May 29, 2009
The Rev. Gérard Jean-Juste, Champion of Haitian Rights in U.S., Dies at 62
By WILLIAM GRIMES
The Rev. Gérard Jean-Juste, a Roman Catholic priest who championed the rights of Haitians in the United States and was twice imprisoned in Haiti for his staunch support of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and criticism of the interim government installed in 2004, died Wednesday in Miami. He was 62.
The cause was complications of a stroke and a lung problem, his brother Kernst told The Associated Press.
Father Gerry, as he was often called, came to prominence in the late 1970s as director of the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami, where he became a vocal advocate of Haitians seeking asylum in the United States. Through demonstrations and legal action, he fought tirelessly to force the United States government to change its policy of regarding Haitians as economic rather than political refugees, in sharp contrast to its policy toward Cubans.
After decades spent in exile from the governments of François Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude, he returned to Haiti in 1991 when Mr. Aristide was elected president, taking the post of minister representing Haitians abroad. His fearless criticism of the government installed to replace Mr. Aristide, and his work for the poor at the Church of Ste. Claire, in Delmas, a suburb of the capital, Port-au-Prince, made him one of Haiti’s most popular political figures.
Father Jean-Juste (pronounced zhahn-ZHOOST) was born in Cavaillon, Haiti, and studied for the priesthood in Canada. In 1971 he became the first Haitian ordained in the United States in a ceremony at the Church of St. Avila in Brooklyn, where he was a deacon. He then returned to Haiti and worked in a remote parish. An adherent of liberation theology, he regarded political activity and service to the poor as his priestly mission.
He left for the United States in 1971 after refusing to sign an oath of loyalty to the government of Jean-Claude Duvalier. While living and working at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, he earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering technology from Northeastern University in 1974 and a second bachelor’s in civil engineering from Northeastern in 1977.
In the 1970s, facing political turmoil and grinding poverty, thousands of desperate Haitians sought asylum and economic opportunity in the United States, where they were put into detention centers and, in all but a small number of cases, sent back to Haiti. Father Jean-Juste helped found the Haitian Refugee Center to help refugees, protest government immigration laws and fight local discrimination. He was often seen, bullhorn in hand, at the head of street demonstrations.
“Haitian people had no rights in Haiti, and they have no rights here,” he told The Miami Herald in 1980. “They are starving, they are being separated from their families, they cannot work.”
Marleine Bastien, executive director of the nonprofit organization Haitian Women of Miami, told The Associated Press: “We were out in the streets, demonstrating nearly every day on behalf of other Haitian immigrants. I can still in my mind’s eye see him lying on the ground when buses were taking refugees without process — lying there in the path of the buses.”
Father Jean-Juste also incurred the wrath of the archdiocese of Miami by conducting funeral services for non-Catholic Haitians who drowned at sea and by picketing Archbishop Edward McCarthy of Miami, who he said was a racist failing to defend the rights of Haitian refugees.
“When he first came to the Haitian Refugee Center, most of the church agencies wanted to treat the Haitian refugee issue as one of charity,” Jack Lieberman, a founder of the refugee center, told New Times, a Miami newspaper, in 2005. “Jean-Juste pointed out that there was an injustice.”
In 1980 the center won an important victory when a district court, ruling that the Immigration and Naturalization Service had committed “wholesale violations of due process” and shown racial bias in ordering mass deportations of refugees, ordered that new hearings be held for the more than 4,000 Haitian refugees represented in the class-action suit brought by the center and other organizations.
Father Jean-Juste’s return to Haiti in 1991 plunged him into the country’s turbulent politics. When Mr. Aristide was ousted by a military coup after seven months in office, Father Jean-Juste went into hiding for three years, resurfacing when Mr. Aristide returned to the presidency in 1994. He resumed his work as a rector at the Church of Ste. Claire, in the Delmas district of Port-au-Prince, where he operated a soup kitchen to feed the poor.
After Mr. Aristide was deposed a second time, in 2004, by a rebellion, Father Jean-Juste became a target of the interim government, which arrested and imprisoned him twice. After his second arrest, in July 2005, he faced charges of involvement in the death of Jacques Roche, a journalist.
By then, he was being put forward as a candidate himself, and the murder charges, universally regarded as politically motivated, caused an international outcry from human rights organizations. After several months, the main charges were dropped, but he was indicted on lesser charges of weapons possession and criminal conspiracy. While he was imprisoned, his supporters tried to register him as a candidate for the 2006 presidential elections, a move that was blocked by the government.
In December 2005 Father Saint-Juste discovered that he had leukemia, and in early 2006 he was released from prison to seek treatment in a Miami hospital. In November 2007 he appeared before an appeals court in Haiti to answer remaining charges against him. Questioned about weapons, he told the judge, “My rosary is my only weapon.” Eventually all charges against him were dropped.
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company