Cause For Return

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

When a federal appeals court removed the final obstacles to the refugees' release in July 1982, it was Garcia who broke the news. "Viktoua net! [Complete victory!]" he cheered on the radio. "They are going to free you! They have to free you!"

"I think Chita Tande was an instant success," remembers Yves Savain, who obtained an initial grant for the program from the U.S. Department of Education. "Just to be able to turn on the radio and hear Creole spoken was a thrill for many people in the community."

"I used to go out to Krome [detention facility], and you would find people crowded around one radio," says Bernard Diederich, a reporter for Time magazine who covered the Caribbean. Haitians working in local factories would ask for their breaks to coincide with the program. Cab drivers in Little Haiti blared it from their car radios.

When federal funding dried up, Bishop Thomas Wenski of the Notre Dame D'Haiti Catholic church stepped in with a second grant that carried the show through 1985. Wenski also offered the journalists office space in a converted maintenance room. "Throughout the Eighties, [Marcus and Elsie] were the main source of information for the Haitian community," Wenski recalls. Haitians would wait outside their door to relay everything from reports from Haiti to news of a wallet found on the streets of Miami.

Since 1986, Garcia and Etheart have produced the show for no pay. "Don't forget there is a cause also, there is the refugee cause," Garcia says as he and Etheart finish taping on a recent evening last month. The cause, however, is much less urgent than it was a decade ago. Then Chita Tande was the only daily show in Creole. Now Haitian radio broadcasts proliferate along the dial, and the show will likely come to an end with their departure.

The demise of Chita Tande is emblematic of the changes in the Haitian community. Indeed, Garcia and Etheart's cherished cause has also been continuously evolving. In 1987, a year after Jean-Claude Duvalier's overthrow, Garcia and Etheart started a weekly newspaper, Hati en Marche, in an attempt to unify the far-flung Haitian diaspora. The paper quickly became regarded as one of the most reliable sources of Haitian news, though its financial success was less than overwhelming. About a third of the 12,000 copies printed each week are sold in Haiti, at a financial loss. Garcia admits that the paper barely pays for itself but says providing Haitians with information is more important than profits.

Haiti en Marche's most successful period was 1991-94, the years bracketing the military coup that overthrew Aristide and the invasion that returned him to the presidency. Not only was more accurate information available outside Haiti, but readers inside the country were starved for news.

Garcia knew about the coup in advance; he had sources who worked on the Miami River. Contrary to conventional wisdom, which attributes the instigation of the coup to midlevel army officers, Garcia says it started among gangs of drug traffickers linked to the army who were upset that Aristide was cracking down on the lucrative cocaine trade between Haiti and Miami. "Haitians do not keep a secret," Garcia observes.

The week after the coup, Garcia cut the print run in half, expecting that none of the papers he usually shipped to Haiti would be let into the country. To his surprise the military did not seize the papers. Demand was so high that Garcia rushed to the printer and ordered 6000 more. "I could have sent 20,000 copies to Haiti and sold them all," he crows.

"By creating a much more credible source of information, they really upped the ante in terms of how Haitian reporters should be treating the news," says Joceyln McCalla, executive director of the New York-based National Coalition for Haitian Rights. "It was a question of teaching by example."

Haiti en Marche has been criticized for its uncritical support of Aristide during his years as president in exile, but Garcia and Etheart make no apologies for their stance at the time. "Of course we don't care about that," snorts Garcia. "It was clear to us that we had to do whatever possible to have Aristide returned. If there is no democracy in Haiti, there is no place for us." (Since his return, the paper has been more critical in its evaluation of Aristide.)

The Haitian press in general is marked by heavy editorializing. Readers familiar with the other two leading exile weekly newspapers, which are both published in New York, say that Hati en Marche can be called objective compared to the hard-line ideological positions staked out by the others. Hati Observateur, the oldest of the three papers, is closely identified with the conservative Haitian elite. Hati Progres is stridently left of center.

Haiti itself has two daily papers, but they are anemic affairs that rarely break news. "Haiti lacks a good daily paper," comments Diederich, the Time reporter. Diederich himself ran an English-language weekly in Haiti for years. "I hope [Marcus's and Elsie's] next move will be to expand into a daily, with a really good Sunday paper."

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