By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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The results were imperceptible. Charlemagne remained cut off from family and friends through November and early December, armed soldiers and Tonton Macoutes perched outside the residence like vultures. "What shocked me was that officials of the United States would ignore the plight of this exceptionally gentle, decent human," says Demme.
"It's very simple," Charlemagne growls. "The United States did not want me to leave because of their part in the coup."
Dr. Paul Farmer placed the call on the night of December 15, and because the voice on the other end of the line sounded scared, he didn't recognize it at first. "I'd never heard Manno like that. He is a man known for his fearlessness," says Farmer, who spoke with Charlemagne throughout his captivity. "Throughout the whole ordeal, he kept turning the focus away from himself, talking about the safety of other prisoners. But on that night, I could hear the bullets going off outside. He sounded worn down and frightened."
Farmer, an instructor at Harvard Medical School who has spent much of the past decade administering medical care in Haiti's hinterland, first became acquainted with Charlemagne through contraband bootlegs of his music. "His songs were incredibly ballsy," Farmer says. "The people loved them because he wasn't afraid to take shots at the elite and the military." Eventually Farmer befriended the performer and enlisted his help teaching AIDS awareness to Haitian-American teen-agers while Charlemagne was living in exile. If Charlemagne was worried, Farmer knew, there was good reason.
While Farmer steadied his friend, Ramsey Clark spent the evening of December 15 a few miles away, lying on a hotel bed in Port-au-Prince, trying to get some sleep. The former U.S. attorney general had come to Haiti to lead an inquiry into the September 25 coup, just as he had done in Panama after the 1989 U.S. invasion. The initial signs were not promising. Throughout the night, soldiers emptied machine guns into the sky, an obvious attempt to quell any protests planned for the first anniversary of Aristide's election.
The next three days, spent touring mass graves and documenting human-rights abuses, were equally grim. Contrary to the figures proffered by the military's puppet government, which claimed that no more than 200 people had died during the coup, Clark's delegation estimated the death toll at 2000 to 3000. (Amnesty International recently put the figure at more than 1500.) "The people were afraid to go outside," recalls Kim Ives, a member of Clark's delegation and a reporter for the Brooklyn-based Haiti Progres, America's largest Haitian weekly. "It was like we were back in the days of Duvalier. We spoke to two people in a hospital who were afraid to tell us who shot them."
Charlemagne, plainly, was not alone. He did, however, have a distinct advantage when it came to clout. Clark, informed by Ives of the singer's dilemma, agreed to a meeting on December 18, the day before his scheduled departure. The delegation arrived at the Argentine embassy residence expecting a distraught hostage. They were met instead by an impish man who serenaded them from his balcony, while a film crew from the States filmed the scene.
Throughout his isolation, in fact, Charlemagne had continued to perform for and grant interviews to local and foreign journalists, much to the consternation of Haitian officials and the embassy's beleaguered diplomats. "His songs were beautiful," Ives recalls. "Ramsey was very impressed. He could see why the government wanted to censor this guy. Manno wanted to leave the country with Ramsey. He thought Ramsey would be a kind of shield."
"It was a good meeting," Charlemagne notes. "Ramsey Clark say, `Yes.'"
Thursday morning the delegation swung into action. First stop was the Oloffson Hotel, an oasis for artists and writers that, fittingly, served as the setting for Graham Greene's vicious satire of life under the Duvalier dictatorship, The Comedians. Clark met with the owner, Richard Morse, and compelled him to lend Charlemagne $3000 in cash to cover the final installment on his debt. Next Clark put in a call to the U.S. embassy, hoping to secure a visa for Charlemagne's older son Paul, who had recently been questioned by a gang of soldiers.
"The charge d'affaires at the embassy said, `Hey, kids in Haiti are always getting into trouble with the army,'" Ives recounts. "Ramsey was incredulous." (The Canadian embassy later granted the boy a visa, and he has since relocated there.) Clark, meanwhile, raced out to visit another mass grave and hold a final press conference, arriving downtown just in time to secure a receipt from the bank. He then arranged to rendezvous with Charlemagne at the airport. When the delegation pulled up minutes before its 4:00 p.m. flight, Charlemagne was nowhere to be found. Over the phone, he told Clark that the Haitian authorities had nixed his plan.
"The truth is, I think the Haitian government didn't want Manno leaving with Ramsey Clark. It would be too much of a media hype, like a Jesse Jackson-ish hostage-rescue-type thing," Ives theorizes. With his plane at the gate, Clark, who was due in Panama the next day, quickly formulated a back-up plan.