Michèle Montas is having lunch at a restaurant in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. While commenting on the schedule being presented to her by National Coalition for Haitian Rights executive director Jocelyn McCalla for her weeklong visit to the United States, Montas barely manages to sip her water.
When the waiter comes to refill her half-full glass, he stops to ask about a button pinned to her jacket.
On the button is a picture of a curly-haired man with piercing eyes. Above his high forehead and raised eyebrows are the words Jean Dominique Vivan (“Jean Dominique Lives”).
“Who is Jean Dominique?” asks the waiter.
“My husband,” answers Montas.
When the waiter asked that question this past December, it had been eight months since Jean Léopold Dominique, Haiti’s best-known and most outspoken radio journalist, was murdered as he arrived for work at his radio station in the Delmas section of Port-au-Prince. For more than two decades, excluding stretches of time when they were twice forced into exile, the two had worked together, co-anchoring a morning news program, the highlights of which were Dominique’s commentaries on Haitian social and political life. Friends and foes listened to Dominique, to “smell the air and test the waters,” as he liked to say, “get closer to the béton,” gauge the mood of the streets. Being the owner and director of his own station, Radio Haiti Inter, allowed Dominique a kind of autonomy that few hired journalists could manage in a volatile political climate. Having survived a slew of provisional military regimes that followed the thirty-year Duvalier father-and-son dictatorships, during which his brother was murdered and he and Montas were arrested, it seemed that he had lived through the worst times in Haiti. All that changed, however, on the morning of April 3, 2000, when Dominique’s death itself became a symbol of unsettling times ahead.
Had this been any other morning, Montas and Dominique would have been together when he and Jean Claude Louissaint, a watchman at their radio station, were gunned down in the station’s parking lot. “We usually drove to work together,” Montas explains. “That morning, Jean left ten minutes before me to look at some international news for the program. As I got in the car, leaving home, I heard some usual announcements on the radio and then silence. I called the station and the person who answered told me, ‘Just come!’ When I pulled into the parking lot, the police were there. I saw Jean Claude Louissaint, then I saw Jean’s body on the ground. I called to him, but he didn’t answer. I rushed upstairs to call the doctor, thinking something could be done. I didn’t believe he was dead until the doctor confirmed it.”
Even though the outgoing president of Haiti, René Préval, was a close friend of Dominique’s, ten months later the murder remains unsolved. In his final State of the Nation address this past January, Préval admitted that “the biggest weakness of my five-year presidency is justice.” Citing Dominique’s case, he warned parliamentarians, “If we leave this corpse at the crossroads of impunity, we should watch out so that the same people who killed Jean do not kill us as well.”