The next Carifesta in Guyana? Any takers?

Arts on Sunday

Although that might evoke quite a nice laugh, it is neither as laughable, as farfetched or as unlikely as it sounds.  Although the curtains descended on the grand event in Guyana at Providence on August 31, 2008, Carifesta has not gone away.  If not so much in the news, the subject is certainly very much back in live circulation and is certainly very much a serious current issue.

The Classique Dance Company performs at the National Cultural Centre during Carifesta X (Stabroek News file photo)
The Classique Dance Company performs at the National Cultural Centre during Carifesta X (Stabroek News file photo)

It may be to the credit of the nation that the Caribbean Festival of the Arts – one of the great contributions to the life of the region – never faded from the consciousness and the memory of the people of Guyana since its staging in Georgetown in August 2008.  The present generation of Guyanese, most of whom would have no memory of its inaugural performance in 1972, now has first-hand experience of the international arts festival.

What is more important is the undisputed impact that it made on the popular imagination.  Carifesta as an event that invaded the popular culture and the awareness of the people was evident in Suriname in 2003 in a way it was never seen before.  That impact was repeated and matched in Guyana in 2008.  Many will remember it for the blunders – things that did not quite go right – the huge expenditure of public funds, the few disputes and the demonstrations on Main Street.  But only the churlish and the malcontents will refuse to acknowledge the overriding successes, one of the most important of those being that very lasting impact that it has had and its continued place in the common consciousness.

However, what has brought it back in the spotlight on centre-stage are two very recent events.  A meeting of the Caricom Regional Cultural Committee in Surinam on June 2 – 3, and the startling announcement from Nassau that the Bahamas will not be able to host Carifesta XI  as promised in the summer of 2010.  The Directors of Culture of Caricom and others who met in Paramaribo decided to put the festival out to tender.  Nations are to be invited to bid for the right to host it in the revised date of June 2011.  Note that the planning period has been re-established as two years; none will dare attempt to repeat Guyana’s feat of taking it on in twelve months.

The first significant factor in this development is what is still in everyone’s memory.  This is the second time inside of three years that the Bahamas has withdrawn its offer to host the festival.  At the end of Carifesta XI in Port of Spain in September 2006 Nassau volunteered to be the next host in 2008.  But the party in power then lost the government at the elections of 2007 and the new administration declared in June that it could not honour the promise made by its predecessors in office.  The reason given was that no records could be found of any planning or provisions made for the festival, and it would be impossible to start from scratch and pull it off with only one year in which to do it.

There is always a period of a few months after the defeat of a sitting government at the polls when a lack of continuity is evident with decisions made before.  But after Guyana stepped in to do what Nassau had said was impossible, there was a new sense of revitalisation, interest and inspiration in Carifesta and the Bahamas came to Georgetown eager to make amends.

The second significant factor, however, is the reason that they provided for their inability to fulfil their commitment for the second time.  They cited the financial repercussions of the prevailing world economic downturn.  Under the circumstances they saw it as difficult to find the money to fund the event.  But although the reasons given are economic, there are those who have questioned the choice of venue in the first place.  Access to the Bahamas might be a simple hop on a bus from North America, but the routes from the Caribbean involve having to travel through Jamaica or, more frequently, through Florida.  Those critics believe that the visa and other requirements would become an issue.

The third factor is a combination of the first two and the administrative structure of Carifesta.  It must be remembered that a new administrative arrangement has been designed for the festival because of the prominent weaknesses of the old one.  Under the old system countries volunteered to host Carifesta, just as both the Bahamas and Guyana did.  Since 1972 it has always depended on the goodwill of a country willing to volunteer, and this has caused problems.  After a flurry of activity in 1976, 1979 and 1981 when the fervour and momentum were high, Carifesta had to wait eleven years until 1992 before it saw the light of day again.  Then after Trinidad’s generosity in 1992 and 1995 it was another five years before St Kitts took it on in 2000.  Amazingly, 2006 and 2008 stand as the only time a regular two-year time-table came close to happening.  For the same reasons, this will not continue in 2010.

One of the main reasons for this sporadic frequency is that Carifesta has always been a financial burden on the hosts; it has always been their sole administrative responsibility.  There was nothing that guaranteed a regular cycle.  The new model benefits from a study of other cultural festivals, mostly music events, that are organized on strict commercial lines and it attempts to put Carifesta on a firmer financial basis.  It seeks to maximise earnings and realise financial gain for hosts and participants, taking the burden of funding off public resources and drawing more from private outsourcing.  It also moves the administration of Carifesta off the shoulders of a host government by establishing a permanent regional directorate.

The next significant factor is that the Caricom cultural meeting decided to invite countries to bid for 2011, thus breaking and setting back the two-year schematic cycle because of the very problems the new model seeks to avoid.  Bidding is a feature of the new model.  Yet the meeting was aware that they still have little control over the festival.  The new model resulted from work done by a task force chaired by Alwyn Bully and guided by consultant Keith Nurse in 2004. It was adopted by the COHSOD meeting of Caricom ministers, but was totally ignored by every government after that.   Trinidad, Guyana and the Bahamas all emphatically opted to follow their own inclinations funding and shaping the event in their own ways.  The old model has prevailed because governments have put political considerations first, and the flaws of the old model are again illustrated in the breaking of the two-year cycle just when we thought it had at last got going.  It also means, contrary to the new plan, that we do not know two years in advance, where the next venue will be.

It is also significant yet ironic that it was in Paramaribo that the future of the festival was made the main subject of the Carifesta Symposia arranged by Carole Bishop in 2003 under the theme ‘Reinventing Carifesta.’  It was this that led to the designing of the new model.  Ironically, the cultural wizards met in the same city to try to rescue the arts festival from the problems of the past and give it another new start.

When a similar kind of rescue was needed in 2007, Guyana’s Bharrat Jagdeo stepped up to the microphone and offered, not to mention surprised, his country.  The talk is now buzzing around as to whether there is about to be a repeat.  Some of the voices are hopeful, but the critics will prefer to use the word ‘wishful’ and question the wisdom of any such thought.  The excited voices remember the successes and still reverberate from the echo of the positive impact.  Guyana will feel it has the infrastructure (which is only partly true), more than enough hotel capacity, the personnel and workforce and certainly the experience.  It will feel it has the popular excitement and the goodwill of the people.  Here is another chance to do what was not taken as an option in 2008, earn considerable sums from gate receipts and the sale of Carifesta merchandise, market the event and seek a substantial international audience, and use these funds to build and support the arts locally.

There are even those who are beginning to call for Guyana to take back their gift to Caricom;  run the festival permanently every two years in Guyana rather than face the uncertainty of other countries volunteering with the required regularity.  For an international arts event to prosper, attract visitors and earn a permanent place on the annual calendar of the world’s travel agents it has to have regularity and predictability.  If it is as sporadic as it is now, it will struggle.

Yet the issues of the old model remain.  Guyana will think three or four times before committing another US$1-1.5M again, and before calling on a Minister of Culture and technical staff quite likely still recovering from the exhaustion.  But even if we call them forth to patriotic duty as at Agincourt on St Crispin‘s Day, or inspire them with “this [will be] our finest hour,” the question of funding and a sobering thought that this might just slightly overdo it, might prevail.  It is not a question of can Guyana do it, it is, will they?

Carifesta XI in Georgetown next year anyone?  Not likely.

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