force on the political scene.
“The president has spoken. Period,” Moïse declared — about himself — as Martelly cheered him on, donning a T-shirt emblazoned with the announcement in Creole: la Ville des Cayes K-NAVAL 2017.
It was a move bound to divide a country where declared musical allegiance to a konpa band is akin to religion.
Within hours, Port-au-Prince’s newly elected mayor, Youri Chevry, fired back. In a note that went viral on social media, Chevry insisted that Carnival would continue in his city, the capital of Haiti.
“I don’t want to be in a face-to-face with the president-elect over Carnival,” Chevry told the Miami Herald about the Feb. 26-28 bacchanal. “I’ve been doing pre-Carnival activities for two weeks, getting ready with the Haitian National Police, and yet they went with this decision without even talking to me.”
And with that, the politically charged face-off between Moïse and the mayor of Haiti’s largest city over the country’s biggest and most boisterous block party became a battle of the bands, with Carnival musicians and DJs forced to take sides.
Playing in Port-au-Prince? You’re with Chevry.
In Les Cayes? Moïse is your man.
And, perhaps, Martelly.
Moïse’s Carnival relocation move echoed one by Martelly, known as the “King of Carnival” when he first became president. Martelly, who is Moïse’s political mentor, used the annual festival to censor critics and flex his political muscle.
Despite the crowd’s jubilant reaction to Moïse’s announcement, his decision is being criticized by some in a country struggling to replant crops after Hurricane Matthew in October and still wracked by problems stemming from the 2010 earthquake.
“It is not serious to be focusing on Carnival when the country faces deep problems like malnutrition, insecurity and more than 10 percent inflation,” said economist Kesner Pharel. “A president should concentrate on guiding a cultural policy that will be the guideline for mayors to realize projects like Carnival. Carnival has nothing to do with presidents, but it should be made by the municipal administrations.
“This is a bad choice for the new administration to follow Martelly’s path on organizing carnivals,” he added.
In recent days, everyone from DJs to political pundits and musicians to Carnival fanatics have had something to say.
“Wherever they give me the most money, that’s where I’m going,” Okeyjems, former lead singer of Anbyans, the top-rated Carnival band in 2014, said in a video making its way around the WhatsApp social network. “I’m selling a product.”
Singer Roody Roodboy, whose “M Pi wo Pase w” (I’m Higher Than You) song is one of the most played Kanaval meringues this season, said picking a side in the Les Cayes vs. Port-au-Prince battle is a delicate matter — and he’s not choosing yet.
“Is Okay ready for Kanaval?” he asked, using the Creole pronunciation of Les Cayes. “What are the advantages and disadvantages if it is to take place in Okay? Is Port-au-Prince ready?”
While Port-au-Prince boasts more than 10,000 hotel rooms, according to a damage assessment by the Tourism Ministry, the entire Southern region was left with just 332 rooms after Matthew’s Oct. 4 winds and rains downed power lines, damaged roads and destroyed all but two of the registered hotels in the nearby city of Port Salut.
“A lot of people are in limbo,” said singer Roberto Martino, whose T-Vice band was counting on the large Carnival crowds to fuel its comeback with a new album — “Nou Tounen Pi Fo” (We’ve Returned Stronger) — but is now just as confused as fans. “A lot of fans are calling me and asking me exactly where is the Carnival going to be.”
Even other elected officials are squaring off. After Senate Vice President Jean-Marie Salomon publicly accused Moïse of “wickedness” and “demagoguery” because Haiti’s southern region still lacks adequate healthcare and electricity after Matthew, Les Cayes Mayor Gabriel Fortuné went on the attack. He defended the president-elect and his decision.
“The Great South merits the attention of the country after everything that has happened,” Fortuné said. “It’s a gesture of solidarity.”
Sen. Antonio Cheramy, who represents the West region that includes Port-au-Prince, said the president-elect shouldn’t be involved in where Carnival is held.
“This is someone who campaigned on respecting institutions,” Cheramy said of Moïse, who Wednesday appeared before an investigative judge about a possible case of money laundering against him. “He hasn’t even been sworn in yet and he’s already forcing himself into everything.”
Cheramy, known to music fans as “Don Kato,” lead singer of Brothers Posse, was twice banned from Carnival by Martelly after releasing lyrics bashing his leadership. He hadn’t planned to participate in Carnival this year, he said, until Moïse’s “arrogant declaration.”
“We should all take note,” he said, pausing during a studio session where Brothers Posse is wrapping up its musical response to Moïse. “We need to be prepared to make sure that what happened in the past doesn’t repeat itself.”
Politics as part of Carnival is nothing new. But this time, the festivities are turning into a replay of Haiti’s extended presidential election, drawing in even the most impartial of musicians, who now feel they must take sides.
As “Sweet Micky,” Martelly used Carnival as a vehicle to denounce Haitian governments and presidents. But when he became president, he wouldn’t have any of that. He brought the raucous revelry under the control of the National Palace, moving it from Port-au-Prince to Les Cayes his first year in office and taking it to a different city every year after.
“I don’t have a problem with this decision taken by President Jovenel Moïse to have the National Carnival in Okay,” cultural journalist Guy Webern Guerrier posted in Creole on his Instagram page after the debate erupted. “It was done before under President Martelly and it was a beautiful experience. But this decision shows the weakness of the music sector.”
Musicians, Guerrier said, have to stop allowing themselves to be used as political pawns.
“Carnival is a political weapon in the Haitian reality, where politicians or the person in power use musicians to attain their objectives,” he said. “Despite musicians being the cornerstones of the Carnival and Carnival music, they are an afterthought in the eyes of the government.”
But the mayor of Port-au-Prince doesn’t see any reason to back down from the Carnival standoff. Chevry — who manages the popular rap-Kreyòl group Barikad Crew — said too many people have already bought their tickets to attend the event in his town. His band will remain in the capital for Carnival.
And even though Moïse called him after he posted his note and promised that the two will talk, Chevry says there’s not much to say.
“I am not opposed to helping the people hurt by Matthew. I know they need the money,” he said. “At the same time, we too have people in Port-au-Prince who are depending on Carnival to pay for their kids’ school fees for the year.”
And for local businesses, the cost of moving the festival is even more direct. Tony Bennett, owner of Maché Ti Tony, a rice distribution business that regularly sponsors bands and floats, balked at the idea of paying the bill for two sets of Carnival bands. A band and float can cost $130,000.
“It’s unfortunate that with all of the problems the country has, finding out where Carnival will happen is the biggest issue right now,” Bennett said. “The government is going to have its hands full, trying to extract money from the private sector. Still, some will do it for political reasons.”