Human Rights Archive Blog Posts
Duvalierism, With and Without Duvalier: Radio Haiti Commemorates the Massacres of April 26, 1963 and 1986
On April 26, 1963, François Duvalier ordered his forces – the army and the Tontons Macoutes – to wreak unprecedented violence throughout the city of Port-au-Prince. It was the perhaps the single moment in which the encompassing brutality of Duvalierist repression was realized in full.
On April 26, 1986, two and a half short months after the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier, eight civilians were gunned down by the army at a commemoration of the violence that had taken place twenty-three years before. It was one of the first of many events that proved that Duvalierism and Macoutism would outlive the Duvalier regime.
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The morning of April 26, 1963, the presidential car bringing François Duvalier’s children Jean-Claude and Simone to school was attacked by four armed men; the Duvalier children’s chauffeur and two bodyguards were killed. Duvalier père responded by issuing a call to arms on the national radio, commanding and authorizing the Macoutes and other Duvalier partisans to hunt down and kill the perpetrators, or ostensible perpetrators, of the attempted kidnapping.
François Duvalier believed that a group of military officers were plotting against him, in particular Lieutenant François Benoît, whom Duvalier accused of having masterminded the kidnapping attempt. (It was later discovered that the attack had been engineered by Clément Barbot, the former chief of the Tontons Macoutes who had once been one of Papa Doc’s closest confidants.) That day, Duvalierist forces hunted down and tried to exterminate the entire Benoît and Edeline families (the family of François Benoît’s wife). The Benoît home was burned down, and Lieutenant Benoît’s mother, father, toddler son, the baby’s nanny and another household worker were killed. At least seventy-four people were killed or disappeared that day. Many were military officers; many others were relatives of military officers (including small children), household workers employed by targeted families, or people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. An elderly lawyer named Benoît Armand was murdered merely because his first name was Benoît. Since Duvalier had his supporters given carte blanche to carry out these killings, the rampage was both opportunistic and indiscriminate.
That arbitrariness was not incidental. On the contrary: it was a fundamental part of the Duvalierist machine, essential to creating a climate of fear and exerting political and social control. In 1991, Jean Dominique spoke with members the Komite Pa Bliye (the Do Not Forget Committee), a sometimes-uneasy alliance of survivors and relatives of the victims of Duvalierist violence (including Guylène Bouchereau, whose father, Captain Jean Bouchereau, was among the officers who disappeared on April 26, 1963). Jean Dominique summarizes the ruthless logic of the regime’s terror: “If an individual man decided to fight against Duvalier, Duvalier would say, ‘if you fight against me, your entire bloodline will disappear.’ So, in addition to the destruction that the dictatorship carried out, it established a rule of terrorism, a domino effect that would exterminate entire families, entire bloodlines.”
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Jean-Claude Duvalier’s fall and hasty departure from Haiti on February 7, 1986 was followed by an initial swell of hope that the democratic project could at last begin. Devoir de mémoire (the duty of remembrance) was part of that process: commemorating the tragedies and atrocities of the past so that they would not happen again. But the democratic dream stalled almost as soon as it took off; neither the authoritarian structures the regime had created nor the sense of terror that the regime had inculcated could be removed as easily as the dictator himself.
On April 26, 1986, a group of people, among them several surviving members of the Benoît and Edeline families, commemorated the massacres of April 26, 1963 by organizing a mass at Sacre Coeur church followed by a march to Fort Dimanche, the notorious prison where untold opponents of the Duvalier regime were tortured and killed. Many young people, excited at the possibility of social and political change, participated in the demonstration. Jackson Row, twenty-six years old, worked as a typist at the Nouvelliste. He would have been a small child, unaware, when the 1963 violence took place. High school students Wilson Auguste and Wilson Nicaisse, aged eighteen and sixteen, had not yet been born in 1963. They were too young, all of them, to really remember the bloodiest years of the Duvalier regime. Nevertheless they went out that day to commemorate the injustices of the past. The mothers of both Wilson Auguste and Jackson Row would later speak of how their sons had never even seen Fort Dimanche before that day.Headline reads: Another blood-stained April 26: eight victims at midday in front of Fort Dimanche
Gary Desenclos, a human rights observer at the march, watched the events unfold from a point between the crowd assembled in front of Fort Dimanche and the soldiers standing guard. As Desenclos explains on Radio Haiti, the commander instructed the other soldiers that if there was any “provocation” from the demonstrators, they should respond to the provocation. “That was the first warning, for me,” Desenclos reflects. “Because, I don’t know – those people didn’t have any kind of defensive weapons, tear gas, anything like that. So when you say ‘respond to provocation’ and you’ve got a rifle in your hands, I don’t know what that could mean.” The protestors were peaceful. At times they became impassioned, shouting and chanting, but they were unarmed, and, according to Desenclos, François Benoît managed to calm the crowd. And then, suddenly (“this was, for me, the most incomprehensible thing,” Desenclos recalls), the soldiers stepped back. The crowd advanced. And then, from somewhere, a shot rang out, the sound of a projectile, likely a tear gas canister, being launched.
After the fact, some people would argue that the shot could have come from within the crowd. But, as Desenclos observed, the only person with a projectile launcher was that same commanding officer. Desenclos heard the shot. “And it came from my far left. There was no crowd at my far left…. The shot didn’t come from the crowd. It came from the soldiers.”
The soldiers opened fire, the massacre began. They shot blanks into the air and bullets into the crowd. The measured, neutral testimony the human rights observer becomes more fragmented as he recalls the massacre. “I can tell you something, because I work for a human rights mission: I find this completely against all principles of human rights. At a certain point, several people in the crowd tried to save a young man, they tried to carry him away. And I saw two or three soldiers point their rifles at them and said, ‘Lage l atè. Lage l atè. Lage l atè. Drop him. Drop him. Drop him.’” At one point, Desenclos saw a man ripped apart by bullets. “He told me his name in that moment, but I’ve forgotten his name. There was no one there to help him, and I went to him, and he said, Pa bliye di ki m rele entèl. Don’t forget to tell them my name was so-and-so.”
Among those killed that day were Jackson Row, Wilson Auguste, and Wilson Nicaisse.
The relatives of the three young men wrote a letter to the Minister of Justice. It begins:
“We are: Mezilia Solivert, mother of Jackson Row; Vernilia Vernet, mother of Wilson Auguste; Matania Nicaisse, sister of Wilson Nicaisse. Our children and brother left their homes to fulfill a duty in alongside others who had lost their loved ones: mothers who lost their children, children who never knew their fathers, those who lost sisters, and all those who have suffered down to their core. It was the first time in twenty-nine years that such people could cry for what they had lost. It was the first time they could discover where their relatives’ bones were buried. It was the first time that they would light a candle and bring flowers to the dead. Our children and brother never came home. They fell before Fort Dimanche, the same place where Duvalier’s criminals and evildoers carried out their murders.
“Our children and brother went to a peaceful demonstration. They had no guns, they had no machetes, they had no knives in their hands. They died just as those who died under Duvalier. And just the same, to this day we don’t know how this happened, nor who is responsible. Democratic organizations, newspapers, radio, everyone has cried out… but nothing has come of it. It’s as though it were nothing at all. Minister, sir, we raised our children, we turned them into brave men, and all we have reaped is pain. They took them from us.”
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On the one-year anniversary of the 1986 massacre, the mothers and sister of the slain young men demand justice on the airwaves of Radio Haiti. Their grief is still fresh. Their testimonies are raw, choked and painful. They are working-class women, supporting their families as small-scale vendors (ti machann) in downtown Port-au-Prince. Unlike, for example, François Benoît and the members of the Komite Pa Bliye (relatively affluent and educated people who chose to participate in devoir de mémoire because of the violence and loss they had endured in their families), these three women are almost certainly unaccustomed to making public claims for justice. As they speak, the lives and personalities of the young victims emerge in touchingly real terms.Radio Haiti script detailing the search for justice by relatives of the victims of the April 26, 1986 Fort Dimanche massacre
Her voice hoarse, Mezilia Solivert describes her son, Jackson Row. “Jackson was someone, a young man, who never had a problem with anybody. Everyone liked him, he liked everyone. Old and young, he respected everyone.” He saw the procession from Sacre Coeur to the prison, and decided to join. “He helped the people carry flowers and everything,” his mother recalled. “He came back to my home, changed his clothes, and he told me he’d never seen Fort Dimanche, this was the first time he was going to Fort Dimanche. And he left, and he never returned.” Jackson Row’s friends couldn’t bring themselves to tell his mother that he had died. They brought her his small radio and his wallet, and told her that he’d been tear gassed and taken to the hospital, but that he wasn’t dead. “And then I got to the hospital and saw him lying among the dead, with a bullet in his head.”
Vernilia Vernet, mother of Wilson Auguste, an eighteen-year-old high school student, remembers her son in poignant, sweet detail. She is on the verge of tears the entire time she speaks. “I worked hard to raise that child right. He was a child who never went out. When he wanted to go [to the demonstration], he said, Mama, I’m going downtown and then he said, ‘If I had the money, I’ve never been to Fort Dimanche, I’d like to see Fort Dimanche.’ So he heard the mass on the radio, and he said, ‘That mass, that’s something I’d like to be part of.’ So he got himself cleaned up, he put on his clothes, and he went to the mass… When I came home from working downtown, I asked, ‘Oh, where’s Wilson? He hasn’t eaten the food I left for him? Where’s Wilson?’ And my youngest said, ‘Mama, I was going to tell you. He’s been out since this morning to go to the mass, he was so excited about it, he went to it, and he still hasn’t come back.’ And I said, ‘Well, pitit mwen, he must be dead.’ He was a child – he was never looking for trouble. He never went out. The latest he ever came home was 8 pm when school gets out, other than that he didn’t go out at all. And that child was dear to me. Ever since he died…! I’m barely alive at all. That child spoiled me so. If I got home later than usual from downtown, he would say, ‘Oh! Makomè! What were you doing out so late? You know I miss you when I haven’t seen you all day. You need to hurry home.’ When I get home, he even washes my clothes for me. That child did laundry for me. Sometimes I’d come home to find my clothes, even my underwear, washed – he’s the one who washed them for me. I never had to lift a finger at home. Since that child died, I’ve wasted away.”
“Justice, to me, is for these things to stop happening in the country of Haiti. Shooting people for no reason,” continues Mezilia Solivert. Her words unconsciously recall Jean Dominique’s analysis of the lethal logic of Duvalierism, refracted through her own experience, demonstrating again that though the Duvaliers were gone, Duvalierism and Macoutism remained. “When they kill someone’s relative, it’s the whole family they’re killing. They don’t realize that. But that’s it. When you kill one person, you’re destroying the entire family. Because when you kill one person, that was the one who helped the whole family. So you’ve destroyed the entire family.”April 26, 1987 poster commemorating the violence of the regime: photographs of Duvalier’s victims, arranged in the shape of Fort Dimanche. The photos include John-Robert Cius, one of the Twa Flè Lespwa, killed in Gonaïves in November 1985; Richard Brisson, Radio Haiti’s station manager, killed in January 1982; Philippe Dominique, Jean Dominique’s elder brother, killed in July 1958 after an attempt to overthrow Duvalier; the victims of the April 26, 1986 Fort Dimanche massacre.
