Cause For Return

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."

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.

"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.

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, Ha•ti 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 Ha•ti en Marche can be called objective compared to the hard-line ideological positions staked out by the others. Ha•ti Observateur, the oldest of the three papers, is closely identified with the conservative Haitian elite. Ha•ti 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."

Garcia and Etheart aren't ruling out the possibility. They already have a bureau in Port-au-Prince, which will become their main office after the move. (They still plan to print the paper in Miami, however, because distribution costs are lower.) "It would be very good to have a daily paper," Etheart dreams aloud. But first there is the task of raising up to $150,000 to get the radio station on the air. And then there is the challenge of making it a commercial success. "I think it is a definite plus that they are coming back," says Michele Montas, the news director of Radio Ha•ti-Inter who was expelled along with Garcia and Etheart. "But I don't know if they realize how difficult it is. In 1980 there were four major radio stations. Now there are about 30."

It is 4:00 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon in June, and Garcia and Etheart are rushing to prepare Ha•ti en Marche for the printer. "This is page eleven, and I want it nice. So don't touch!" Garcia admonishes Etheart as she peers over his shoulder at a computer screen alight with text.

Their office is a small room opening onto Etheart's living room. It is a claustrophobic space crammed with a flowered sofa, a computer, four filing cabinets and a printer, yet they work together easily. Etheart scoops up the pages from the printer and checks them for typos while Garcia tinkers with the layout, cheerfully muttering to himself.

Their houses -- they each found tidy Key West-style bungalows -- are only a few blocks from each other in a tranquil, lushly landscaped section of Miami Shores. In the next six months, they will either be sold or rented out because dual residences are too expensive to maintain. The prospect evokes conflicting emotions.

"The community is populated by people who don't need us as they did before," Garcia says wistfully. The rural villagers who relied on them to explain life in the U.S. are now savvy Americans, owning businesses, paying taxes, and worrying about the quality of neighborhood schools. Many have moved away from Little Haiti to more affluent suburbs. Their children barely speak Creole, much less read French.

In contrast, everything is needed in Haiti. "There is so much you can do there," Garcia says with animation. "Just being there is a lot." Garcia and Etheart will start out with a 15,000-watt station, playing music and offering some news and commentary. "We believe today more than ever in doing slow work," Garcia says. "Step by step. A return to the old way." He interrupts himself and lets out a long, deep chuckle as he relishes his memories. "I don't think it's going to be easy, but I think democracy is the only chance, the only opportunity for real change."

Etheart and Garcia move to the dining room table to assemble the paper, carefully attaching photographs and ads to their corresponding pages. "It was such a long way to come from nothing," Garcia muses, suddenly hit by a wave of melancholy. "It's an experience I would never be able to do again. It's so hard that you question yourself. Was I right or wrong to fight that battle [against the dictatorship in Haiti]? Maybe I should have done nothing, like everybody else."

But disengagement was clearly never an option and is even less so today. Within minutes Garcia has shaken his mood and is nagging Etheart to finish up. They load the camera-ready pages into her car and set off for the printer in downtown Miami. "This time I am not going to leave, no matter what happens," Garcia promises as he presses lightly on the accelerator, heading south from Little Haiti. "This time is going to be for good.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >