Free speech, neo-colonialism and micro-powered broadcasting in Haiti

Free Radio IRATE (International Radio Action Trarning in Education) visits Haiti to spread micro-powered radio as a form of coup insurance

When an orchestrated coup d’ t‰t produced its first mutinous rumblings at a military base outside of Haiti’s capital city, Michel Favard, then director of the national radio station, caught wind of the plan and sent an appeal for vigilance over the airwaves. Supporters of Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, took to the streets of Port-au-Prince and fashioned road-blocks in efforts to slow the coup’s movement. At the same time, only minutes after Favard’s Paul Revere-like cry, a group of men in olive-toned uniforms led the messenger away from radio headquarters in handcuffs. He would go missing for days. A body would be found riddled with bullet holes. Unconfirmed rumors would spread that it was his. At least one international news service would report Favard dead.

As the story went, Michel Favard was freed days later, unharmed, and Aristide’s return to the presidency from October 1994 to February 1996 saw Favard’s rise to the position of Presidential Press Secretary. Yet, his abduction by the forces of putsch-leader Lieutenant General Raoul Cedras in the fall of 1991 signified danger for radio broadcasters throughout Haiti. Days after Favard’s release, the BBC would announce that a popular station, Radio Lumiere, went off the air voluntarily after reporting that some 40 civilians in a rural village were massacred by the military. The Washington Post would soon retell the tale: Uniformed gunmen had opened fire from a passing vehicle, according to witnesses. Bullets peppered the station’s satellite dish. As it had done to the same station in 1987Ñthe night before elections which would be canceled due to bloodshed at the pollsÑviolent force rendered the Protestant-run station silent. A month after the ’91 coup, at least four of tens of radio stations–independent, Catholic, and Protestant–all ransacked by military and police forces, would still be out of commission.

Somewhere in the manual of overthrowing a government, perhaps on the first page, it says, seize the radio station. So says Free Radio Berkeley’s founder Stephen Dunifer in this year’s Seizing the Airwaves: A Free Radio Handbook. The events in Haiti of October 1991 prove his point. Cedras, now in exile, seemed versed in the radical mantra of the Berkeley-born Free Speech Movement: If you can’t communicate, you can’t organize, and if you can’t organize, you can’t fight back. Preferring can to can’t, Dunifer’s Free Radio Berkeley IRATEÑInternational Radio Action Training in EducationÑis working to ensure that communities in politically turbulent areas up and down this hemisphere have the equipment and expertise to communicate, organize, and fight for themselves.

PIRATE’s efforts to date have concentrated on communities in Canada, Mexico, Guatemala and Haiti, with work in Haiti leading the rest. IRATE’s Haiti program began in 1994, before Aristide’s return to power. Having received requests for equipment, Dunifer sent shipments of microradio transmitters clandestinely, disguising the goods as karaoke machines. He has since traveled to Haiti twice, once meeting briefly with Aristide to discuss a blueprint for the Haitian radio system. If Haiti can insure that its radio band is divided into three distinct classes–commercial, community, and public or government radio–with 50% or more reserved for the last two, to insure community radio’s autonomy.

Corporate control of the airwaves, and a Federal Communications Commission that operates hand-in- hand with deep-pocketed interests, is so rigidly protected in the U.S. that the three-pronged model is a only a dream in this liberal democratic (read “capitalist”) state. Judge Claudia Wilken’s decision last month to grant the FCC an injunction against FRB is just another gavel to the heads of democracy’s daydreamers. In Haiti, though, the system of frequency monitoring and distribution is still under construction. Dunifer’s IRATE hopes to lend a hand in the architectural project by getting as many people as possible from as many communities to learn how to start, run, and maintain radio stations. According to Dunifer, “the emphasis on grassroots radio is a form of coup insurance.” Wattage will be low, around 15, 30, or 75, but there is power in numbers. The more stations there are, and the less centralized and fixed their locales, the harder it will beÑfor capitalists, dictators, and military juntasÑto shut them up.