Post contributed by Laura Wagner, PhD, Radio Haiti Project Archivist.
The international media has long presented a distorted image of Haiti, one that leaves out the multiplicity of our people, exoticizes our culture, and depicts poverty as universal, without context or history. Haiti is labeled the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, a country teeming with chaos and suffering, the eternal recipient of foreign aid.
One of my tasks at the Radio Haiti archives is to help process the hefty stacks of US newspapers collected by Jean Dominique and Michèle Montas during their 1980-1986 and 1991-1994 exiles in New York. Often, I had to keep myself from being distracted by sensationalist headlines in order to get through the newspaper clippings that had yet to be sorted. Every so often, however, I would come across something so startling that I would have to pause to absorb the shock. How could such things be published in supposedly unbiased sources of international news? It disturbed me that people with limited knowledge could make derogatory claims that would have permanent effects on people’s understanding of Haiti’s place in the world.Over 700 miles from Miami, but several centuries away.” Miami News, 1981 In which the New York Times describes the refugee camp at Guantanamo Bay as an “oasis” – November 1991
Haiti, “Land of Fear and Death”, New York Post, 1991
When I came to Duke as a freshman, I had preconceived ideas of the struggles I would face, but a challenge to my identity as a Haitian was not one of them. Whenever I would tell people I was from Haiti, I would get skeptical gazes or looks of astonishment followed by remarks like “Haiti! Where in Haiti? Both your parents are from Haiti? Are they doctors working in Haiti?”, so that I could further validate the incongruence between my appearance and my claim. When I noticed a trend in these reactions, I began to reflect and question my origin and actually felt shaken when a simple “Yes, I’m Haitian” was not enough. I was not oblivious to the fact that I did not look like the “average Haitian”; I grew up very aware of this fact. It did not come as a surprise that I would be met with these reactions upon introducing myself, but as I thought about it, I began to uncover truths about my position in Haitian society that were difficult for me to accept. It was extremely uncomfortable to face the fact that I did not belong to the Haitian majority, but to a very small elite minority, because it confirmed the existence of the chasm between the two groups that I had observed my whole life but never fully come to terms with.
Never before had this difference invalidated my sense of belonging. My insecurity persisted, however, because it stemmed from the possibility that my sense of belonging was laced with ignorance. Could I truly claim to be part of a group whose struggle I never had to fully share? There is an undeniable and deep-seated social-class hierarchy in Haiti that often corresponds with the pigmentation of one’s skin. After Haiti won its independence, the first republic to emerge from a large-scale rebellion by enslaved people, conflict arose between Black Haitians and Haitians of mixed race, a division that remains to this day. Since Haiti’s birth as a free nation, its image has been vastly shaped by the outside world’s interpretations; the international media rarely depicts Haitians looking like me. Yet to claim skin color alone as the defining factor of Haitian identity would undermine my lived experience: if I am not Haitian, what am I?
Each time I left Duke and returned to the bubble of elite Port-au-Prince, the social system there seemed more and more problematic, one in which the rich and poor live side by side but are worlds apart. There were people who blatantly proclaimed that the divide between rich and poor was inevitable and necessary, and those who claimed that we were all “one nation” despite the inequality. No matter how idealistic and deceptively unifying it sounded to claim that all of us are one despite our social class and backgrounds, I felt it unfair to ignore the differences in our experiences as Haitians. Overlooking the divide leads to a form of hypocritical erasure, one that disregards the oppressive elitist perception projected onto one group by another. Denying the complex situation of social class in Haiti belittles the suffering of many and excuses the powerful for their contribution to this disparity. Though I’d often heard criticism of the “savior complex” of foreign aid workers in Haiti, I found it within our walls in air of superiority held by those overlooking the masses, who believed that the poor were the reason for the deprived state of the country today.
After my second summer at home, I returned to Duke as a junior and began to work as an assistant on the Radio Haiti project. In order to better understand the station’s work and legacy, I watched The Agronomist, the documentary about Jean Dominique and Radio Haiti. I had to pause the movie several times to collect my racing thoughts and feelings. I felt deep pain and nostalgia: what the film showed was at once so familiar and so foreign. I was angry that I had never heard many of these stories, that I had grown up among those same landmarks and never understood the events that had unfolded there not long before.
A veil lifted for me when I learned about the work of Radio Haiti, impacting how I thought about home. I heard uncompromised truth verbalized, one I had struggled to define and speak out myself. I discovered a way of thinking that seemed fair and just. I felt disappointed about the state of oblivion I had lived in for so long, as I was learning about events that my parents and grandparents had lived through, yet never spoken about within our household. The silence felt like an injustice to the lives taken and the history that left the nation the way it is today. Radio Haiti brought the truth to light and never compromised their mission to uphold this truth, even in the face of violence and intimidation. It brought me solace, and gave me the strength to challenge the perceptions that had been passed on to me and quieted the anxiety that told me that there was no place for those who contradicted and challenged the system. To see members of the mixed-race elite who choose to align themselves with the struggles of the urban and rural poor gave me courage to follow their steps. It instilled in me a desire and sense of responsibility to actively connect with the history of my homeland if I am to bear the title of being Haitian.
Post contributed by Krystelle Rocourt (Trinity ’17), student assistant for the Radio Haiti Archive project
The post Learning About Home, Away from Home: A Student Assistant in the Radio Haiti Archive appeared first on The Devil's Tale.
