By Laura Brody ’16
What led Jean Dominique to create Radio Haïti?
Privately owned, Radio Haiti was, in the late sixties, Haiti’s oldest radio station when Jean first leased time on the mostly music station to do cultural programs. It was under the dictatorship of Francois Duvalier. There was no free press. Radio was essentially entertainment.
Jean was then a young agronomist out of work. He had been working in the northern part of Haiti as an agricultural engineer when his brother, an army officer was killed in an attempt to overthrow the regime. Jean was then arrested in Gonaives and jailed for several months before he could join his family again in Port au Prince. While teaching, he would get advertising to pay for the radio programs which he expanded from weekly to daily. Then came the opportunity to buy the station.
He seized that opportunity in 1970, with a dream he had carried with him since he was an agronomist: transform a mostly music station into a media that could touch on the needs and concerns of all Haitians, provide relevant information and break the exclusion of the majority, isolated from public life, by history, geography, politics, language and religion.
At the time, what impact did he hope the station would have on the Haïtian community?
We were in the early seventies. At that time, “President-for-life” Jean Claude Duvalier had inherited power and a repressive machine from his father. It was obvious the first few years that the limitations were enormous. Shaping Radio Haiti into the media took day-to-day improvisation. How far could we go? It was not about measuring impact but rather about opening windows.
We had the technical means: a powerful new 10 KW AM that allowed Radio Haiti to reach the more remote villages in the very mountainous country. The station started, early on, with a small news team covering first cultural and social issues, some still taboo in a country where a French speaking, catholic elite still shaped the media. Expanding news coverage to life outside of Port au Prince, opening microphones to market women or rice farmers whose voices were never heard, broadcasting information in Creole as well as French, opening fresh debates on Haitian history and Haitian identity, or airing voodoo ceremonies which at the time was unthinkable, were many moving parts of a dynamic and risky process which in a way took a life of it’s own. A profound transformation was taking place in a society where exclusion had always been the norm and where the repression of the dictatorship had further atomized the population since 1957.
What impact did the station have on the development of democracy in Haïti?
The impact was gradual, facilitated or hampered by a series of external circumstances. From 1977 to 1980, Jean Claude Duvalier tried to project a better image of his regime, one that would attract more external assistance, particularly from the U.S. After all President Jimmy Carter had conditioned the granting of aid money to the respect of human rights. Some political prisoners were released, some civil society institutions – labor unions, student organizations – forbidden under Francois Duvalier were allowed to function alongside organizations created by the regime itself.
The independent media seized the opportunity to expand the limits of free speech and cover more controversial issues: boat people leaving the country in droves, or peasant revolts in the Artibonite Valley. The end of the Carter administration also brought the end of that first Haitian spring with a violent repression against the democratic movement. Radio Haiti was physically destroyed, all our journalists arrested, along with human right activists, teachers, students, poets and politicians. The development of democracy in Haiti experienced a violent setback from November 1980 to 1986. What had been our impact? One way to measure the impact of the work done between 1970 and 1980 might be the welcome we received when we came back from exile when tens of thousands of people came to the airport. Another might be the contributions from people from all walks of life who collected enough funds to rebuild “their station” and allowed us to get back on the air in 1986.
What is most interesting about the Radio Haiti archives is that they document some 40 years of a long and turbulent transition to democracy in Haiti, as the transition lasted way beyond the 29 years of brutal dictatorship, as a form of “Duvalierism without Duvalier” emerged after 1986, with several military strongmen attempting to control power and to disrupt elections.
The collection captures a time and a place in which journalists and broadcast journalism played a major role in redefining a country and reaching a people. It is also a reminder that freedom of the press, and freedom of association so often taken for granted today have been paid in blood and tears throughout our recent history.
Why did you choose the Duke University Archives to house this collection?
The struggle for justice and human rights in Haiti is at the center of the Radio Haiti collection and I feel that the archives because of their content, fit perfectly within the Human Rights section of the Rubenstein Library. I knew of the University’s special interest in Haiti after reading Professor Laurent Dubois’ books and exploring the site of the Haiti Lab. I was at the same time anxious to save these unique archives, as the more than 2,500 recordings were stored in precarious conditions since the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
Today, I know that Duke University is the right home for the collection. Since I came to campus and met with Human Rights Archivist Patrick Stawski, Professor Laurent Dubois and with Craig Breaden, the Audiovisual Archivist at the Library, I have been truly impressed by the care given to each recording and by the respect surrounding the Collection.
I am also tremendously excited about the work that has already been done to preserve the older recordings and about the creative suggestions to keep these archives alive. What is most important to me is the long-term commitment to make these archives available to a larger public, once the preservation work is done. Since we were forced to close Radio Haiti in 2003, I have never felt such positive energy around this collection, which is the product of incredible teamwork under particularly difficult conditions.
On a more personal level, when film director Jonathan Demme made a documentary in 2004, about my slain husband Jean Dominique, I said that he had given his friend Jean a new set of legs, so he could keep on running like the marathon soldier who brought news of the miraculous victory over the Persians to Athens. He was dead, the legend said, but he kept on running… I think that by keeping this collection alive, Duke University is giving yet another set of legs to our Marathon man.
The investigative reports, the interviews, the debates on key subjects will keep a critical conversation going on issues that remain of paramount importance in Haitian society. They will also nurture the needed exchanges not only about Haiti’s future but also about the long-term impact of a dictatorship on any society.