A small biting insect has crashed the biggest party of the year in the Caribbean port city of Limón.
Health Minister María Luisa Avila this week denied the municipality the permit required to hold its annual October Carnaval festivities – by far and away the city’s most popular cultural event – as dengue fever runs rampant in the region.
According to Health Ministry statistics, cases of the mosquito-borne virus, which causes severe fever-like symptoms, aching and pain behind the eyes, jumped 600% so far this year in the canton of Limón, from 225 to 1,300.
With cases in the greater Caribbean region averaging 300 a week and showing no signs of slowing down, the government had no choice but to cancel the event, said Health Ministry spokesman Alex Ulate.
He said health authorities fear Carnaval would only exacerbate the problem by attracting more mosquitoes to the city to feast on visitors and breed in their trash.
Carnaval is a weeklong event scheduled to coincide with Costa Rica’s National Cultures Day holiday Oct. 12, and which includes colorful street parades, concerts, cultural activities and typical Caribbean food.
Puerto Limón is known for its unique Afro-Caribbean culture, and is home to about 90,000 residents – a mix of Jamaican descendents, Chinese and indigenous peoples.
Though Carnaval organizers, residents and business owners in the seaside city are upset at the cancellation announcement, Mayor Eduardo Barboza told The Tico Times this week that he feels the Health Minister’s decision was made “in the interest of the health and well-being of the people.”
He said the nine-day event would have likely attracted 5,000 or more visitors, and created a huge amount of trash that might serve as breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
“It’s not just the Health Ministry that is concerned. The municipality had been preparing for this, too,” he said, adding that the region already lacks appropriate treatment facilities for trash and sewage.
“We’re in a battle against a little bug that is killing our people,” he said.
To date, three patients have died of the more serious hemorrhagic dengue, which is characterized by high fever, circulatory failure, constipation, abdominal pain, easy bleeding and bruising.
Last month, the TonyFacioHospital in Limón was so inundated with dengue cases that doctors worried it might affect the care of patients with other illnesses.
Adolfo Blanford, president of the Carnavales del Caribe 2007 Commission, however, is not convinced the decision is warranted.
“I think it is a drastic decision.We’ve still got a month and a half until the festivities are set to begin – how can we be deciding so soon?” he said, reiterating a common complaint among limonenses, who have long believed themselves culturally, politically and economically excluded from the rest of Costa Rica. “It really makes me feel as if the government has something against us – it seems these bad decisions are always being forced upon us.”
He said the planning commission already made investments, many of which would be lost if the event does not take place.
“In Liberia, they had dengue earlier this year, but they had their celebrations. So why were ours cancelled?” he said. (President Oscar Arias traveled to Liberia, capital of the northwestern province of Guanacaste, July 25 to celebrate Annexation Day despite the dengue outbreak reported in that region.) Blanford said many people in Limón – from restaurant and bar owners to shopkeepers and taxi-drivers – depend on the boost from Carnaval to “buy their Christmas presents.”
“It just leaves a bad taste in our mouth. Once again, Limón is left behind,” he said.
In a statement released Tuesday in honor of Black Culture Day, President Arias waxed poetic about the importance of equality on Costa Rican soil.
“I can assure you that the best way to eliminate racism in Costa Rica is to eliminate all forms of discrimination,” he said.
“The dream of our equality finds refuge only beneath a canopy of tolerance to all that is diverse.”
Mayor Barboza is holding out hope, despite the Health Ministry’s firm stance. He plans to propose a milder version of Carnaval,“with less partying,” which he believes would bring the festival back to its roots.
“We’ve yet to hear the last word on this issue. A new, more controlled festival might give us the opportunity to celebrate our culture in a more healthy environment,” he said.