Laura Wagner is the Project Archivist for the Radio Haiti Archives. She joined the Rubenstein in 2015. She has a PhD in anthropology from UNC. Her dissertation is about the 2010 earthquake and its long aftermath: how did people’s everyday lives and social worlds change (or not change) in the wake of the disaster and displacement? How do people get by in an aid economy? How did Haitian people and non-Haitian interveners make sense of the humanitarian response and its failures? She also wrote a YA novel, Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go , which deals with some of the same issues. Her interests include Haiti, literary fiction and nonfiction, humanitarianism, human rights, and social justice. She has been a frequent contributor to the Devil’s Tale since joining the RL.
How do you describe what you do to people you meet at a party? To fellow librarians and library staff?
At parties I say “I work on the archives of Haiti’s first independent radio station.” Then that confuses them and they think I’m doing research in the archives, and I have to clarify that I’m processing the materials. Then they generally want to know why these materials live at Duke. And if I’m at a party in Haiti, people then want to talk to about their own memories of Radio Haiti and of Jean Dominique, and they ask me if the station will ever reopen. To librarians and library staff, I say I’m a project archivist who never trained as an archivist.
What led you to working in libraries?
This project. I had never worked in a library before. I began working on this project as an external contractor for the Forum for Scholars and Publics, which was collaborating with the Library to create a public-facing pilot website with a small sample of the Radio Haiti recordings. When the opportunity to apply for the Project Archivist job came along, I applied. I had already decided that if it was possible, I wanted to work on this project full time. Temperamentally and experientially, I am probably a bit of an outlier among the library set.
Tell us about your relationship to Radio Haiti. How has it evolved since taking on this position?
Jean Dominique, Michèle Montas, and other members of the Radio Haiti team had numbered among my heroes since I first started learning about Haiti and learning Haitian Creole, back in 2004. I never could have imagined that one day I would have the opportunity to work on preserving the work of Radio Haiti. The first time I met Michèle, in April 2014, I was embarrassingly giddy. It is a huge honor to work on this project.
I’m learning a lot about late twentieth century Haiti, in a very granular way. I already knew the major events and trends, the main themes, but always analytically and in hindsight. It’s a very different experience to learn about events through real-time, day-to-day reporting, done by people who did not yet know the outcome of the story. It’s fascinating, but also often sad and frustrating because you see the same things happening over and over and over again, until today. The same injustices, the same impunity, though sometimes it “repaints its face”, to use a phrase that Jean Dominique uses.
How does your work at the Rubenstein influence your approach to research and writing?
I was a researcher and writer before I started working on this project, so I have to keep myself in check; I cannot follow my instincts and desires by letting myself act as a researcher and writer when my job, for the moment, is to be processing the archive. That said, I hope to someday write something substantial about this archive. I can also say that my experience as a researcher and writer influences my approach to processing this archive. I want it all to be clear and transparent; I want to provide context and thematic guidance for future researchers and listeners. Working on the Radio Haiti archive has been a huge learning experience for me, and I want to impart as much of that knowledge as possible to others down the line, by incorporating that knowledge into the structure and description of the archive.
What does an average day at RL look like for you?
Because this is a single project with a clear goal and endpoint, and with defined stages, my typical workday varies depending on what we’re working on. These days I am mostly working through Radio Haiti’s paper archive. So I get to work, answer some email, and start organizing the papers, removing the faded invisible Thermofax pages, sorting them by subject and year. I have two excellent undergraduate assistants this semester, both Haitian, who are starting to listen to and describe some of the recordings. I am very eager to finish processing the papers so I can focus on the audio full-time. I also spend part of the day thinking about broader questions of access — how we’re going to make this collection as available and accessible as possible to people in Haiti, given the social and infrastructural realities there. I am very eager to begin working on the recordings full-time, of course.Laura working alongside her student assistant Tanya Thomas.
What do you like best about your job? What excites you most?
What excites me the most is that I am helping keep this important work alive, making it accessible to people in Haiti and beyond. And I just really like the experience of listening to the recordings. Sometimes it’s hard for me to listen as an archivist, rather than as a researcher and writer. So it’s fun when I get to write a blog entry about the project, and synthesize and put together different parts of the archive, translate some excerpts, and provide context to people who may not already know the story of Radio Haiti. As I said, it’s a great honor to work on this collection, to be entrusted with this collection. As Michèle says, part of Jean’s soul is here.
What might people find surprising about your job?
I think it depends on the person. For people who aren’t used to processing archival collections (id est most people), I think they’d be surprised at how much physical restoration, intellectual labor and time this job takes. A lot of people want the Radio Haiti collection to be available as soon as possible. (I’m one of them!) And many people don’t understand why we can’t do it instantly.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
I have two answers to that, which are sort of incommensurate with one another. In a day-to-day sense, it can be tedious, and I sometimes feel isolated in this work. Radio Haiti itself was a team effort — it was a social, collaborative, interactive entity, an act of ongoing solidarity, both in terms of the journalists and their audience… and the audience was nearly all of Haiti. So engaging with that work in my cubicle in a converted tobacco warehouse in Durham, North Carolina, can feel lonely. At the same time, I feel connected to the people who appear in the tapes, across time and space, even across life and death. Which brings me to the second challenging aspect of this job, which is actually the same as my favorite thing about the job: the weight of history, the weight of memory. This collection is a huge part of Haitian national heritage. And so much of it is sad, frustrating and infuriating — there is so much injustice, suffering, and absurdity in this archive. Sometimes it’s emotionally difficult to listen to these things — though Jean Dominique’s incisive intellect and humor make it easier. It sounds strange, but I laugh all the time.Laura surveys her boxes
Do you have a favorite piece or collection at The Rubenstein? Why?
