Cause For Return

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

But Garcia and Etheart believe staying in Miami is a cop-out. "What we were doing outside [Haiti] was much more important during the coup d'etat," Garcia confesses. "Does Miami still need us? We think it's nostalgia more than anything else. Miami is rich with young Haitian professionals, while Haiti does not have that." If Garcia and Etheart are unwilling to help rebuild the country, how can they expect others to make the sacrifice? Despite his idealism, Garcia is realistic about what he will find in Haiti.

"You have to be there to realize the enormity of the problems," he says. "Ten years after [Jean-Claude] Duvalier left, the situation is worse than ever." Garcia cites examples of Haiti's growing ungovernability: Street crime is rampant. A recent senatorial runoff election was postponed because of allegations of ballot stuffing and voter intimidation. The prime minister resigned in June. "There is no dictatorship, but there is political chaos," he continues. "That's why everybody should play their part."

Garcia stands behind an audio console at the recording studios of WVCG-AM (1080) on a recent Sunday afternoon. It is time for La Radio a L'Haitienne (Radio Haitian Style), the weekly commercial show that is Garcia's and Etheart's main source of income.

A potpourri of Haitian oldies, news, and pop quizzes on the island's history and culture, La Radio à L'Haitienne is a two-hour homage to Port-au-Prince radio twenty years ago, a time capsule of aural nostalgia.

A dance tune from the 1950s wheezes to an end, and it's quiz time. "What was the name of a very important chief of state who was also a plant doctor?" Garcia wants to know.

To listeners, Garcia is "Marcus" and Etheart is "Elsie." Together their mellifluous voices are taken as incontrovertible evidence that Haitian civility, humor, warmth, and kindness have outlived the dictatorships, army coups, and democratic disorder. Government officials may loot the national treasury, the army may massacre civilians, but Elsie and Marcus demonstrate that forces of good may still triumph over barbarity, even in a country as forsaken as Haiti.

Garcia, age 55, removes his headphones and calls to Etheart, who is perched on a stool on the other side of the studio at a table bristling with a outcropping of microphones. "Callers are saying Duvalier!" he laughs. The correct answer is Toussaint L'Ouverture, hero of the Haitian revolution.

Eventually a caller gets it right, and Etheart warbles her congratulations. "Voila! C'est bien ça!" At 54, Etheart retains a schoolgirl spontaneity that she conveys in her radio voice. A Sally Field look-alike, she is easily imaginable as the character of Norma Rae. Years ago, when she was a reporter in Port-au-Prince, Etheart interviewed workers about the backbreaking conditions in Haitian factories and gave airtime to union organizers, peasant leaders, artists, and human rights activists. Her reporting, along with that of her colleagues in the independent press, inspired the growth of the democratic movement of the 1970s.

Under Francois Duvalier, such activities would have been brutally repressed. But his nineteen-year-old son Jean-Claude, who assumed power in 1971, took a different approach, promoting what he called the "liberalization" of Haitian society. This included freedom for some political prisoners and tolerance of opposition political parties.

Detecting an unprecedented journalistic opening, reporters at the country's two most important radio stations -- Radio Haiti-Inter, which broadcasts in Creole, and Radio Metropole, which broadcasts in French -- started covering national and local news. Street reporting, abandoned in the face of Papa Doc's brutal repression, resumed.

"I can say this now because so much time has passed: We used Baby Doc as a tool to try to achieve more openness," Garcia declares. "We would say Baby Doc is a good person but his entourage is bad. We never criticized him. But behind that message, there was the truth!" Garcia chuckles. Grey-haired with dancing eyes and a laser-edged wit, he speaks with a dramatic intonation that turns even the most banal observations into biting sardonic barbs. It is a skill he honed in Haiti while cloaking his condemnation of the regime behind seemingly innocuous editorials.

"He would ask, 'What is Michelle Duvalier's expression behind her Cartier sunglasses?'" remembers Richard Widmaier, general director of Radio Metropole, where Garcia was hired as news director in 1975. "He wrote in a special way that appealed to the public at the time."

Garcia's double-entendres were not lost on government officials, nor was the restraint exercised by more cautious independent journalists mistaken as respect for the regime. Garcia was summoned for questioning so often that he and Herby Widmaier (Richard's father and the owner of the station) developed a code. One click on Garcia's Motorola walkie-talkie meant he was inside the police station. Two clicks meant all was well. Three clicks meant he was in real trouble. Until the November 1980 crackdown, that last signal was unnecessary; a tenuous truce existed between the government and its critics.

Radio Metropole's customarily close relationship to the government may have won more latitude for Garcia and Etheart, his main reporter. Their high profile in the Haitian media probably helped as well. Both had trained in Europe and were scrupulously professional. Etheart had worked for the Voice of Germany in Cologne, and Garcia had spent a year on a fellowship at Radio Television Francais in a Paris station.

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