Cause For Return

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

"At the time that Marcus started in radio there weren't too many [journalists] like him in terms of professional and intellectual training," recalls Guy Jean, director of the Port-au-Prince radio station Tropic FM. "Marcus is still a model in terms of radio journalism. The guy is well-[trained], he knows his work."

The advent of the Carter administration and the American government's new emphasis on human rights gave Garcia and Etheart the courage to push the traditional limits of Haitian coverage even farther. "We used [the human rights movement] as an invitation for a revolution in Haiti," Garcia exclaims.

For the first time in more than a decade, Haitian journalists began aggressively pursuing news, to the government's growing chagrin. They interviewed Haitian refugees who had been shipwrecked in the Bahamas and forcibly repatriated. When Clinton Knox, the U.S. ambassador, was kidnapped in 1973, they closely followed the story. By American standards they were just doing their job, but the Duvalierist government felt it was losing control. So Ronald Reagan's election in November 1980 was a huge relief. Tonton Macoutes -- members of the secret police -- celebrated in the streets, shooting off their weapons and chanting, "Cowboys are in power; now we rule over human rights."

Garcia was at home recovering from malaria on November 28, 1980, when he received a call from Radio Metropole. Something strange was going on at Radio Haiti-Inter. The owner had disappeared and the station was surrounded by police. Shortly before 6:30 p.m., Radio Haiti-Inter abruptly went off the air. Garcia later found out that about twenty staff members and visitors had been arrested. Meanwhile police swooped down on Radio Metropole, looking for Garcia. His panicked colleagues called, urging Garcia to go into hiding, but he couldn't picture himself cowering in an embassy. He sat down to wait. The police arrived and arrested him.

Elsie Etheart also received advance warning. A few days before the raid at Radio Haiti-Inter, her home had been burglarized and her tape recorder and cassettes stolen. Three days after Garcia's arrest, she was summoned by the police to reclaim her belongings. "Then it was the big question," she recalls. "Do I go or not?"

Like Garcia, she decided not to flee. When she arrived at the barracks she saw her other colleagues leaving with packed suitcases. They were being expelled. Etheart was kept in a cell overnight and then she too was driven to the airport, bound for New York.

Landing in Miami, Garcia and the other journalists refused to ask for political asylum or to apply for work permits. They were going right back to Haiti, they declared, even if it meant going back to jail. Etheart declined to purchase a winter coat upon her arrival in New York, so sure was she about her imminent return.

Months would pass before the grey fog of displacement lifted. Garcia and Etheart settled in Miami, where they rented a house together and awaited the arrival of their families. It was a time of roiling demographic change. A few months before the journalists were expelled, 125,000 Marielitos had swamped South Florida in headlong flight from communist Cuba. Haitian immigration was also at an all-time high. By 1981 the small stream of Haitian professionals fleeing Papa Doc's savage repression in the 1960s and 1970s had widened into a powerful gush of impoverished refugees. Peasants from the countryside were washing up on Florida beaches. Some had never seen a city before and were discovered stumbling through the urban landscape, dazed and disoriented.

Garcia worked for Health and Rehabilitative Services making home visits and was a counselor for a refugee program. Etheart taught literacy classes that also helped Haitian refugees adjust to the United States. The more time they spent with their newly arrived countrymen, the less they pined for Haiti. "I realized those people were hurt in the same way [that I was]," Marcus recalled. "I felt our suffering was the same. We shared the same tragedy."

Compared to the refugees, Garcia and Etheart were privileged. They spoke English and had jobs. They could afford to telephone home. "Some of the refugees had no contact with their families," Etheart remembers. "They didn't even know if [the refugees] had landed safely. I realized I had no reason to be discouraged by my situation."

Garcia and Etheart began to see the refugees' struggle for equal rights as a cause just as compelling as their fight against the dictatorship. Unlike Cuban immigrants, who were usually released into the community after processing by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Haitians were locked up in INS detention centers for months that sometimes stretched into years. Their asylum claims were routinely denied. The longer they were detained, the more desperate they became. More than two dozen attempted suicide.

In 1982 Garcia and Etheart obtained permission from WLRN to broadcast a daily Creole-language newscast. The fifteen-minute show, Chita Tande (Sit Down and Listen), was aimed at refugees. "The objective was to keep up their morale because some were threatening to commit suicide," Garcia remembers. Chita Tande provided the listeners with news from Haiti while at the same time deciphering the baffling regulations that framed their new lives in the United States. It taught immigrants how to enroll their children in school, where to register to vote, and why it was important to participate in the PTA.

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