Well, the Radio Haiti collection is obviously my favorite collection, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned. I’m not intimately familiar with the other collections, but the National Coalition for Haitian Rights archive has some fascinating material in it that often complements the Radio Haiti collection. And I like all the History of Medicine collections, especially Benjamin Rush papers, which are poignant, and the creepy suede baby + placenta.
Where can you be found when you’re not working?
Cooking dinner with friends, baking cakes, drinking a beer, vaguely working on novel #2, vaguely revising my dissertation, singing in the car, asking my cats why they are thundering hither and yon at 2 am. I like making silly little greeting cards for friends; I’ve been thinking about taking an actual art class or something. I’d like to know how to access all the other seasons of the Great British Baking Show. And I’ve started running as of late, at which I am truly mediocre. It’s liberating to do something you know you have no hope of being good at.
What book is on your nightstand/in your carryall right now?
There’s a stack! I’ve been slowly savoring the Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector for a few weeks, but it’s a bit heavy to carry around.
Interview conducted and edited by Katrina Martin.
The post Meet the Staff: Laura Wagner, Radio Haiti Project Archivist appeared first on The Devil's Tale.
“Why all this noise and all this furor for a man two years dead? Why all these mobilizations throughout the country?” With these words, Michèle Montas began her April 2002 editorial on the second anniversary of the assassination of her husband, Radio Haiti-Inter director Jean Dominique, and station employee Jean-Claude Louissaint. “Why Jean Dominique? This question has been asked for several weeks, in the background of the mobilizations around the second anniversary of the assassination of the journalist Jean Dominique. It is asked in whispers, but the admiring or, for some, incredulous sotto voce at times grows annoyed and strident among those who do not understand that this dead man refuses to die. That a murder perpetrated two years ago, now, continues to make news. Why Jean Dominique?”
On April 3, 2002, the grassroots human rights group Fondation 30 Septembre poured red paint before the gate of the Ministry of Justice (which leader Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine referred to sardonically as the “Ministry of Injustice”) and displayed an effigy of the slain journalist. The slogan was “Pa kite san Jando drive atè.” “Don’t let Jean Do’s blood pool on the ground.” Two years after the murders, people were angry and frustrated that the judicial process had stalled. Now, sixteen years on, Jean Dominique and Jean-Claude Louissaint have still not found justice. The Jean Dominique case, like so many attempts to combat injustice in Haiti, has been filled with absurdity, a tragicomedy of errors and malfeasance.
Pessimism is seductive in the face of such impunity, when the system is stacked and cynical, when the victories are relative or Pyrrhic, when convicted murderers, torturers, and war criminals like Luc Désir and the perpetrators of the Raboteau massacre eventually walk free. When the state cannot or will not provide justice — when the state provides, instead, a mockery of justice –justice can manifest beyond the courts, beyond the government, beyond the system. It can manifest in the streets. La justice du peuple est en marche.
In 2001, artist Maxan Jean-Louis painted the assassination of Jean Dominique and Jean-Claude Louissaint. The canvas is dominated by the Radio Haiti building with its emblematic red-and-blue vèvè (a vodou symbol reimagined in the shape of a microphone). In the background are two men struck down in the parking lot. Jean’s silenced microphone lies beside him. Jean’s family and the Radio Haiti staff weep while the police and the media look on – rather helplessly, it seems, their arms at their sides. Tears run down the face of one of the policemen.
The most dynamic part of the painting are the protestors in the foreground, the men and women standing in the street, outside the station’s walls, clamoring for justice while the weeping policeman looks on. Their arms raised in protest, their lips parted as they shout, they carry signs: DOWN WITH CRIMINALS. WE MUST HAVE JUSTICE. DOWN WITH THE DEATH MACHINE. LONG LIVE PEACE. JUSTICE FOR JOURNALISTS. JUSTICE FOR JEAN DOMINIQUE. Above them is written: APRIL 3 2000. FAREWELL JEAN DOMINIQUE. THE PEASANTS WILL NEVER FORGET YOU.
In the literal sense, that was not how it happened. Jean Dominique was shot just after 6 am, at the time of the daily Creole news broadcast, and he was pronounced dead at l’Hôpital de la Communauté Haïtienne shortly after. There was no time for crowds to assemble while his body still lay on the ground.
The painting is a metaphor, then, or perhaps a depiction of time compressed. The urban and rural masses and civil society organizations did mobilize that very day and for years after: grassroots human rights groups, grassroots peasants’ groups, women’s groups, unions, and ordinary citizens. As Michèle Montas explains, “the mobilizations began on April 3, 2000, through the protests and the expressions of solidarity of hundreds of people shocked by the assassination of a pro-democracy activist who had survived all the regimes against which he had courageously fought, to fall victim to a contract killing during a democratic season that he worked to establish.”
Five days after the murders, on April 8, the state funeral for Jean Dominique and Jean-Claude Louissaint at Stade Sylvio Cator in downtown Port-au-Prince was attended by 15,000 people, of whom 10,000 were rural farmers. On July 31, 2000 – what would have been Jean Dominique’s seventieth birthday – more than 10,000 peasant farmers from the Association des Planteurs et Distillateurs de Léogâne et Gressier gathered at the Darbonne sugar factory to thank and demand justice for Jean Dominique. That same day, the Centre de Production Agricole Jean L. Dominique, run by small-scale coffee growers, was inaugurated in Marmelade. Hundreds of peasant farmers gathered to pay tribute. And that same day, musicians, poets, and vodouisants gathered in the courtyard of Radio Haiti to pay homage to Jean Dominique.