The IRATE mission in mind, FRB’s Matthew [WHAT’S HIS LAST NAME?], Joe Williams, and Govinda Dalton spent three weeks in Haiti this May. Funded by the Parish 20 Project, the East Bay Sanctuary, members of the Berkeley Unitarian Fellowship, and various private donors in the Bay Area, the activists traveled by foot, bus, even donkey, from Port-au-Prince to Fondwa to Jacmel to Balimb and back to Port-au-Prince, then to Les Cayes and Rivi re de Nippes, weighted with transmitters, converters, soldering irons and a body of technical knowledge to be distributed to the newest voices of Haitian radio. They came back with plans for an in-country micropower network, tapes of countrymen’s analyses of Haiti’s political and economic strife, and first-hand experience of the Third World.

With its year-long summer, tropical waters on three sides, and a reputation as the world’s number five producer of mangoes, Haiti has the makings of an island paradise. But a history of dictatorial abuse, elite market control and multinational corporate exploitation has left the country the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Less than one percent of rural homes has electricity. Most of the water isn’t potable. Malnutrition is chronic. The life expectancy of the average Haitian is fifty-four; here, it is past seventy. Go into any travel shop in Berkeley for information on Haiti and you will find no guides, no books, rarely a map. Political turmoil along with an AIDS scare blown to horrific proportion by the news media in the early 80s has decimated the tourist industry. The only mention of travel to Haiti I find is in a guidebook on the Dominican Republic, the country which shares Haiti’s Eastern border and the other two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola. On travel to Haiti by the so-called International Highway, the Moon Travel Handbook warns:
At this time it is hazardous because of smuggling and tension. Avoid the road.

Joe Williams’s first picture of Haiti is no less romantic. The altitude drop as the plane descended into Port-au-Prince brought the details of his green and turquoise impression into sharp focus. There were old rusted hulks of airplanes lining the runway. He continues, seeming to agree tacitly with the U.S. State Department’s policy of warning travelers to Port-au-Prince of below-par airport safety standards. You travel there at your own risk. It’s a major transit area for drugs–and it’s a mess.

Williams and Dalton quickly learn of the latest causes of devastating poverty and environmental decayÑthe messÑin Haiti. 1978 brought African swine fever to Haiti’s then one-million strong black pig population. In Haitian Kreyol, the word for pig and bank are the same. And the rural peasants, who comprise over seventy percent of the Haitian population, treated their pigs as banks. Pigs brought down farming costs by aerating the soil; they kept sanitation levels high by eating household waste; they produced nitrogen-rich fertilizer. In times of crisis they could be sold for a hundred bucksÑas much as a peasant might make in a yearÑto pay for medical bills, a funeral, or maybe a wedding. In times of crisis, they could be eaten.

By 1981, the disease had ravaged hundreds of thousands of pigsÑa natural disaster attributable to poor customs practices, or the will of the Vodou spirits. A feeling just as naturalÑfearÑand one less naturalÑthe taste for profitÑaroused a concerned res
ponse from the American pork industry. Soon after, the Haitian Pig Eradication Program was underway. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture (an agency of the Organization of American States), the Inter-American Development Bank and various segments of governments in the Dominican Republic, Canada, the United States and Haiti combined forcesÑwith the U.S. weighing in heavily. According to Robert Lawless, author of Haiti’s Bad Press, “over fifteen million dollars of the total project price of twenty-three million dollars came from the United States, and the Agency for International Development [U.S. A.I.D.] took a leading role in the project. As peasants in the Haitian countryside explained the procedure to Govinda Dalton, Duvalier’s henchman approached pig owners with a choice to the effect of kill your pig or we’ll machete you. The program lasted from 1981 to 1983. By August 1984, Haiti was declared free of swine fever, and, Lawless writes, of pigs.

Chosen for high feed conversion rates rather than adaptability, an American breed of fat white Iowa pig was brought in to repopulate. They could not take the Haitian heat. Special concrete houses were built to keep them cool at the central breeding site in Port-au-Prince. Recipients of the new imported pigs had to pay to build such houses on their own property. P re Miso, a parish priest from Les Cayes, spoke to Dalton about the new pigs. Those pigs are not adapted to our country. Those pigs need a lot of food. A lot of food. The native pig we had, they ate anything. From the tree. From the kitchen. But the American pigs won’t eat just anything. Special American feed has to be imported. At the cost of about $100 per-year-per-pig these animals require more in spending than most peasants make. A bad agronomic joke, the pig fiasco holds a fun-house mirror up to race and class relations. The black pigs are eradicated and white ones are bred in their place. The price of feeding the white pig comes at the expense of the black peasant’s stomach.

