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Carnivals and Clusterfucks

After weeks of uncertainty and bad press, Caribbean Carnival weekend is finally here. The fetes have begun, and they'll continue for the next four to five days as partiers pour into South Florida by the tens of thousands. Hotels are filling up, masqueraders are putting the finishing touches on their routines, and the jovial spirit of the islands is everywhere.

But while Caribbean pride is at an all-time high, for many, the antics that have turned what should be a united celebration into a divided competition have grown tiresome. For the sixth year in a row, revelers will be forced to choose between attending carnival in Miami or Broward County. They'll both host carnivals on the same day, at the same time, driving what many see as an unnecessary wedge between folks who just want to have a good time.

Although the situation has quickly become fodder for newspapers and Caribbean radio shows, what most of these headlines and talk-show hosts are missing is a street-level perception of how the community itself feels about dueling carnivals.

The situation is so confusing that a few nights ago, while hanging out at a shopping plaza full of Caribbean establishments in Plantation, half of the people I spoke with still didn't know if the Broward Caribbean Carnival was taking place. In restaurants, bakeries, and barber shops, there was one common theme: I'm tired of that shit!

Whether local organizers wish to admit it or not, the fact that Broward Caribbean Carnival exists in the first place puts a strain on attendees and local municipalities each October. The cultural event has been marred by controversy, infighting, and the perception of disorganization since it began. That couldn't have been clearer this year as up until two and a half weeks ago, Broward's Caribbean Carnival was homeless.

When Miramar unexpectedly rejected the carnival last month, organizers were forced to scramble to find a location. Members of Broward Caribbean Carnival — the organization that puts on the festival of the same name — admit they were late in turning in their proposal to Miramar but hoped that city commissioners would forgive the tardiness and the festival's negative reputation to make the necessary accommodations. They assumed wrong.

"We were devastated when the vote came back 3-2 against us," says BCC board member Rafiek Mohammed. "We didn't believe that a city with a 26- to 27-percent Caribbean population would allow a festival of this magnitude to slip away."

According to Miramar commissioners who voted on the issue, things weren't so simple.

"Well, the precedent the [Broward] carnival has set in the past isn't good," says Miramar Vice Mayor Winston Barnes, who hails from Trinidad. "They've had challenges everywhere they have been — they're always bouncing from venue to venue. This time around, I don't know that the organizers did enough work beforehand."

Miramar officials also cited the sheer size of Broward's Caribbean Carnival as a reason to vote against it. With 30,000 revelers expected to attend, Miramar claims it did not have an appropriate-sized venue.

Now that Fort Lauderdale has bailed out BCC and the carnival is scheduled to take place Sunday at the Fort Lauderdale Stadium, the party is on, but the same issues remain.

Why should there be two carnivals in the first place? And why is Broward's version always shipped around like a floating barge of garbage that no municipality wants to accept? If that analogy makes you angry, it should.

South Florida's carnival weekend is a heralded affair throughout the country — on par with New York's West Indian Day Parade or Toronto's Caribana. But divided in two, a touch of flair is lost on both sides. "It makes it hard for people coming in from out of town 'cause they don't know where to go," says Frankie Ramsook, owner of Ram's Roti Shop in Lauderhill. "All the talent is divided also, and people don't get to see the best bands and performers."

Ramsook says he supported both carnivals last year but found it silly that he had to drive, pay, and park at two separate Caribbean festivals on the same day.

"I think it should be one carnival instead of two," Ramsook continues. "I don't like the division at all."

Barnes seems to feel the same way. "I think they really screwed it up when they became two carnivals," he says. "If you're going to have sponsors getting approached by multiple carnivals in the same market, that doesn't look good."

Unfortunately, it's not going to be so easy to unify if one side has to give up its location. Officials with BCC estimate that with 30,000 revelers in attendance for an extended weekend of partying, roughly $60 million is generated for businesses in Broward County alone. Miami expects 100,000 for its carnival, at Bicentennial Park. Unity aside, that's a nice chunk of coin to give up for the sake of cohesion.

Donna Brooks, regional manager of Donna's Restaurant in Plantation, says she notices as much as a 40- to 50-percent increase in business during carnival weekend. Not surprisingly, she's in favor of Broward's keeping a carnival. "It's so big, there's no venue to hold all of us Caribbean people if they reunited again," Brooks says.

Considering the current fiasco, there is a movement afoot to see a unified carnival next year, but with well over 100,000 people in attendance, if Dolphin Stadium isn't available — on a football Sunday — a united Carnival 2008 may not happen either.

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Jonathan Cunningham