In the archive of things Radio Haiti held onto, I came across a song called “Won’t Jean Dominique Find Justice?” by Haiti Rap Force. From the hand-drawn cover, I assume it was a local rap group from one of Port-au-Prince’s quartiers populaires. They sing that justice is not achieved through only formal, state-sponsored institutions.
Dosye Jean Dominique pa koute sèlman tribunal
sa konsène tout tout moun an jeneral
n’ap bat poun fè ti pèp la bliye
Nou pa gen dwa janm bliye lanmò Jean Dominique
Men se ki lès ki gen flanbo-a kap klere chimen-an poun pa tonbe
Men se ki lès ki konn chimen-an ki va di nou kote nou prale
The Jean Dominique case won’t just be heard in the tribunal
It concerns every single person in general
Trying to make the people forget
But we shall not ever forget the death of Jean Dominique
But who will hold the torch that will light the way so we do not fall?
But who knows the path, who will tell us where we are going?
At the end of the editorial, Michèle returns to the question with which she opened. “Why Jean Dominique? Why all this noise, all this noise and all this furor, for a man two years dead? Why these mobilizations reaching well beyond our borders? This question is asked in different tones: with admiration among those who understand only now that justice and the defense of freedom are not a gift, and that they can only be the result of permanent pressure to force institutions and political leaders to act in accordance with their mandates; with hostility on the part of the enemies of the journalist, those who ordered his killing, or those who rejoiced at April 3, 2000, at being freed from a voice so strong and, for certain interests, so troublesome. ‘Jean Dominique pa pitimi san gadò’ [Jean Dominique is not unguarded and free for the taking], as we say in one of our radio spots. His killers had no idea how true that was.”
Thinking about grassroots mobilization in response to injustice reminds me of Jacques Roumain’s Masters of the Dew (Gouverneurs de la rosée). It is the story of Manuel, a poor cultivator from rural Haiti who becomes politically engaged and organizes his fellow peasants to overcome the things that divide them, to unite in defense of their rights and their land. Manuel organizes a konbit, the traditional form of communal labor, before he is stabbed to death. Jean Dominique and his elder sister, the writer Madeleine Paillère, were so moved by novel that they translated the dialogue into Haitian Creole and adapted it for radio in 1972-1973. It is one fitting epitaph for an agronomist-activist, an intellectual who at great cost threw in his lot with the dispossessed, a man who believed that redemption lay not in suffering, but in solidarity.
On chante le deuil, c’est la coutume, avec les cantiques des morts, mais lui, Manuel, a choisi un cantique pour les vivants: le chant du coumbite, le chant de la terre, de l’eau, des plantes, de l’amitié entre habitants, parce qu’il a voulu, je comprends maintenant, que sa mort soit pour vous le recommencement de la vie.
It is the custom to mourn by singing hymns for the dead, but he, Manuel, had chosen a hymn for the living – the song of the konbit, the song of the soil, of the water, of the plants, of friendship between peasants, because he wanted, I understand now, that his death be for all of you the a new beginning of life.
Post contributed by Laura Wagner, PhD, Radio Haiti Project Archivist.
Today, March 24, 2016, marks the fortieth anniversary of the Argentine military coup that ushered in one of the Western Hemisphere’s most repressive regimes. Seeking to quash “subversion” and liberalize the economy, the coalition of military and civilian leaders who seized power in March 1976 instituted a vicious, secretive system of kidnapping, torture, and killing that claimed tens of thousands of lives and damaged countless more.
Each March 24, now deemed the Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice, Argentina honors these victims and energizes the ongoing struggle for accountability. Yet this year’s commemoration has assumed an unusual character, as President Barack Obama’s ill-timed visit to Argentina has focused the lion’s share of attention on the U.S.’ own role in first encouraging and later opposing the dictatorship. The involvement of the U.S., however, is far from the whole story. Indeed, focusing on this topic alone obscures the pioneering work of the coalition of Argentine human rights groups that fought, at great personal risk, to denounce the dictatorship, demanding justice for its victims and punishment of its crimes.
In this post I turn away from the presidential-visit frenzy to focus instead on one of the less-heralded members of the anti-regime coalition, the Movimiento Judío por los Derechos Humanos (MJDH, or Jewish Movement for Human Rights). Founded in August 1983 by Argentine journalist Herman Schiller and U.S.-born Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer, the MJDH served as a pole of Jewish anti-regime activism. Yet despite its significance, the MJDH has received little attention in Spanish and virtually none in English. Fortunately, though, the Rubenstein Library’s Marshall T. Meyer Papers contain a wealth of documents that shed light on Meyer’s role in the organization and on its broader efforts on behalf of truth and justice in Argentina, enabling this brief and timely overview of its work.
The dictatorship that seized power on March 24, 1976 was a product not only of Cold War anti-communism, but also of Argentina’s long-standing nationalist ideology, an anti-modern vision of the world that combined ultramontane Catholicism and anti-Semitism with a violent desire to quash all opposition. Many within this movement saw Jews a key root of subversion in Argentina and the world at large (powerfully illustrated in the “tree of subversion” illustration below), so it is unsurprising that the country’s large Jewish minority found itself a disproportionate target of state violence. Yet the major institutions of the country’s Jewish establishment—including its umbrella organization, the Delegación de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas (DAIA, or Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations) took a cautious and even cooperative approach to the dictatorship, leaving regime victims and their relatives with few places to turn for support. At the same time, international Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee fought valiantly to denounce the dictatorship, yet in centering their activism exclusively on the Jewish community, these groups at times divorced the Jewish-Argentine experience of repression from those of other regime victims.
