Thursday, June 04, 2009
The People's Priest
Father Gerard Jean-Juste, The People's Priest, 1946 - 2009 by Kim Ives, Haiti
Liberte, June 4, 2009
Source: Haiti Liberté
Here’s one anecdote that captures the man. While he was jailed for political
reasons in late 2005, the priest took part of his prison rations and any extra
food friends and family had brought him and distributed it to hungry residents
of the neighborhood outside his prison cell window.
Father Gérard Jean-Juste, one of Haiti’s most prominent liberation theology
priests, died at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, FL on the afternoon of May
27 due to complications stemming from leukemia and a stroke he suffered in
early March. He was 63.
Within hours, the news raced through Haiti and its diaspora, particularly in
Miami, where he was revered as the spiritual leader of Haiti’s refugees,
whom he galvanized into a potent political force during the late 1970s and the
Jean-Juste left Haiti in 1965 for schooling at a seminary in Canada and at
Northeastern University in Boston. In 1971, he became the first Haitian
Catholic priest to be ordained in the United States in a ceremony at St. Teresa
of Avila Parish in Brooklyn. Five years later, he took over as director of
Miami’s Catholic Church-run Haitian Refugee Center (HRC), which had been
operated principally as a charity. But as ever-growing waves of
”boat-people” arrived in Florida fleeing Haiti’s Duvalier dictatorship,
Jean-Juste transformed the Center’s mission into a political one, creating
unease, and increasingly dismay, in the Catholic hierarchy. He and several
generations of intrepid Haitian and North American lawyers and activists
organized large, spirited demonstrations to denounce, in equal measures,
Duvalierist repression and the U.S. government’s discriminatory treatment of
Haitian refugees, who were deported back to Haiti or thrown into immigration
detention centers while their Cuban counterparts were welcomed with
immediate political asylum.
The HRC also became a ground-breaking legal laboratory where prominent
immigration lawyers like Ira Kurzban, Ira Gollobin, Cheryl Little, and Steve
Forester defended hundreds of refugees and won landmark immigration cases,
forging legal precedents which serve refugee defense attorneys to this day.
As the HRC became more embroiled in political and funding battles in the Reagan
years of the early 1980s, Jean-Juste and his comrades formally split the legal
and political work by spinning off a political action popular organization
named, in Kreyol, “Veye Yo” (Watch Them), which set up its meeting hall
across the street from the Center. Although the Center has closed, Veye Yo
remains to this day the largest and most influential Haitian grassroots group
in Miami, and perhaps in all of Haiti’s diaspora.
Following the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship on Feb. 7, 1986 - also the day
Jean-Juste was born near the southern town of Cavaillon in 1946 - Father Gerry,
as he was affectionately called, began spending more time in Haiti, where he
set up a Veye Yo branch and began collaborating closely with another Catholic
priest, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
In September 1986, the two priests organized a week-long “Youth Congress”
in the southern city of Les Cayes, where some 2,000 young people from all over
Haiti gathered to hear speeches by Aristide, Jean-Juste and a host of other
liberation theologians and to meet in workshops to hammer out a post-Duvalier
agenda. This was the seminal meeting of what would later be called the Lavalas
(Flood) movement and produced the watchwords, blueprints and militants that
would catapult Aristide to the Presidency four years later.
The analysis and discussions at the “Youth Congress” were sharply
anti-imperialist, and often anti-capitalist. The gathering had as its principal
slogan “Ayiti pa pou vann, ni an gwo ni an detay” (Haiti is not for sale,
either wholesale or retail). At the time, the neo-Duvalierist military junta,
the National Government Council (CNG), was enforcing
Washington’s neo-liberal agenda of closing or selling state-owned enterprises
(like the national ricin oil plant ENAOL) and flooding Haiti with cheap
“Miami Rice,” which would decimate once-robust Haitian rice production over
the next two decades.
The Youth Congress ended with a giant march to the city’s outskirts where the
demonstrators dramatically tore down a large monument erected to commemorate
the Marchaterre massacre, in which U.S. Marines gunned down 22 protesting
Haitian peasants on Dec. 6, 1929 during the First U.S. Occupation of Haiti
(1915-1934). All during the march, Jean-Juste ran up and down the edges of the
crowd with a bullhorn, as he often did in Miami, urging protesters on.
