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Born in Port-au-Prince to a well-to-do family, Michele Montas’s lifelong passion for journalism led her in the 1970s to one of Haiti’s most outspoken pro-democracy advocates and broadcasters, Jean Dominique. Dominique founded Radio Haiti-Inter in the 1960s, when most media served up government propaganda. The station was the first to broadcast in Creole to a mostly illiterate population.
After her husband Dominique’s assassination in 2000 by gunmen allegedly linked to Aristide’s Lavalas Party, Montas ran the station until her bodyguard’s murder in 2002 and subsequent threats forced her to flee to the U.S. Now working at the U.N., Montas recently talked with In These Times about Radio Haiti, Haitian men, and her homeland.
Radio Haiti was incredibly popular — rightfully called the voice of Haiti’s people. How organic was its relationship with listeners?
Locals from neighboring islands would send boat delegations straight to Radio Haiti, because to them we could solve all problems. They often got nothing from local governments, so they’d come to us with problems ranging from hurricanes and local police to the price of fertilizer and political problems. The relationship was so constant, so organic that when Jean died, I gave his ashes to a peasant farmers’ organization in Artibonite. [Haiti’s main rice-growing region.]
You’ve worked in different media since, on both sides of the mike. Have you found anything like Radio Haiti?
Nothing. Radio Haiti was and is still my passion. It was alive! To the point that when [film director] Jonathan Demme came back to Haiti with Jean from exile to finish the film on him, Jean had to tell him, ‘Jonathan, I don’t have time for you! What you’re doing is not important compared to what I have to do: get the station back on the air!’” (laughing) And we had extraordinary support from the people, which helped us get back on the air in 1986 and stay on when we lost financial support from advertisements. We were always at odds with a number of private interests. As late as 2000, several companies cut ads because we were taking positions against a number of things. We functioned like a public station, but were privately owned and commercial — a difficult equilibrium, but Jean had quite a philosophy about this. He used to say he was an agronomist before, that he could live with just one banana in his stomach for a whole day. ‘It doesn’t matter, we’ll manage!’ he’d say. And we always did.
Toward the end of high school, you had a political awakening when something tragic befell your family.
My aunt and 4 cousins were arrested, taken to Fort Dimanche, a political prison, and killed. Simply because one of my cousins was a priest taking care of Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic, and [then-dictator] François Duvalier thought he was going to participate in an opposition movement against him — totally untrue. So they struck out his family while he was abroad, because at the time they’d punish your family if they couldn’t get you.
You specialized in investigative work at Radio Haiti, covering the kind of incidents barely touched by today’s Haitian press.
Even when I was training people for general news work and quickly became editor, I kept doing investigative work on my own. I love the streets, I love reporter’s work. There’s almost no real investigative work today because access to news is much scarcer. Right now, you have a very confused situation in Haiti, politically and otherwise. Information I get from the international press I can’t get from Haiti’s press because, ironically, they don’t have the same access to sources.
Eighteen years ago, a popular uprising that just wouldn’t stop pushed François Duvalier’s successor, Jean-Claude, out of Haiti on a U.S. plane. Today, another uprising, another Haitian leader exiting by way of U.S. transportation. Bad rerun?
The similarities are striking. Aristide’s “chimere” militia behaves like the Macoutes, Duvalier’s repressive militia. Before, during the 1991 – 1994 military coup, you had the FRAPH, the military’s militia, acting the same way. Power is a trap in Haiti, through 200 years of existence. We saw it when Aristide, the priest who came to power on the wings of a movement built against dictatorships, changed into the politician using the same methods as Duvalier to stay in power.
In 1986, the people pushed out Duvalier. In 2004, they are the bystanders.