Building on Schiller’s ongoing anti-regime advocacy and Meyer’s longstanding work to support both Jews and non-Jews subject to the dictatorship’s terror, the MJDH came together in mid-1983 in order to advance a holistic vision of social justice that tied the defeat of anti-Semitism to the protection of human rights across all sectors of Argentine society. By this point, the country’s dictatorship was fast approaching the brink of collapse, having been fatally weakened by its humiliating defeat in the 1982 Malvinas/Falklands War with the United Kingdom. It was a moment, Schiller and Meyer understood, when a united opposition reaching across Argentine society could both extract real concessions from the regime and help to shape a most just democratic future.
The MJDH’s first public activity, as described in a November 1984 summary of its first year of organizing, was to convene a Jewish continent to participate in an August 1983 march against the military’s attempt to bestow amnesty upon itself for its many crimes. The success of this act emboldened Meyer and Schiller, encouraging them to plan their first independent rally for October of that year. Amid the political and economic tumult of late 1983, a new wave of anti-Semitism was washing over the country. While DAIA and other community leaders quietly lobbied the dictatorship to combat rising anti-Jewish sentiments, the MJDH took to the streets of downtown Buenos Aires. Despite DAIA’s attempts to derail the event, thousands of supporters gathered at the city’s iconic Obelisk to hear Nobel laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and Hebe de Bonafini, leader of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, denounce anti-Semitism and state terror as interlinked assaults on Argentines’ basic human dignity.
The MJDH’s work continued past the free election of civilian President Raúl Alfonsín on October 30, 1983. Throughout the transitional period, Schiller and Meyer organized rallies, speeches, conferences, and teach-ins, working with the Mothers and other human rights advocates to denounce ongoing threats to democracy and to demand the judicial punishment of regime crimes. Together with the efforts of other Argentine human rights groups, these efforts culminated in the precedent-setting 1985 Trial of the Juntas, which sent the dictatorship’s generals and torturers to jail and helped consolidate a new norm of criminal accountability in Argentina and in post-dictatorial societies far beyond. While the MJDH’s activities have diminished in subsequent decades, even today the MJDH continues to push for a full accounting of dictatorship-era abuses and for open discussion of the Jewish community’s complicated role in these difficult years. Spanning these decades of activism is a commitment to the plural vision of Jewish well-being, tied inseparably to universal rights, to which Meyer dedicated his life.
By examining the work of civil society groups like the MJDH, we can help to move beyond decontextualized visions of the dictatorship that present it as a narrow conspiracy, imposed on the country with aid from abroad. The experiences of leaders like Herman Schiller and Marshall Meyer, together with those of the MJDH’s supporters and opponents alike, help us to recover from Argentina’s recent history a measure of the nuance and complexity with which it was lived.
Post contributed by Paul Katz, PhD Candidate in History, Columbia University.
The post Marshall Meyer and Argentina’s Jewish Movement for Human Rights appeared first on The Devil's Tale.
“The Poetic Inflections of a Voice Addressing a Tribe of Men Besieged by Beasts”: Radio Haiti’s Cultural Programming
My very dear Jean, how the years have passed, since that afternoon when I first saw you at Thony Phelps’ house! That was in 1962, I believe. You smoked a pipe at the time. That day, there was talk of a book upon which you would be commenting the next day on the air at Radio Haïti. Ah! How the years have passed!
For Frankétienne, Jean Dominique was both a personal friend and an intellectual interlocutor; the cultural programming he oversaw at Radio Haiti not only showcased Haitian arts and literature, but also influenced them.
Meanwhile, you continue, with ferocity and great faith, in your work as a lucid informant, guiding your listeners, aiding the youth with your advice. And as for me, I was among that number who listened to you, who followed you closely. Your critical analyses were for me an invaluable contribution, as much on the human level as on the purely human level. Your Sunday broadcasts enhanced my love of art, cinema and in particular literature, even influencing my reading and literary research. And, today, now that we have become friends, this remains true. Jean, my brother, you could not suspect or guess how my conversations with you have oriented and enriched my work as a writer. Your insights have been of great use to me, with regard to the material of my last book Ultravocal…
The letter is from 1972, shortly after Jean Dominique bought Radio Haiti; it offers a glimmer of what was to come. In the years that followed, Radio Haiti’s main cultural program “Entre Nous” would become something of an on-air salon, a place where painters, poets, novelists, historians, social scientists, storytellers, playwrights, musicians, critics, and others came together to discuss their work. Émile Ollivier, Mimi Barthélemy, Edwidge Danticat, Amos Coulanges, Tiga, Georges Castera, Syto Cavé, Roger Gaillard, Jean Fouchard, Kettly Mars, Dany Laferrière, Gary Victor, Yanick Lahens, Ralph Allen, Jean René Jérôme…
To listen to these creators of art and of knowledge is to reorient the narrative about Haiti. The standard story of Haiti is dominated by crisis: rare is the mainstream US news article that does not contain the words “the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.” Haitian people are depicted as either powerless victims or bloodthirsty criminals. For centuries, lurid, racist, deterministic narratives have enabled dominant geopolitical powers to undermine Haitian sovereignty and justify exploitation. According to these tropes, Haiti and Haitian people are organically poor – not only materially and economically, but intellectually, culturally and morally as well. Haiti is atavistic, violent and diseased. Haiti is starving children, “boat people,” ragged people. Haitian suffering is described, exaggerated, and luxuriated over, but rarely presented as anything other than an inevitability.