No education efforts were undertaken to teach pig owners how to prevent African swine fever. No peasants were told that the meat of their sick pigs was still edible. U.S. A.I.D. made promises to repay pig owners for their losses, but few farmers saw any money. Some analysts credit the pig fiasco with mass migration to Haiti’s cities, which has left Port-au-Prince, for one, bursting at the seams. Some credit the Pig Eradication Program with Operation Dechoukay–the 1986 overthrow of Jean-Claude Baby Doc Duvalier’s regime. As Dalton understands the situation, rural folk are left with empty hands. The only way for them to make quick cash is to chop down the trees. These can be sold for charbon, charcoal, which is used as cooking fuel. The long term result is mass deforestationÑnow at 95%. The climate gets hotter. Erosion, which affects a quarter of Haiti’s soil, is aggravated. Soil and sediment fill the streams. The fresh water supply is destroyed. You get this incredible cycle,” the soft-talking Dalton says, “that all comes back to the American taxpayer.

The cycle may not be as mechanical as all that. But American farmers looking to maintain export markets and multinational corporations hungry for wage-fodder have interests in keeping the Third World agriculturally, hence economically, dependent. That dependence is fostered by International Monetary Fund and World Bank requirements that tariffs on imports be low. When it is cheaper to import rice from the U.S. than to grow it at home, dependence is guaranteed. International politics and simple economics push the urban poor into 28 cent-an-hour pin-head jobs in multinational factories. (Until Rawlings moved its operation to Costa Rica in ’91, Haiti was the world’s largest manufacturer of baseballs.)

But internal as well as international forces are keeping Haiti where it is. The mulatto eliteÑthe meager 5% who hold 50% of the nation’s wealthÑset prices for the masses. As a consequence, life in Haiti is exorbitantly expensive. Aristide and others have worked successfully to set up credit unions for the poor. Now people can borrow at the rate of one percent a month, rather than the twenty-percent and more charged by loan sharks. But when imports far exceed exports a nation’s economy suffers. When the rich set prices indiscriminately, the poor get poorer and more desperate. As Aristide, known affectionately as Titid by supporters of the Lavalas party, puts it: pa gen lap nan tet si pa gen lap nan vant. There can be no peace of mind without peace in the stomach.

Despite the tortures of daily life and neo-liberal, neo-colonial world politics, according to Dalton, “the enthusiasm of young people for radio is just phenomenal.” Radio is an escape, a way up and out of poverty. “There’s a social standing with respect to radio,” Williams says, remarking on the change in posture when a kid gets a microphone in his hand. “There’s bone crushing poverty. People cannot see long term anything. You’re not thinking next year. You’re not thinking past next week.” Still, he says of the radio workshop groups, “the politics of Haiti didn’t seem to be hitting them in the head, so to speak.”

The intensive four day workshops, which led groups, via translators, from theories of frequency modulation to laying out parts, constructing exciters, attaching amplifiers, setting up antennas and finally broadcasting, may have been a break in the everyday lives of the participants. Yet, whether independent, Protestant, Catholic, Vodou or left-wing radical there is something inherently political about broadcasting over Haitian radio. The illiteracy rate is 80%. Mainstream papers, which circulate on a scale of eight to every one-thousand people, are almost exclusively written in French. Kreyol is the language of le peuple. French is the language of colonial rule, the language of the elite, of the educated few. Less than 5% of children are in school and of those, only 20% complete the primary grades.

While radio may be one of the oldest forms of electronic mass communication, it is still the most democratic medium in Haiti. There is one television set per two-hundred and sixty-five people. About six- hundred people in a country of upwards of 6.5 million have e-mail. One out of seventy-nine people has a telephone. Yet, one out of every 2.2 people has a radio. Plus, radio can build roads without turning a stone. “They say Haiti is like a golf course,” Dalton says of the infrastructure, “you drive from hole to hole.” Williams adds, “They call it ‘undisciplined driving’ in the State Department guidebook on Haiti. It’s not ‘undisciplined.’ People are zigzagging to avoid the potholes. It looks like a demolition derby!” The roads as divot-ridden as they are, and paths so mountainous it can take three hours to travel fifty miles, radio is the best way to get the meeting to the people. Radio can act as a service in emergencies, it can be used for education on agriculture, health, and sanitation. It can provide a road where existing roads are impassable.