They are aside and just looking at the whole thing. It’s Aristide’s thugs against the other thugs. Many certainly feel betrayed by Aristide. People won’t fight to have him back. But most don’t find anything in the opposition reassuring them, either. There are drug-dealers, convicts, ex-generals, and mass murderers among them. To me, the danger right now is that the popular movement that brought Aristide to power is mistaken with the “chimeres” out in the street attacking people. There was a tremendous amount of hope among people that things would change for the Haitian majority. That dream is still there. What people worry about now is a return to the old system where Haitian elites control everything.
Did you hear what Haiti’s prime minister’s cousin told the New York Times recently? “Too many Haitians, particularly men, are convinced things would be better if they were in power.”
It’s true in a way! (laughing). I’m very worried about the impact of power on most Haitian males. Haiti is officially run by men, but truly run by women. The whole country’s economic basis rests on women. Haiti has many single-mother families. When men are in all avenues of power, it’s often much more about what they get can out of power — how long they stay, how much power they have — than sharing, openness, generosity, responsibility. I lived with a man [Jean] who loved women, and thought they should have a lot more power. He was always telling me to say and do more. I told him, ‘I’m happy doing what I’m doing.’ And ironically, I was turned into someone who did more. After Jean passed away, I had to take over the station and his responsibilities overnight.
You’ve met Aristide on many occasions. What do you make of his claims that he was kidnapped by the U.S.?
It’s obvious he was pushed out. It’s obvious the so-called rebel army against him had U.S. backing. Aristide had to go. We had reached a point where he could no longer stay.
It was detrimental and getting dangerous to the country. When the students hit the streets after Aristide sent his “chimeres” against the university, it was no longer an opposition he could say was only upper-class; they were kids of his own party members. The lower middle-class was out on the streets, saying ‘We want change,’ saying ‘Down with Aristide.’ Aristide was part of the problem, but he could have been part of a smoother solution. It all reminded me of the fall of Baghdad. Here is this rebel army allowed to come in, just after Aristide was kicked out — they go to museums, burn works of art, and among them are convicts condemned by Haiti’s judicial system. And the U.S., which really got Aristide out, isn’t there to stop the bloodshed and destruction, which goes on and on for days before calming down.
Speaking of Iraq, Haiti seems just as much a quagmire, and the people as long-suffering.
Haitians are incredibly resilient. They have to be. I’ve been receiving phone calls from a farmer’s group which has been silent since 2000. They’re calling me now, telling me they want to do things, get back into their own agenda — that since Jean died, they’ve lost a lot under Aristide, but still want to get back to fighting for the same things. It’s too early to say what this new interim government will do, but there is so much to do, because we have gone backwards 20 years in terms of development, security, public health, and everything else.
As a Columbia Journalism School grad and journalist for many years, what do you make of the U.S. media’s coverage of Haiti?
Some good things, some bad things. What struck me was the lack of questioning on a number of things. Reporting on the so-called rebel army didn’t mention the dicey background of that army at all at first. A number of these people have been convicted for massacres! And the extent of destruction that took place after Aristide was shipped out was never covered. You had two universities, and a number of gas stations destroyed. Very few articles talked about the country as a whole; there is more to Haiti than just violence, misery, and desperation. It is a country with extraordinary spring, history, creativity. No one cared about Haiti before it exploded. You had very few articles about Haiti. And suddenly you had an article a day in most major papers for 10 – 15 days — an extremely superficial way of covering the news.
Very few questioned the putative cause of the political crisis: the 2000 Haitian legislative elections.
Definitely. It was never that much of a crisis. There were irregularities in 1995 also, but some of the opposition did not protest then, because at the time they were on Aristide’s side and actually rode to power as senators and congressmen on his coattails. The decision to embargo international aid because of irregularities concerning 7 senators was a bad decision in the first place. The Haitian people had no help in terms of health and education programs — everything went through NGOs. And NGOs cannot create a policy in any country in the world.
Did you have to hold your tongue while reading Jeb Bush’s recent Washington Post editorial about the Bush administration’s holy, honest, democratic Haiti policy?
Oh yes. I read that with the type of smile that Jean Dominique would have had, skeptical but grinning, ear to ear.
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