Radio Haiti presented Haitian narratives about Haitian crisis, exposing and analyzing the structural causes of oppression and political instability. The archive contains the voices of the intellectual elite and of the urban and rural poor alike, for Radio Haiti was one of the few places at the time where the oppressed and disenfranchised masses had lapawòl, the power of speech.
And in its cultural programming, Radio Haiti achieved even more: it decentered the narrative of crisis. It presented not a Haiti of suffering, but a Haiti of beauty and brilliance, one in which crisis is met with and defied by acts of creation. A Haiti in which art, both implicitly and explicitly, is political.
A few months ago, I found a little piece of ephemera hidden face-down at the bottom of a reel-to-reel tape box. It had been used as scratch paper: on one side is a handwritten list of sponsors from the late 1980s (Parkay Margarine, Kraft Mayonnaise, Breacol cough syrup, and so on). On the other side is this:Raffle ticket, December 1979
By 1979-1980, businesses no longer advertised on Radio Haiti. The station openly opposed the Duvalier dictatorship, and potential sponsors, afraid of reprisal, did not want to be seen as accomplices. During this time, station manager Richard Brisson famously raised some money by using his car as a taxi. And in December 1979, several celebrated Haitian painters donated their works for an art raffle in support of Radio Haiti. Each ticket cost three dollars, for the chance to win a piece by one of these twelve renowned artists. The ticket is a relic, a souvenir of the extraordinary devotion that Radio Haiti inspired. It is also a poignant reminder of the grinding struggle to keep the station afloat day-to-day in the face of economic obstacles and political oppression.
Sometimes it feels as though Radio Haiti’s story, like that of Haiti itself, is eclipsed by crisis — that Jean Dominique’s assassination has become the principal lens through which we understand and remember Radio Haiti. But the loss of Jean Dominique and the injustice of his murder matter because his life mattered, because Radio Haiti’s many decades of work and legacy matter. Before the symbolic weight of memory, before the burden of hindsight, before the doomed prophet, there was the daily work of the station — all of which lives on in this archive.
So much comes before death; so much remains when death is no more.
In his letter to Jean Dominique, Frankétienne outlines the challenges facing the Haitian writer who strives to be accessible.
All writers, at least as far as I’m concerned, would like to be read and understood by their people, by the greatest number of people possible. It is our dearest hope. Yet, if that does not occur immediately, then another story, often macabre, begins. In the case of our country, one must overcome a double illiteracy: 1) obvious illiteracy (the inability to read at all, whether in Creole or in French) and 2) hidden illiteracy (the belief that one knows how to read, but in truth one does not perceive the structure and the possible meanings of a text). Faced with this double difficulty, or rather facing this double obstacle, the Haitian writer has no choice. It is absolutely impossible for him to write for the masses that cannot read at all. And this makes him suffer terribly, especially when, in his books, he reckons with problems that would be of utmost interest to those illiterate masses
Radio was a medium of unparalleled power in twentieth-century Haiti: it enabled people to participate in public discourse, as both listeners and speakers, whether or not they could read and write. And it allowed writers to reach a far broader audience, to be true public intellectuals. For this is what Jean Dominique was: a public intellectual. It was on the radio that his intellect unfurled: analytical and incisive, sometimes staggering.
There is a poet character who wanders, searching through words in a verbal delirium, writes Frankétienne in his letter, describing the themes of Ultravocal.
In the course of his phantasmal voyage, overcome by pain, he discovers that his drama is not entirely personal, that his own rupture is nothing more than one aspect of a far wider tragedy, the great human misery. From that moment on, the text breaks apart, spreading from the individual to the collective, from the subjective to the objective, from the particular to the general… And the poet character, entwined with the narrator, dizzy, speaks. The poetic inflections of a voice addressing a tribe of men besieged by beasts. My voice, perhaps. Yours, or that of either of us. And, when the narrator suggests… that one day, evil will be struck down into the dust with a terrible noise, then begins the final song, that of hope.
A week to the day before Frankétienne wrote his letter, Jean Dominique interviewed the painter Rose-Marie Desruisseau, in which she describes participating in ceremonies as part of her research for a series of paintings on Vodou. (It was revolutionary, at that time, to speak on the radio of Vodou as a topic of intellectual and cultural importance and as everyday practice: Duvalier père had politicized and exerted control over Vodou, manipulating its imagery for his own purposes and power while exercising sanctions on the practice.) Desruisseau describes her interactions with the Gede spirits, who are intermediaries between life and death. They dance provocatively through the cemetery, and shout and sing obscenities. They are lively gods of death. Vulgarity and humor, which transcend respectability and social convention, are the very things that enable Gede to straddle life and the afterlife, to be the master of the crossroads.
Rose-Marie Desruisseau explains:
“J’ai commencé d’abord par les dieux de la mort, tu vois, et puis je n’ai pas trouvé la mort chez eux, j’ai trouvé la vie intense, chez eux… chez les Guédés. Je n’ai pas trouvé la mort du tout.”
“I began first with the gods of death, you see, and it was not death that I found there. I found intense life there… among the Gede spirits. I did not find death at all.”
Radio Haiti’s archive, like a cemetery, like Haiti itself, is a place that could be defined by tragedy, loss and death. The archive, like Haiti’s history, is filled with human rights violations, massacres, impunity, and assassinations.
Yet, listening to artists and iconoclasts, creators and truth-tellers, I recall those same words: It was not death that I found here, in Radio Haiti’s archive. I found intense life here; I did not find death at all.
Post contributed by Laura Wagner, Ph.D., Radio Haiti Project Archivist.