DVD RE-RUN INTERVIEW: Michele Montas Talks About “The Agronomist,” Haitian History, and Seeking Justice
by Liza Bear
[EDITORS NOTE: Liza Bear spoke with Michele Montas about Jonathan Demme’s “The Agronomist” for indieWIRE in April of 2004; the film will be released on DVD this week (June 7th, 2005).]
The word “democracy” has been so twisted and maligned by neocons as a smokescreen for their own self-serving and retrograde agenda that it’s refreshing, through Jonathan Demme‘s passionate documentary portrait, “The Agronomist,” to witness Jean Dominique and Michele Montas of Radio Haiti Inter affirming its original sense. The doc, now playing from ThinkFilm, is Demme’s fourth film on Haiti. With a fabulous score by Wyclef Jean and Jerry “Wonder” Duplessis, Demme’s 10-year dedication to his subject keeps alive the fiery, uncompromising and thoroughly inspiring Jean Dominique, human rights activist and broadcaster.
Assassinated for telling the truth, Dominique’s practice of journalism was at 180 degrees from the concept of the “embedded” reporter, which here in the U.S. applies to more than wartime. He and his partner Michele Montas were devoted to promoting social justice on the air by excoriation of dictators, sharks, and bullies. Their investigative reporting cost him his life in 2000 and attempts on hers and her staff more recently. With her own inimitable style, Michele Montas is smart, funny and intense, now doubly forceful because she carries her husband’s voice as well as her own. In this interview, Montas, once more in exile, discusses Haiti, her life and work with Jean Dominique and her attempts to seek justice for his killer.
indieWIRE: What is it like for you seeing Jonathan Demme’s film now?
Michele Montas: Well, I’ve seen the birth of this movie, and seen it transformed from almost a family project. Early on, it was an homage that Jonathan was giving to a personal friend. It stayed that way for a long time. As the film evolved — as a universal message explaining Haitian history, Jean was used as a channel to tell the story of Haiti. Now I think this is the film Jean would have liked to see.
iW: Had Radio Haiti started before you met Jean Dominique?
Montas: Yes. I was a student at Columbia and didn’t return to Haiti until ’70-’71. Jean had already bought Radio Haiti and was turning it into a much more powerful AM-FM station that could reach most of the country. He wanted it to be primarily an information source broadcasting in the language of the majority, which is Creole. Haitian media across the board used strictly French, which most Haitians couldn’t relate to. Remember, illiteracy was even more widespread at the time. So radio was really important. And speaking in Creole immediately had an extraordinary impact. It wasn’t only about getting information in Creole but about having exchanges in Creole. For the first time a coffee producer from the south could speak to a coffee producer from the east, and also realize how much they were exploited on the international market by middlemen who siphon off the profits while the producers get precious little.
iW: Who’s “big business” in Haiti?
Montas: Big business is what took out ads on Radio Haiti — we were a commercial station. Haiti is extremely stratified socially with a number of large families controlling most of the economy, and import-export. Recently a lot of crop production has been drastically reduced, but before there was coffee, sugar, essential oils for liqueurs like Cointreau and for perfumes — those were major exports. Sugar’s out now. Sugar and other industries have been strangled by globalization. For instance, chicken farming in Haiti has been emasculated by imported chicken from the U.S., which arrives with a cheap price tag.
iW: No taste, and lots of steroids. Unlike…
Montas: …local chicken, which is grain fed. Of course this line of thinking did not appeal to the commercial interests, several of whom pulled the plug on their ads on Radio Haiti — like soap or plastic manufacturers. Several times, without warning, for instance in ’79-’80 when Jean-Claude Duvalier was beginning to find Radio Haiti a bit too somatre [salty] for his tastes — his first reaction was to ask the advertisers to basically starve us out. We were always walking a tightrope, but from my observations Jean always functioned first as a journalist, and secondly as the owner of a radio station. When they pulled the ads we survived from individual contributions.
iW: From the listeners.
Montas: Absolutely. Like NPR.
iW: More like WBAI.
Montas: Yes, more like WBAI. Under Duvalier there were people who continued to pay for their ads but asked us not to air the commercials — because Duvalier didn’t want them to.
iW: Unlike you, Jean wasn’t trained as a journalist.
Montas: No, but he wrote about film for newspapers radio and television. Commentary.
iW: And also in the ’60s people became journalists out of conviction.
Montas: Voila. Exactly.
iW: And you used your eyes and ears.
Montas: Yes. That’s it.
iW: And you didn’t go to school…
Montas: …to become a journalist. Absolutely not. Jean had a career before we met. There’s a 16-year age difference between us, so Jean worked long before I became a journalist. First as an agronomist. And he always remained extremely sensitive to the needs of small farmers. In the ’50s Jean had studied plant genetics in Paris and on his return worked for eight years to improve crop growth under Duvalier, a really hard period. This was pre-globalization, so agriculture was doing better. He worked on citrus fruits and cocoa. And that’s when politics invaded his life.
iW: He saw people’s working conditions.
Montas: Yes. But there’s something else that’s not in the film. His brother, who was a lieutenant in the Haitian Army, returned from exile with the intention of overthrowing Duvalier. That was the first year of Duvalier’s regime. Jean was arrested. His brother was killed in front of the army barracks. Jean spent six months in jail in Gonaive.
iW: And then?
