Haitians’ ire over carnival spending amid hurricane ruins
LES CAYES, Haiti (AFP) — Starjuin Regent is still waiting for Haitian Government aid to help him rebuild his fishing business, which was destroyed last year by Hurricane Matthew.
In the nearly five months since the massive category five storm hit, residents are still struggling to rebuild shattered homes and businesses.
All the more reason then, for the ire of Regent and many others here over millions of dollars spent by officials on upcoming carnival festivities in his hometown of Les Cayes.
"I’ve lost my boat. My home has been destroyed. I’m struggling all by myself to get back on my feet, but it’s hard," said Regent, with a weary look on his face.
He said that until he rebuilds his business, he is eking out a living selling odds-and-ends, amid empty promises of aid from politicians.
"Public action to help citizens – we never saw it. It’s just a lot of blah, blah, blah, on the radio," he said.
All that is left of his small home is the foundation and two pillars. A neighbour who lucked out with a foreign aid group giving him a plastic tarp to replace a shattered roof is hosting Regent and his family.
The city of Les Cayes plays host this year to Haiti’s national carnival celebration, anointed the honour by newly sworn President Jovenel Moise.
Even before he was sworn in, Moise announced that instead of taking place in the capital Port-au-Prince, the national carnival fete would be held in Les Cayes, Haiti’s third largest city.
"President Jovenel Moise felt that we had a duty of solidarity with the people of Les Cayes" as well as with others in hard-hit southern Haiti, which bore the brunt of the storm, said Lucien Jura, at the time spokesman for the president’s transition team.
As the three-day celebration prepares to get underway, there are growing doubts about whether holding carnival here will actually help stimulate the recovering economy.
"Carnival brings nothing directly to the victims, but at the global level, it is obvious that there are many commercial activities – small traders have more opportunities to make money," said Mayor Gabriel Fortune.
Viewing stands have been coated with still-drying paint and hotels completely covered with posters in this seaport city, where musicians have been parading each night as they rehearse for the grand event.
"One could easily have a million people participate in the carnival, coming mostly from Les Cayes but also from Port-au-Prince and the diaspora," said Carel Pedre, spokesman for the carnival organising committee, referring to Haitians living outside the country.
Traditional maracas in hand and wearing a straw hat, Mackens Ultima could not be happier.
"This is one of the happiest days of my life. My family was a victim of the hurricane and I did everything to help them from abroad," said the Cayes native who has lived in Miami for a decade and is visiting on vacation.
"I saw my city destroyed on television and today this carnival offers a new vision, a new force."
Even as the city tingles with excitement ahead of carnival, some say spending so much money on the giant open air party is unseemly at a time of such widespread need.
The bill for three days of revelry surpasses US$3.6 million in this impoverished Caribbean nation, whose national debt exceeds US$2.2 billion.
United Nations officials said earlier this month that Haiti needs nearly US$300 million to provide urgent assistance for its most vulnerable inhabitants, including those affected by Hurricane Matthew in October.
The massive storm caused US$2.8 billion in damage, leaving more than 1.5 million people in dire need of humanitarian assistance across the nation.
And the Caribbean nation is still struggling to recover from the world’s most significant cholera outbreak, with an estimated 30,000 cases expected this year, as well as the effects of the January 2010 earthquake, with tens of thousands of people still camping in tents without proper sanitation.
Families still struggling here months after being lashed by Matthew say they can’t understand the decision to spend public funds on carnival, and many complain that they have seen few of the spillover economic gains from hosting the celebration.
"I did not find any work as a result of carnival," lamented Cadet Preneau, whose home was washed away by the storm.
"The people who are building the stands come from Port-au-Prince, so they don’t need us," Preneau said bitterly.
"We should have cancelled this carnival. It’s a waste of money."
The decision to locate carnival here was among the first taken by Moise.
This year also marks a return to the stage of his predecessor Michel Martelly.
Martelly, who goes by the stage name "Sweet Micky", is one of 20-odd musical acts scheduled to perform here during carnival.