Cause For Return

Haitian radio host Marcus Garcia's work in Miami is done. It's time for him to go home.

A surprising number of Haitians still remember the date the Duvalierist police came for Marcus Garcia. It was November 28, 1980. More than a dozen journalists were arrested that evening and taken to the sprawling ocher-and-burnt-sienna Dessalines barracks, the headquarters of the political police. Forced to strip to their underwear, Garcia and his colleagues were tossed into tiny concrete cells.

Garcia, a popular broadcaster celebrated for his ironic editorials, was locked up with a teacher accused of instructing students in communism. "What's going on?" Garcia remembers asking the teacher. "Big stuff, big stuff, big stuff," the teacher stammered. "The political people want to make a demonstration," he added, referring to the newly minted opposition parties that had recently sprung up to oppose the Duvalier dictatorship.

"Well, I don't know anything about that," Garcia responded. Still, the arrests were not completely unexpected. For a long time Garcia had harbored misgivings that the Haitian press had gone too far, too fast, in its push for openness after the death of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier in 1971. One of the well-known members of the independent press (which is how young, risk-taking journalists described themselves), he had watched uneasily as a new generation of Haitian reporters grew increasingly brazen in its efforts to expose government corruption and social injustice. Aggressive reporting begot an even more aggressive opposition, and a crackdown seemed inevitable.

"I realized we were at the end of the road," Garcia says now, reflecting on that era. "There was nothing more we could do because the situation was already out of the hands of the journalists. Our mission was somehow over, and I felt I should face my fate."

Garcia shared his presentiments with his cellmate. "I said, 'I hope they send me into exile, because there is nothing I can do here. It is too dangerous for me. There is no way I can go backward, and they know that I am not going to change direction.'" Shortly after that conversation, the teacher was removed from the cell and released. Garcia believes that he informed the police of their conversation. Rather than create new martyrs, Duvalier expelled Garcia and nine of his colleagues a few days later.

Today Garcia finds himself at a similar crossroads. Instead of expulsion, however, he is confronted with the opportunity to return to Haiti. A year and a half ago, Garcia and his close friend and colleague Elsie Etheart, a Radio Metropole reporter who was also expelled by Duvalier, received a license to operate a radio station in Port-au-Prince. They must be on the air by January or forfeit the license. "It is time to go back home," Garcia affirms. "Haiti!" he cries, letting out a maniacal laugh. "The next adventure."

Unlike many exiles existing within a freeze-frame of their past lives, Garcia and Etheart reformulated their cause in the United States, transforming the struggle against the Duvaliers into a fight in the United States for immigrant rights in the Eighties. From their position outside Haiti, Garcia and Etheart were also able to nurture the pro-democracy movement after the overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Since Aristide's return and the subsequent election of Pres. Rene Preval, Garcia and Etheart have fielded calls from Haitian government officials sounding out public opinion in Haiti. They have been offered various ministerial posts with the democratic government, which they have turned down.

During Garcia's and Etheart's sixteen years in Miami they have earned the reputation as two of the most trusted Haitian journalists in the diaspora. Together they launched a weekly newspaper that is regarded as one of the most credible sources for Haitian news. For fifteen years Garcia and Etheart have broadcast a Creole-language news program on public radio WLRN-FM (91.3). In 1990 they received the prestigious Maria Moors Cabot Prize from Columbia University for journalism that advances inter-American understanding.

"They'll be missed," says Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center and a long-time defender of Haitian rights. "They have been around for years and are anchors of the community."

"They really set the standard for Haitian journalists here and in Haiti," observes Ira Kurzban, a prominent Miami immigration attorney who is counsel for the Haitian government in the United States.

The easiest option for Garcia and Etheart would be to stay in the United States like the vast majority of Haitian refugees, traveling back and forth as the need arises. One grows accustomed to first-world comforts. Even the ritzy sections of Port-au-Prince are dotted with slums. The main streets of the capital are single-lane byways, crammed with fume-spewing vehicles. The air is dirty. The noise overpowers. While Americans do their shopping on the Internet, Haitians pray for enough water to take a daily shower.

Furthermore, when they go back they will leave their children behind. Garcia has a 22-year-old daughter who is studying at Barry University. Etheart's 25-year-old daughter Pascale works at the Miami Herald. Her son Bernard, age 31, is an electronics engineer. Both siblings plan to make their lives in the United States. "I worry about her going back," Pascale confides. "If I had my way she would stay here."

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