Montas: Jean had been an agronomist in Cap Haitien in the north of Haiti. But when he returned to Port-au-Prince he had no choice but to get another job because all the agronomists worked for the state.
iW: Did he always have a political consciousness?
Montas: Always. His father was in the import-export business. But in high school, at age 15 or 16, Jean already led the student strike.
iW: How did you meet him?
Montas: I was interested in what he was doing. I’d already seen him around. In ’71-’72 I did an interview with him about Radio Haiti for Le Nouvelliste, a newspaper I worked for. I think it was just a ploy to meet him in person. [laughter]
iW: Must have been hard. His energy is so mercurial.
Montas: Yes. But in my case, and his too, it was a coup de foudre. Outside our work it was always that.
iW: Did you start working together right away?
Montas: In ’73. We had separate shows until 1980. My program went out at 6 p.m. and Jean’s was aired very early, at 7:30 a.m. But when we came back from the first exile in New York we started to work together much more closely.
iW: I’d like to know how you think the discourse about Haiti should be framed.
Montas: The press doesn’t get interested in Haiti unless we have a crisis-blood, people fighting. I’ve rarely seen stories about the hinterlands. That’s what Jonathan Demme tried to do. At the beginning I remember when we were working on the film we had footage of slums. And I said, Jonathan, why don’t you use other footage of Haiti? Because it’s more Jean’s Haiti. The land, the peasantry working. That aspect of Haiti has not changed, whether it’s under an elected government or a dicatatorship. That deeper Haiti — what we call the outside country — has never been acknowledged. There are numbers of people there without identity, without even birth certificates.
iW: So they don’t exist. Do they vote?
Montas: No they don’t! During the first vote drive in ’87 they could vote if they came with two people who could testify on their behalf that they existed.
iW: That they are who they say they are.
Montas: Exactly. And on top of that they work land they don’t own. Even if they think they do, and inherited the land from their grandfather, they don’t have the deed to the land.
iW: So they’re like the Palestinians.
Montas: Yes. It’s very difficult for that majority to get heard. And there was this tremendous hope in ’86 of giving them participation in the affairs of the country. And that’s why you had such a massive vote for Aristide in 1990.
Montas: He represented what we thought was possible, getting a majority of people to decide on their own future.
iW: Was the fact that international aid didn’t get to Aristide a contributing factor to his demise?
Montas: Yes. It was also a pretext for his own failures. And when the money did come it went to the NGOs! UNICEF money. They had programs of their own! The money that went to NGOs could not go to the Haitian government. I mean, you cannot have policy in the hands of NGOs! Then there were loans from the World Bank or the Interamerican bank — all stopped. But no matter how much support I’d give Aristide earlier, to my mind he didn’t put to good use the money that did trickle through.
iW: What is Prime Minister LaTortue going to do for Haiti?
Montas: Right now there is such confusion in Haiti. The interim government controls so little. In the near future I really don’t see La Tortue having that great an impact if there cannot be security and the end of impunity. The two are very closely linked. The main reason for insecurity in Haiti is the fact that there are no punished crimes — no crimes are punished.
iW: Oh, like Colombia. But who decided that?
Montas: [laughter] It’s not decided, it’s just the way it happens. The different governments protect their own people. They do whatever they wish. And they are never punished. There’s also a very incompetent, a very corrupt judicial system… Jean’s case has been a way to push the issue and get some results overhauling the judicial system.
iW: What means are at your disposal?
Montas: First I’ve been pushing for an investigation of Jean’s assassination. Every day on the air I would start our program saying, “Good Morning Jean, it’s been 379 days since we haven’t found justice.” We went on like this for three years. There was an assassination attempt on me in December 2002. And in February 2003 when threats against my journalists were increasing, I decided to continue in other ways. I left. When the so-called investigation report came out with a lot of incomplete charges, I went to the Appellate Court in Haiti. The court agreed with me that the judicial system should find out who ordered the crime because it was obviously paid for.
iW: You knew that much.
Montas: Oh yes. I know quite a bit. I am associating people high up in the Lavalas party.
iW: Why do you think brings the level of violence in Haiti to this tragic intensity?
Montas: For two hundred years Haiti has been swimming upstream. We were the first country in which independence was won by a group of slaves — black slaves. Across the water, the country that had just achieved independence — the U.S. — still practiced slavery. At the time Latin America was composed only of colonies. We were up against the biggest army of the colonial world, the Napoleonic army. Haiti was ostracized for almost a century. Surviving in that international context is in itself a feat. And then our neighbors started meddling in our affairs. So our history is of people on the defensive. And for 200 years the Haitian army controlled our fate politically. It never worked because Haiti is closer to anarchy than it is to anything else. Duvalier had done it under a very repressive regime.
iW: Do you want to continue Radio Haiti?
Montas: I do, I do. But right now I cannot because the people targeted by the investigation [of Jean’s murder] are the same ones who tried to kill me in December. Also I would want to make Radio Haiti as independent as possible, which means it can’t be strictly commercial.
iW: You’d better get George Soros to finance it… Are you optimistic about the future?
Montas: Right now I am cautious about the future. But it’s very difficult to have lived 28 years later with a man like Jean and not be optimistic. You tell yourself, “Sooner or later, we’ll get there.”