By Trevor Bach
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By Trevor Bach
By Michael E. Miller
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Hopeful Aristide would regain power, the residents of Carrefour rallied against the coup. "Manno's neighborhood was one of the few areas that showed any resistance, putting up barricades and burning tires," Garcia says. "Of course, the military accused Manno of being the leader." On October 11, a truckload of troops pulled up to his home, roughed him up in front of his family, and hauled him off to jail. His wife, Chantel, went into hiding with the couple's baby son, Ti-Manno, and later fled to the island of Guadeloupe.
Terrified, Charlemagne's sister called Haitian radio stations in Miami and New York. Word quickly spread that the singer had been arrested, tortured, and possibly killed. But the torture, Charlemagne says, was predominantly psychological. On October 13, before he had been formally charged, a group of soldiers told him his execution was scheduled for 2:00 a.m. But a dispute between soldiers forestalled the killing. "They would say, `We are going to kill you at this time,'" Charlemagne recalls, grinning. "Then they would get worried and call it off." Eventually the prisoner was relocated to the Penitencier National, the monstrous prison built by U.S. Marines who occupied the island from 1915 to 1935.
A week later, on October 18, Ernst Mallebranche, a Haitian human rights lawyer, secured his release. As he left the prison with his wife and the attorney, a squad of men in civilian clothes accosted Charlemagne at gunpoint. "After that everyone was sure he was dead," Garcia recalls. "When the death squads come in civilian clothes, they're serious. They don't want to be traced to the military." That weekend the international rumor mill worked overtime, generating a ghoulish array of scenarios.
By this time, however, Charlemagne's original arrest had triggered a deluge of lobbying efforts stateside. Amnesty International, Americas Watch, and local groups including Miami's Haitian Refugee Center peppered Haitian and U.S. officials with phone calls and telegrams. Haitian-American newspapers and radio stations called for a release of the "Caged Bird of Haiti." A week after his second arrest, Charlemagne again was set free.
A third arrest was planned, but this time a sympathetic soldier tipped off Charlemagne before he could be cuffed again. With the French embassy already harboring several terrified members of Aristide's cabinet, he fled to the Argentine embassy residence. Built into the hills overlooking Port-au-Prince in the posh suburb of Petionville, the two-story house was protected, as Charlemagne puts it, "by one little guard shack." Four days later, a platoon of soldiers broke into the Argentine embassy residence, but were rebuffed by security personnel before they could harm Charlemagne.
That's when the Hollywood lobby kicked into high gear.
Back in 1986, Jonathan Demme traveled to Haiti to check out the country's visual arts scene. He fell in love with the place. The director, whose stylish chiller Silence of the Lambs made him Tinseltown's reigning wunderkind, returned a year later to film a documentary about Haiti's quest for democracy. "It was immediately obvious that the movement's spoken literature was song and that Manno Charlemagne was at the heart of the movement," Demme recalls. The trick was finding him.
"Because of his criticism of the police and military, he moved around quite a lot," says Demme, whose works include the 1984 Talking Heads documentary Stop Making Sense. "I didn't know if I'd ever get to meet him. Then one day he called me at my hotel. Just like that. With typical candor he said, `Yes, you can film me. Yes, I will sing for you. In fact, you can drive me to my concert today. I figure if I'm with some blancs [foreigners], the military won't stop me.'" Demme was formally introduced to Charlemagne while the singer showered in his outdoor bathroom, and the crew set off across the island.
"Manno was so charismatic, so gifted, that the stuff on him produced some of the strongest material in the film," says Demme. He titled his 1987 work Haiti Dreams of Democracy and later helped produce Konbit: Burning Rhythms of Haiti, a compilation of Haitian music. The filmmaker met Charlemagne again last year, when he visited Haiti hoping to shoot a documentary about Aristide. (Aristide rejected the request.)
When he learned of Charlemagne's recent imprisonment, Demme immediately formed Americans for Manno, an ad hoc group of film industry luminaries "intended to show U.S. and Haitian officials that Manno's captivity was being monitored in a high-profile way," Demme says. On the day Charlemagne went into hiding at the Argentine embassy residence, the group sent a letter of protest to Jean-Jacques Honorat, the military's provisional prime minister.
Honorat, the former executive director of the Haitian Center for Human Rights, responded with a missive noting that Charlemagne had been jailed legally, for arson and inciting violence, and that he could not leave the country without paying a $20,000 debt owed to the Banque de la Republique d'Haiti. "Untrue," Charlemagne claims. "The director of the bank himself said I could leave and pay later."
Determined to keep the pressure on, Demme faxed a petition to Honorat demanding Charlemagne and his family receive safe passage out of the country. Among the 82 signees: Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, Robert De Niro, Paul Newman, Spike Lee, Lou Reed, Bono Vox, Jerry Garcia, Tom Cruise, and David Byrne. Additional copies went to George Bush, Secretary of State James Baker, and the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, Alvin Adams.