(WOMENSENEWS)–Michele Montas yearns to return to Haiti, the beautiful and brutal home where she practiced a brand of journalism designed to be heard by the poor and overheard by the powerful.
The 58-year-old journalist has survived her husband Jean Dominique’s assassination and the murder of her own body guard. After a December 2002 threat on her life, she is now in her latest exile in New York, working as the spokesperson for the United Nations’ General Assembly’s president.
She is still restless.
“I want to go back,” she says. “But it’s not yet time.”
For much of the 30 years before Dominique’s death in 2000, the couple used their 10,000-watt radio transmitter at Radio Haiti Inter in Port-au-Prince to challenge a series of brutal regimes and give voice to the poorest people in the western hemisphere.
They broadcast in Creole, the French dialect of those who could neither read nor write and whose troubles had never been the subject of news reports. They reported on official corruption and criticized the impact of U.S. foreign policy.
“I went to Catholic school. I was a rebel from the start,” Montas said in an interview with Women’s eNews. “We were never taught about the majority of the Haitians who were suffering. We were told about the poor children of China who were suffering and were hungry.”
Both privileged, French speaking Catholics, the couple came from Port-au-Prince’s educated elite. But their broadcasts were aimed primarily at the poor, listening in groups to transistor radios.
The broadcasts, however, were also heard by industrialists and landowners in their BMWs and in the offices of the military and police. Their radio station was pock-marked with bullet holes. Their antenna was repeatedly destroyed. Three times Montas and her husband were forced into exile in New York. Three times their radio station was ransacked by the Haitian military or their thugs.
Montas and Dominique kept coming back.
But on the morning of April 3, 2000, as Montas was arriving to work, she found her husband’s bullet-riddled body at the entrance to the radio station.
New Film Documents Couple’s Struggle
A documentary about the slain Dominique–“The Agronomist,” directed by Jonathan Demme–opened in New York in late April and gives a thorough sense of what the couple was up against. (Dominique went into radio news after a background in agricultural management, hence the film’s title.)
One month after the assassination of her husband, Montas held a meeting with her staff, who encouraged her to reopen the station. “One reporter said, ‘Since you had the courage to cross that courtyard with the blood stains, you can start up again,'” she told Women’s eNews.
She then began daily broadcasts in which she said good morning to her slain husband and announced the number of days during which his murderers remained free. She used her microphone to protest official obstacles to the investigation of her husband’s murder. She hounded the authorities over the air to find them.
After more than two years of carrying on after her husband’s murder, gunmen killed her bodyguard as he stood beside her outside her Port-au-Prince house on Christmas Day 2002.
“I know why they tried to kill me,” she says. “It was because of the denunciation of the official obstacles to the investigation. The results of the investigation were to come out at the end of December 2002. The attempt took place on Christmas Day. The message was clear.”
When asked about the source of her strength, Montas credits Haitian culture.
“I come from a society where women are very strong,” she said. “We are supposedly a macho society, but that is window dressing. The basic economy of the country is run by women, because the men till the land, but the women run the marketplace.”
In the countryside agriculture is financed by cooperative banks, run by and for women.
“You still have a government that is mostly men, but you have women who are very aware of what they can do,” she said. “One reason is that the voodoo religion is a religion in which women and men are equal, which is not the case with Catholicism, the religion of the elite.”
Child of University Professors
Montas was bon in Port-au-Prince in 1946 and showed an early interest in politics. Her parents, both university professors, feared she would run afoul of the authorities and hoped she would become a doctor. Instead, after college, she went to Columbia School of Journalism in New York (where last month she received an alumni award) and went on to an internship at Le Monde in Paris. From there she returned to Haiti to work for a newspaper and met Dominique. He invited her to work at the station. Later, during a joint exile in New York, they married.
Under the pressure of President Jimmy Carter’s human rights agenda and the fear of losing U.S. aid, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who had taken control after the death of his father in 1971, relaxed the repression that had become standard in Haiti.
During this period a grass-roots democracy movement flourished, both reflected in and nourished by Radio Haiti’s daring reports. The station began the first broadcasts in Creole and covered a voodoo festival that unnerved the authorities. They indirectly criticized Baby Doc by reporting extensively on the Sandinista revolt against Anastasio Samosa in Nicaragua. The parallels between Samosa and Duvalier were clear to the people, says Montas, but ignored by the regime.
Then Ronald Reagan was elected in November 1980. As Montas was reading the U.S. election results over the air, she heard shots in the street. “They were shots of celebration from Tonton Macoutes (Duvalier’s thugs) who were happy that the cowboys were back in the White House,” she said.
Three weeks later, the Tonton Macoutes arrived at the station and arrested the staff. Montas was held in prison for several days, stripped to her underwear and listened to the cries of her reporters, as they were tortured in the next cell.
But Carter’s State Department was still in power and U.S. protests led to Montas’ release. Without a passport she was put on a plane to Miami, where an immigration officer admitted her only after seeing her photo in a copy of that day’s Miami Herald that was lying on his desk.
Hero’s Welcome After Baby Doc Ouster
After six years in New York–where she worked for United Nations Radio–Montas and her husband returned to Haiti after a popular uprising that ousted Baby Doc. Much to their amazement, a crowd of about 60,000 greeted them at the airport.
During the 1980s, Radio Haiti lent its support to the pro-democracy candidacy of Jean-Bernard Aristide, the street-protest priest who made it to the presidential palace in 1990.
“At the reception for Aristide we were served Haitian food instead of the French things normal at the presidential palace,” Montas said. “Creole became the national language. We thought ‘that’s it, we made it.'”
But she also thought it was too good to be true.
Within months Aristide was overthrown by the military and Montas was back again in New York.
With Aristide’s restoration in 1994, Montas and her husband returned and again restored the devastated radio station. After a tough round of on-air questioning of Aristide by Dominique–about corruption–the couple’s ties to the president weakened.
It was six years later, with Aristide back in power for a second time, that Dominique was assassinated. “I am not implicating Aristide,” she said, in the interview. “However, it became more and more clear, that the obstacles to the investigation were obviously coming from higher up.”
Looking back, she says that power had corrupted Aristide, once the great hope of the Haitian people.
Aristide was deposed for a second time in February.
Joe Lauria covers the United Nations for the Boston Globe and Independent Newspapers of South Africa.
For more information:
indieWIRE: Michele Montas Talks About “The Agronomist,” Haitian History, and Seeking Justice:
Haiti Democracy Project: