Haitians reflect on the Duvalier years

Local Haitians Millery Polyne, Daniel Huttinot, Buyu Ambroise (speaking) Josaphat-Robert Large, Frantz Volaire, Jasmine Claude Narcisse, and Michele Montas gave testimony and share reflections.
Photo by Tequila Minsky

Sunday, Feb. 7 marked the 30-year anniversary since Baby Doc, Jean-Claude Duvalier, exited Haiti in ignominy ending almost 30 years of the Duvalier dictatorship.

Haiti Cultural Exchange chose this date to engage the community through film, performances, reflections, personal testimonies and conversations around the impact of the Duvalier rule. The day at Shapeshifter Lab culminated HCX’s year of Revolisyon / Revolution programming.

Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-nominated film “The Agronomist,” which explores political repression and remembrance, served as an anchor of the afternoon.

The documentary about the Haitian radio personality Jean Dominique covers many eras of Haitian history as it highlights Dominique’s fight for democracy.

In many moments while watching the archival footage, the viewer recognizes how history is repeating itself. (For example, after Aristide’s departure in 2004, a two-year interim government acted as a caretaker government as Haiti readies currently for an interim government.)

In the early 60s, Dominique, who had studied agronomy, bought Radio Haiti (later, renaming it Haiti-Inter) and turned it from entertainment into a vehicle for information. He broadcast in the language of all Haitians — Kreyòl, one of the earliest stations to do so.

Speaking out against successive dictatorships, he fled the country twice: from Duvalier in 1980 and from the Cedras de facto government in 1991. He returned in 1994 continuing to use his microphone to speak out against vested interests. Dominique was assassinated in 2000.

Laura Wager from the Human Rights Archive at Duke University presented briefly on the Radio Haiti / Haiti-Inter tapes, which she is digitizing and archiving. There are 5000 hours of tapes.

Several local Haitians then testified as to their personal experiences. Saxophonist Buyu Ambroise emotionally shared from his past. He recalled how his father, his politically active cousin Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a history and Latin professor and his wife and his 12-year-old brother Rudy were confronted by the Duvalier police at his cousin’s home.

The police released the young boy who ran home crying; his father was detained until the middle of the night, and his cousin and wife were tortured and killed. His father left the country immediately calling for the whole family to join him in the Congo, where he was teaching.

From Montreal, filmmaker, publisher and archivist, and a partner with the event, Frantz Voltaire spoke about memory and the loss of remembrances in Haitian history. Unvoiced, he evoked the saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Voltaire spends his life collecting visual, printed and narrative artifacts of Haitian history.

An important contributor to the conversation, journalist and widow of Jean Dominique, Michele Montas was surprised at the gloomy outlook of her co-panelists. Montas, who lost her husband to such repression, was the most open-minded. “Things have changed,” she observes–obviously referring to the Duvalier times. “There is freedom of the press, people can demonstrate. I am optimistic.”

Shortly after the audience processed the intense dialogue, performer / poet Jennifer Celestin and NYU professor Millery Polyné read a selection from Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.

The emotional day ended, a bit more upbeat, with a tribute to political folksinger and activist Manno Charlemagne with the next generation’s folk performer Obed Jean-Louis on acoustic guitar accompanied by Buyu Ambroise and Atibon on drum.

Participatory and using many genres to explore a complicated subject, informative and revealing, the afternoon and evening was like a 1960s teach-in devoted to the Duvalier years.

Obed Jean-Louis performed in tribute to folksinger activist Manno Charlemagne.
Photo by Tequila Minsky

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