Joseph Philippe, a member of the Holy Ghost Church, a provincial bursar in Haiti, coordinator of the Peasant Association of Fondwa, and coordinator of the alternative bank for grassroots organizations in Haiti, has been working in Fondwa since the late 1980s. Before, when community members got sick, a door was taken off the front of their home and used as a stretcher. The sick would often die on the six hour walk to the nearest hospital. Now, there is community center with a medical unit staffed by two full-time nurses. Philippe is also promoting a reforestation project by providing incentivesÑlike highly valued hoes and pickaxesÑto those who plant trees. He is looking into alternative energy sources, like wind-mills, to provide electricity for Fondwa. “Fondwa is not Chicago, but it is a windy place,” he jokes. “Everything we are doing in Fondwa, we are trying to get an alternative.”
A micropower transmitter is another in the list of alternative power sources for the 40,000 people in Fondwa and neighboring towns.

“At the beginning,” he says of the start of grassroots efforts in 1988, “the first priority people recognized was to build a road. They didn’t have…equipment. They had only hoes, pick axes, wheel barrows….But after a few months they wanted to rent a bulldozer. It was in 1989, during the military coup. And they have to rent it from the government…for three-thousand dollars. People collected five, ten, twenty….They got money from everybody. Catholics, non-believers, Voodoos people, Protestant people, the Chief of Section [a military branch]…and they collected one thousand dollars.” Philippe arranged for some connections to cover the difference.

“But when they have a talk with the people who will rent them the bulldozer, the peasants of Fondwa said ‘What will happen if we buy our gas ourself?’ Because the renters of the bulldozer said you need two- hundred dollars more a day,” twenty-five for the driver and one-hundred and seventy-five for gas. “The people said, ‘Okay. We are going to buy the gas and we are going to pay the driver.’ And the people from the government said, ‘Okay. You can go.’ And everything was settled.” The frugal and clever peasants had arranged to buy three days’ worth of gas for one-hundred dollars. “Rather than expensing $600 they paid only $175. And the people of the government at that time got mad.”

A government plan was arranged whereby men would steal the bulldozer at night and heave responsibility on Fondwa. “But the peasants knew about that. They organized what they call ‘brigade vigilance’–like a neighborhood watching.” So the government’s men didn’t come at night. “Finally they came during the day, ten huge men, to pick up the bulldozer….There was an elderly man who said to them, ‘Hey guys, you are going down with the bulldozer and you didn’t talk to anybody. The president of our association is not very far from here. Will you talk to him?'”

The men were not swayed. “They said, ‘Bullshit! Go away from us.’ And the elderly man said, ‘It will cost nothing to just wait awhile. I’m going to call him.'” The men waited. The president came to them and made his plea. The townspeople had put money out and gas into the bulldozer. It wasn’t fair that these men just come and take it. “‘And they said ‘Go away from us!’ and a lot of stupid words. I don’t know them in English.”

Then, “the president of the association take a conch shell, we call it in Haiti ‘Lum-Bee.’ It’s a kind of musical instrument the slaves used to use when there was a time of revolution. And whenever you have to cry for help you blow out this instrument. And everybody come. And at that time the president took out a conch shell and blow out in it. And everybody came…with machetes, with sticks, and whatever they find and they make a circle around the guys from the government. And finally the president came down and said, ‘Guys, now can we have a talk?’ The men said, ‘Why not?'”

On that day, the sounding of the conch shell brought the community together, to organize and fight for their rights. As this story went, the people of Fondwa eventually gave up their bulldozer when a flood devastated a nearby city, washing corpses into the streets. The road is better than it was in ’88, but it isn’t finished. Still, the story of the bulldozer and the conch shell, two instruments for organizing a community of peasants, warrants retelling. And it may just be rewritten when the micro-radio transmitter becomes takes its place as a revolutionary instrument of Haitian empowerment.