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Broadcast Kidnapping: How the Rise of the Radio led to the Fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier

Haitian Radio //
Radyo Ayisyen

Learning from other scholars’ work on Haitian radio was, and still is, one of the greatest pleasures in the process of writing Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean (UNC 2016). People living in or from Haiti widely acknowledged and almost took for granted radio’s outsized role in public and political life. Edwidge Danticat and Jonathan Demme also understood this and paid tribute in Claire of the Sea Light and The Agronomist respectively, but historians remained largely fixated, understandably, on pivotal moments in Haiti’s rich history. Radio is different. Not pivotal, but witnessing the pivotal. Less dramatic and more long lasting and adhering to the same format for days, years, decades. It speaks to people who wouldn’t read newspapers or books. It floods private and public space with the sounds of music, talking, ruling, dissenting, explaining, satirizing, creating, crying, testifying, lying. But it leaves few archival traces. This is why the work of the five scholars in this series is so important. They allow us to hear a little and honor the listeners who make the medium what it is.

Last week, Ian Coss gave a finely tuned account of a “day in the life” of a radio station in Cap Haïtien that follows the programming rhythm of days and nights.  This week, Jennifer Garcon shows how the long marriage between Haitian politics and Haitian radio has endured, despite multiple and conflicting alliances, high drama, and attacks from all sides. The powerful and the powerless have even in their enmity presumed that if they could harness radio’s power they would ascend to political power. Her story recounts one of the pivotal points in the relationship—its near breakdown and ultimate survival—also a turning point for a 19-year-old Jean Claude Duvalier, newly proclaimed President for life. Guest Editor– Alejandra Bronfman

Click here for the full series!

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On January 23, 1973, Jean-Claude Duvalier, only 18 months into his life-long appointment, received a call that threatened to profoundly destabilize his nascent presidency. On the other end was Clinton E. Knox, a close political ally and advisor, who also happened to be the US Ambassador to Haiti. Knox, Jean-Claude was informed, along with US consul general Ward Christensen were being held hostage at a residence just outside of Port-au-Prince. To secure the safe return of two high-ranking US officials, the captors demanded the release of political prisoners, a hefty ransom, and a plane to facilitate their escape. The kidnappers “meant business,” reported The Washington Post, Times Herald on Jan 26, 1973, and during the call, Knox warned Jean-Claude of the severity of the situation, that they ”threatened to blow my head off, if they didn’t get what they wanted.”

Jean-Claude Duvalier
Jean-Claude Duvalier, by Flickr user jsstokes10

Just hours before, Knox, boasting of Haiti’s improved political situation, told a Miami Herald reporter that, “everything [was] calm.” Since Francois Duvalier’s death in 1971, the new president had been aggressively courting international aid. In a marked departure from his father’s political rhetoric, Jean-Claude openly declared his intention to lessen authoritarian conditions in Haiti. He called for the organization of new political parties and the reestablishment of a “freer” press. Thanks to Knox, millions in international and humanitarian aid–previously suspended because of Francois’s long history of human rights abuses– began pouring into the country. In truth, Jean-Claude never intended to fully democratize Haitian society, he instead hoped that a few small concessions would help him to secure the benefits of appearing to do so. But soon, his new “liberal policies” allowed for the public expression of widespread discontent and opposition that had long festered just beneath the surface.

Since Francois Duvalier’s 1957 election, Haiti’s government had systematically and strategically cut off avenues of civic participation in political life. During his 14-year rule, Francois co-opted any existing institutions that could oppose his consolidation of power, including the church, the army, and the press. This was a stark contrast to the political campaign season that led to his election, wherein aspiring political figures frequently made impassioned radio speeches in the hopes of courting new supporters. Over the airwaves, presidential hopeful Daniel Fignole sometimes summoned his woulo konmpresè, a popular force of over 10,000 supporters to the street in protest. Duvalier shaped his Noirist ideology in part via public discourse over the airwaves.  However, after taking power, he closed off these avenues of political engagement. By limiting the flow of information, the regime fostered social alienation and mistrust amongst different sectors of the population. 

The vibrant political debates that characterized the 1940s and 1950s Haitian media were replaced with round-the-clock pro-government propaganda. Nearly all independent radio stations and newspapers were shuttered, leaving only pro-Duvalier stations, like La Voix de la Révolution Duvalieriste, and papers like newspapers Le Nouveau Monde and Panorama. When, in 1971, a gravely ill Francois announced the transfer of the presidency to his politically inexperienced 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude, there were no national outlets for citizens to register their resistance. However, many anticipated that the death of Papa Doc would create a political vacuum too large for his son to fill. This possibility inspired new anti-government efforts.

Radio Haiti Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

At 4 pm on January 23, as he was leaving his office in Port-au-Prince, Ambassador Knox was accosted and forced into an unmarked sedan. He was driven to his home just outside the city. The kidnappers, brandishing a small arsenal, demanded an audience with the young president. Instead, and in a breach of protocol, Knox contacted the consul general and lured him to the residence, where he too was taken hostage. Two hours later, Jean-Claude Duvalier received the distressing call. 

The young president found himself in a dire situation, given his long-regarded political disinterest. Both critics and supporters of the Duvalier regime believed he would be too weak and ineffectual to hold power. Up until then, Duvalier’s reliance on loyal old guard Duvalierists and his close relationship with Knox had sustained his presidency.  Encouraged by the prospect of millions in international aid, Jean-Claude began distancing himself from the violence of his father’s regime. Jean-Claudisme would tolerate criticism, promote free speech, embrace dissent and welcome repatriating exiles.  As Knox frequently argued, Jean-Claude had “embarked on a course diametrically opposed to the one [Francois Duvalier] pursued.” 

The 1973 kidnapping would be the first public reckoning for the new regime; the first open challenge to Jean-Claude’s political legitimacy. The kidnappers, anti-government leftists, demanded the immediate release of 31 political prisoners, safe passage out of the country, and $100,000 ransom. A final demand would not materialize until the early morning on January 24. After hours of negotiations with Duvalier’s administration, the kidnappers tacked on one last demand; that the details of the kidnappers be shared with Haitian citizens via a national radio broadcast. In defiance of the advice of his father’s most trusted advisers, and to save Knox’s life, Jean-Claude acquiesced. 

At approximately 10am on January 24, French Ambassador Bernard Dorin interrupted existing radio programming with a special announcement: Ambassador Clinton Knox had been kidnapped and held captive by three anti-government rebels. To secure his release the Haitian government had agreed to release 12 political prisoners, pay $70,000 US dollars in ransom, and charter an aircraft to transport the kidnappers and released prisoners to exile in Mexico. 

By conceding, Jean-Claude acted outside of the existing political framework set in place by his father. The Haitian public had come to expect consistency in political culture; any and all opposition was to be immediately crushed. That morning the airwaves carried the news of the dictatorship’s fragility to listeners far and wide. On the heels of the unprecedented announcement, Radio Haïti-Inter began reporting on the kidnapping developments to audiences around the nation.  When Jean L. Dominique, a former agronomist, went on-air, it was the first time since 1957 that domestic news was transmitted without censorship. Listeners were now given unfettered access. Dominique and co-anchor Marcus Garcia were the first reporters to arrive at the Knox’s residence, while he, Ward, and the kidnappers were still inside. Radio Haiti journalists described the surreal scene in detail, and conducted interviews with newly released political prisoners. When Knox finally emerged, listeners were privy to his fragile state, he appeared intoxicated and was clutching a bottle of rum; a stark contrast to his strongman image. When the kidnappers safely boarded an Air-Haiti plane bound for Mexico City, where they were promised (and granted) asylum, Dominique reported from the runway. For the listening public, the scene was simply remarkable.

Jean L. Dominique, Radio Haiti Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

The broadcast would undoubtedly be the most politically consequential of the kidnappers’ demands. It would mean that, for the first time of Jean-Claude’s young presidency, and for the first time in decades, news of the dictatorship’s fragility and fallibility would reach the entire Haitian populace.  Almost immediately, one journalist noted a change in the country, noting in  “Haiti: Trouble Ahead in Latin America in February 1973 that, when Jean-Claude conceded to the kidnapper’s demands, “Haitians finally realized that Papa Doc was gone forever” (Special Collection and University Archives, Rutgers University, Robert J. Alexander Papers, [MC974.1 Box 3]).

Citizens awoke to find themselves now living in a Haiti where anti-government resistance could succeed. In Isle of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean, Alejandra Bronfman argues that, “as listeners understood themselves to be listening along with others,” new possibilities for social and political life were revealed. For Haitian citizens living under the yoke of an authoritarian government, radio listening became a way to engage in politics and reclaim political agency in defiance of government overreach and repression. Widely accessible radio receivers could bridge areas otherwise geographically disconnected from urban, and often political, centers. Moreover, uncensored kidnapping coverage transformed Haiti’s political arena by radically changing popular ideas of what kinds of resistance were possible. 

One of four photos taken during the return of Jean Dominique and Michèle Montas to Haiti in March 1986, after the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier. showing a group in front of the old Radio Haiti station on Rue du Quai with a banner: “Kafou ak Matisan vle Radio Haïti-Inter.” Radio Haiti Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

In the aftermath of the kidnapping, Jean-Claude moved quickly to plug the political vacuum that has emerged in the wake of the kidnapping. He was determined to change popular memory of the event. Haitian newspapers began to praise Duvalier’s political acumen in saving the life of two US officials.  A mass rally was organized two days later to celebrate the President’s achievement. There, Jean-Claude gave his first ever public speech entirely in Haitian Kreyòl. “Little Duvalier,” he said, “would never hesitate to crush two or three vagabonds if he wanted to.” Addressing any would-be imitators, he warned, “I will be waiting for them with a big coco macaque.

As the government tried to hold onto power, new journalists and broadcasters were increasingly singled out by the administration. In 1980, a press crackdown led to the arrest of over 100 independent print and radio journalists. Despite government repression, radio broadcasting has been credited with the eventual ouster of Jean-Claude in 1986. The Knox Kidnapping was an early moment that signaled the possibility of a political alternative to Duvalierism. Even Knox agreed. Years later, he’d describe the ordeal as “one the most amazing things to happen in [Haiti] [“Envoy Relates Haitian Rebel Death Threats.” The Washington Post, Times Herald, Jan 26, 1973].

Featured Image: Jean Dominique and Michèle Montas return to Haiti in from exile in 1986 after the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier, met by 60,000 plus people. Radio Haiti Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Jennifer Garcon is the Digital Scholarship Librarian at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries’ Center for Research Data and Digital Scholarship. Garcon instructs on the use of digital tools, methods, and literacies via tutorials and one-on-one consultations and provides project management and infrastructural support that helps faculty, students, and staff build innovative and sustainable digital projects. She collaborates closely with Penn and Philadelphia-area partners to develop and expand sustainable models for the care of vulnerable collections of data. Garcon received her Ph.D. in History from the University of Miami, an MA in English and American Literatures from Hunter College, a BA in English Literature and Cultures from Brown University. Her academic research interests include radio broadcasting, populist political rhetoric, and grassroots social movement in the Cold War Caribbean. Since 2016, she’s been a research associate with the Library of Congress’s Radio Preservation Task Force.

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A Day on the Dial in Cap Haïtien, Haiti

Haitian Radio //
Radyo Ayisyen

Learning from other scholars’ work on Haitian radio was, and still is, one of the greatest pleasures in the process of writing Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean (UNC 2016). People living in or from Haiti widely acknowledged and almost took for granted radio’s outsized role in public and political life. Edwidge Danticat and Jonathan Demme also understood this and paid tribute in Claire of the Sea Light and The Agronomist respectively, but historians remained largely fixated, understandably, on pivotal moments in Haiti’s rich history. Radio is different. Not pivotal, but witnessing the pivotal. Less dramatic and more long lasting and adhering to the same format for days, years, decades. It speaks to people who wouldn’t read newspapers or books. It floods private and public space with the sounds of music, talking, ruling, dissenting, explaining, satirizing, creating, crying, testifying, lying. But it leaves few archival traces. This is why the work of the five scholars in this series is so important. They allow us to hear a little and honor the listeners who make the medium what it is.

Liveness, and company: Ian Coss’s finely tuned account of a “day in the life” of a radio station follows the programming rhythm of days and nights, from rollicking to quiet and back again. Radio is a predictable presence, an intimate friend who anticipates your needs even before you do. Coss draws from his years of listening to the listeners as he marks radio time and space in Cap Haïtien. Guest Editor– Alejandra Bronfman

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Fabrice Joseph is a mender, set up on a street corner in Cap Haïtien, Haiti’s second largest city. He shows me a red plastic toolbox filled with supplies — thread, wires, scraps of fabric—which he can use to fix a jammed zipper or stitch up a torn backpack strap. I stop because he’s cradling a radio set in his hands, tuned to the city’s most popular station: Radio Venus. 

We meet on a quiet day; Fabrice has been sitting on the stoop for five hours already with no work. Another day he’s engrossed in assembling a large umbrella—the kind food vendors use for shade—but the radio is still on, now propped on a ledge just behind his head. He replaces the batteries almost weekly, because the radio is always on. In the morning Radio Venus plays news, Fabrice tells me, followed by music as the day heats up. Then in the afternoon he’ll hear sports or perhaps a religious program, before the station returns to music in the evening. 

This arc Fabrice describes is designed to follow the arc of his day. In this post, I trace that link: between the rhythms of radio programming and the rhythms of daily life, to show how formatting choices create a heightened sense of ‘liveness’ on Haiti’s airwaves, with all content located in a specific moment: the present moment. 

Radio Venus studio and its antenna
The studio of Radio Venus, with its antenna projecting from the rooftop, photo by author

In a technical sense, terrestrial radio broadcasting has always been defined by real time or ‘live’ transmission (an dirèk in Creole), a characteristic that is often invoked in discussions of the medium’s capacity to create shared experiences or even ‘imagined communities.’ And yet where I live in the United States, the passage of time is barely discernible on most commercial stations. Where radio schedules once varied from hour to hour (often reflecting gendered and classed norms of listening), today market research has driven the rise of so-called “format stations” that target specific interest groups and demographics with an equally targeted form of programming: non-stop sports, news, top 40, easy listening, etc. 

When I first visited Haiti in 2015, I was surprised to find a radio format unlike any I had grown up with, and not unlike those broadcast schedules of the 1920s and 1930s. While doing research in Cap Haïtien, I conducted a series of bandscans—systematic reviews of the entire radio dial—in order to identify the different types of programming heard on stations throughout the day there. I found the full range of talk and music-oriented shows you might expect, and yet of the 31 stations I picked up, only a handful carried the same type of programming all day. The vast majority carried every kind of program, including Fabrice’s favorite station, Radio Venus.

The Radio Venus studio sits on top of a three-story building, with a door leading straight out onto an open roof deck where the transmitter tower rises several more stories up in the air. That tower operates at 10 watts, just enough to relay the signal to a nearby mountain, where it’s then rebroadcast at roughly 450 watts, blanketing the country’s whole Northern Department. The person in charge of this whole system, as well as the overall flow of the day’s programs, is known as the opérateur. The station employs four operators—Molliere, Louis, Wilkonson and Simon—who work in shifts to cover the 24-hour schedule. This rotation provides stability as the hosts (or animateur) of different programs come and go—often showing up late, and sometimes not showing up at all. For long stretches of the day there is no host, so the operator just cues up a folder of songs in Windows Media Player, occasionally leaning over to trigger a station ID: a chesty voice that declares, “W’ap koute Radio Tele-Venus”—‘You are listening to Radio Tele-Venus.’

Simon Wilkenson at Radio Venus
Simon Wilkenson operates the board at Radio Venus, photo by author

One day, while sitting behind the board of the cramped control room, Simon explains that the goal of the station’s format is to satisfy all of the listeners’ interests and to provide “stability” in their often unstable lives. That last descriptor, “estabilite,” strikes me as somewhat ironic, given that the station’s programming is constantly changing. But for Haitians like Fabrice, who listen all day while they work, the description fits: he never needs to touch the dial, and at the same time he knows exactly what he will hear. Indeed, most of the radio listeners I meet in Cap Haïtien praise the medium’s consistently variable nature; if they wanted to hear the same thing all day they could get a stereo that takes a kat memwa—a memory card—and load it up with their favorite mp3s. Radio should change with the hours of the day; that’s part of what makes it radio. 

Many of the staff at Radio Venus describe the art of matching programming to the mood of the moment, in terms of ‘hotness’ (cho). For example, it’s important to have a lively host on the air between about 10am to noon, usually playing konpa music, so that the radio ‘heats up’ to give listeners more energy for their day. This shift takes place simultaneously across virtually every station on the dial, such that it’s literally audible on the street, from countless battery-powered radio sets. The timeliness of this ‘heating up’ is further emphasized by the host—at Venus, a local favorite named Don Lolo—who constantly reads the exact hour and minute off of a large analog clock on the studio wall. Lolo’s job is to make the music live in the moment; to make it ‘hot.’ By the same token, when I interview the overnight operator, Louis, he tells me that since many listeners keep the radio on all night, it’s important that he doesn’t play any music that’s ‘too hot,’ so as not to disturb their sleep. Everything in its right time.

The most dramatic shift in programming, however, begins on Friday evening. For the entire weekend, the station drops most of its talk-oriented shows and plays constant music—almost all of which is bootlegged recordings of live concerts. The idea is to convey the freewheeling mood of a night out on the town, even for those who won’t be at a bar or concert. To keep up this atmosphere, the station operators can choose from whole folders of “konpa live” tracks dating back decades—most of which run twelve to fifteen minutes long. Again, this programming convention of playing live recordings on weekends is ubiquitous across the dial, and indeed across Haiti. Turn on the radio on a Saturday night and you will be hard pressed to find any music that was recorded in a studio. 

Ernst Beruovil at La Difference Salon De Coiffure, Cap Haïtien, Haiti
Ernst Beruovil shaves a customer at La Difference Salon De Coiffure, a barbershop in Cap Haïtien, Haiti, photo by author

My first weekend at Radio Venus, I step out of the studio at dusk, and find the station’s signal is suddenly all around me—far more present than just a few hours earlier. Around the corner from the station, an electronics store has set up a row of folding chairs in the street, and is blasting Radio Venus for a small audience. At the end of the same block is a barbershop; there too the stereo is tuned to Venus, with one cabinet speaker set in its arched entryway. 

At this hour, both the street and the shop are definitively male spaces—save for some market women packing goods and a mother overseeing her son’s haircut, those listening in public are men. A cell card vendor is perched on top of the stereo speaker itself; a man with two live chickens—their heads poking out of the bottom of plastic shopping bags—stops by and quickly exchanges some money with one of the barbers, who plays some air guitar as the next customer takes his seat. One of the other remaining barbers is perched sideways in his stool, feet in the air and a bottle of Barbancourt rum in one hand. The energy is loose, encouraged by the radio announcer.

Back at the station, the small studio is lit only by a single fluorescent bulb, whose harsh light spills through the glass pane into the neighboring control room. Don Lolo is on the air once again, but his style is different. No more telling the time or giving long monologues. Instead he sings along in a full-throated voice, occasionally adding personal shout-outs. We learn that Gerald is celebrating a birthday today, just as Claire and Alex are marking their anniversary. When his phone then rings, instead of picking it up Lolo silences the call and responds by radio: “Sorry, I can’t talk now!” 

It’s late when Don Lolo wraps up his show and we head out of the studio, leaving Louis alone to cool the music back down for the overnight shift. The evening operator, Simon, offers to walk me home. At this hour, we can stroll down the middle of the street side by side, the city’s elaborate facades cast in silhouette by the occasional streetlight. As we head up the hill towards my place, Simon cocks his head and gestures across the street. I turn just in time to catch the station ID—“W’ap koute Radio Tele Venus”—coming out of a barbershop. The radio is still on.

Tune into a livestream of Radio Tele-Venus via Tune In: https://tunein.com/radio/Radio-Tele-Venus-1043-s181945/

Featured Image: “An electronics vendor in Cap Haïtien, Haiti” by Ian Coss

Ian Coss is an audio producer, composer and sound designer whose work spans the worlds of podcasting and performance. He has produced several critically acclaimed series with the Radiotopia network, including Ways of Hearing, The Great God of Depression, and Over the Road. His audio work has been reviewed by the New Yorker and the Guardian; featured on NPR, Al Jazeera and the BBC; and recognized with an Edward R. Murrow Award for ‘excellence in sound.’ Additionally, Ian has premiered live sound works at the Boston Museum of Science and Harvard University, and collaborated on immersive audio tours for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Richmond ICA, and other major art institutions. Ian holds a PhD in ethnomusicology from Boston University, where he conducted research on Haitian radio broadcasting and Indonesian shadow-puppetry. He continues this work as musical director for The Brothers Čampur, an international puppetry collaborative that has performed at major festivals in Indonesia, and at universities throughout the eastern United States. More on all these projects at iancoss.com.

tape reel

REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Radio de Acción: Violent Circuits, Contentious Voices: Caribbean Radio Histories–Alejandra Bronfman

Radio Ambulante: A Radio that Listens –Carolina Guerrero

The Sweet Sounds of Havana: Space, Listening, and the Making of Sonic Citizenship–Vincent Andrisani

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