They dressed him in white. Over 10,000 Haitians came to pay their respects, weeping for the man who for over 30 years had broadcast their voice in their language. Unknown gunmen had sprayed Jean Dominique’s car with bullets as he arrived at his radio station in the capital city of Port-au-Prince on the morning of April 3, 2000. He was 69 years old.
Born into a politically charged and firmly progressive family in 1930, Dominique saw his older brother killed in an early effort to bring down a dynastic regime that would last for 25 years. After studying agronomy in Paris, he returned to Haiti to help poor farmers optimize their crops and avoid being indebted to wealthy landowners.
In the Sixties he began working at Radio Haïti, the country’s first independent radio station and the first to broadcast in Haitian Creole, the native tongue of a vast majority of the Haitian people (French being the language of the elite). Once he bought the lease to the station, he changed its name, and over the next three decades Radio Haiti-Inter would report on government scandals and abuses. Dominique himself delivered withering condemnations, first on the father-son dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” and Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, and then on the repression of democratic movements following Baby Doc’s removal in 1986.
For his constant censure, Haiti’s most prominent journalist received equally constant death threats. His radio station was twice shut down by the government, forcing Dominique and his family to flee Haiti — once in 1980 under Baby Doc, and then again in 1991 when the military overthrew the democratically elected government. When Dominique returned after his first exile in 1986, he was met at the airport with the cheers of over 50,000 people. Forced into exile again a few years later, he was finally able to return to his homeland for good after U.S. troops occupied Haiti in 1994 and returned Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency.
Dominique became a vocal critic of Aristide’s party Fanmi Lavalas, accusing it corruption. Many considered him a major opponent of the former president’s reelection bid, and indeed in 2014 a judge indicted a former Lavalas senator suspected of organizing the assassination under Aristide’s orders. (Aristide went on to win the 2000 election by a landslide but was ultimately removed from power again by yet another coup in 2004.)
Shortly before his death, Dominique spoke about the promising changes he saw developing in his beloved Haiti:
Throughout Haiti now, more and more poor citizen are asking questions. What question? There has been with the actual government of President Preval many attempt to put in practice what the Constitution call decentralization, decentralization. What does that mean? That means that the small communities are actually able to take their own affairs in their hands. That’s power to the local government. That’s decentralization, contrary to the Haitian tradition of centralization, everything in the national palace. Now, every community has the chance to take in their hand their business, the business of the community, which is a fantastic step for democracy, actually. …
Maybe our masters don’t like this process. Maybe, maybe, in the paradise of our big brothers, they don’t like that those poor, desperate, illiterate, dirty people can take their destiny in their hands. But I think that they are wrong. They are wrong with their own principle, because a town meeting in the United States is not a revolutionary, is it? When a citizen goes to a town meeting to discuss things about his town, his city, he’s a normal citizen. We want our democracy based on town meetings. We want our democracy based on the Jefferson principles. Is Jefferson contrary to Washington now?
Unfortunately, the people of Haiti have since suffered military interventions and natural disasters which have destroyed any hope of political or economic stability in the country.
Radio Haïti-Inter continued its broadcasts under the leadership of Dominique’s widow Michèle Montas, finally shutting down in 2003 after an attack on Montas’s home cost her bodyguard his life and forced Montas into yet another exile.
Remembering Dominique — and the undying spirit of independence in Latin America’s first independent nation — is how we celebrate our heritage.