Jean-Juste continued to travel back and forth to Miami, where he led the
community in demonstrations against various neo-Duvalierist governments. In one
memorable 1989 action, Jean-Juste organized a team of Veye Yo members to
ambush, with jeers and signs, the delegation of then President Prosper Avril, a
former Duvalierist general, in the Miami International Airport. One of the
women demonstrators even yanked Avril’s tie. A picture of the startled
general-president appeared on the cover of that week’s edition of
Haiti Progres, a weekly to which Jean-Juste sent weekly pictures and dispatches
about Miami events.
Jean-Juste resigned as HRC’s director in 1991 to work in Haiti under the new
Aristide administration, but soon found himself in hiding for three years in
Carrefour-Feuilles’ St. Gérard Church for most of the 1991-1994 coup
d’état against Aristide. A strict pacifist who held up slain Salvadorean
Archbishop Oscar Romero as a model, Jean-Juste was a strong proponent of
“active non-violence” and applauded actions like the 1992 drop from a small
plane of thousands of pro-Aristide flyers over Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien.
After Aristide’s return in 1994, Jean-Juste became the priest at St.
Claire’s Church in the shanty town of Ti Plas Kazo, a bleak warren of tin and
cinderblock shacks in the capital’s Delmas district. There he preached and in
2000 set up a program to feed some 1,000 local children daily.
He rose again to national prominence following the Feb. 29, 2004 coup against
Aristide. This time he did not go into hiding but instead challenged the
democratic pretensions of Washington-installed de facto Prime Minister Gérard
Latortue, attending public meetings as a representative of Aristide’s Lavalas
In response, the de facto government arrested Jean-Juste three times beginning
October 13, 2004 on a rotating menu of charges: disturbing the peace, weapons
possession, criminal association, treason, and, most preposterously, the July
2005 murder of journalist Jacques Roches.
On July 21, 2005, the day of his final arrest, Jean-Juste was helping to
officiate a funeral at St. Pierre’s Church in Pétionville for Roches, who
was a distant cousin from Cavaillon. He had been warned by many, including his
boss, Bishop Serge Miot, not to attend the mass, but he refused to be
”The church hierarchy knew that the de facto officials were about to kill
me,” Jean-Juste said in a June 2006 interview in Miami with Crowing Rooster
Arts. “The plot came from the de facto government,” but had the cooperation
of leaders of the coup’s political front, the Group of 184, and the
bourgeoisie’s radio stations, he said.
”They stationed a death squad outside the church,” Jean-Juste explained.
“This was later to become the coup’s terror force, Lanme Timachet [the
Little Machete Army]. They were trained to get me. Some of them didn’t even
know me, because at first they went to another priest with a beard. To start
the attack, [de facto Culture Minister] Magalie Comeau Denis and another woman
began screaming and accusing me of killing Jacques. Then two leaders from the
Group of 184 pointed me out to the death squad and they rushed in my direction.
They circled me.”
The thugs attacked Jean-Juste as he backed away from them up a staircase toward
the rectory. A North American lawyer, Bill Quigley, and a young Haitian woman
threw themselves between the attackers and the priest. One of the attackers
tried to stab Jean-Juste with a spike, but wounded the woman instead. Another
assailant had a gun but apparently became too afraid to use it. The U.N.
occupation troops, MINUSTAH belatedly intervened, turning Jean-Juste over to
Haitian police, who promptly arrested him because he was accused of Roche’s
killing by “public clamor.”
”I learned later that it was a 3 million gourdes plot [$77,000 US],”
Jean-Juste said. “The thugs got one million up front, but the balance of two
million was to come only after delivering my body.”
In all, Jean-Juste spent some seven months in jail as what Amnesty
International called “a prisoner of conscience.” Under pressure from an
international human rights campaign, the de facto authorities “provisionally
released” Jean-Juste in January 2006 for health reasons after a surreptitious
jailhouse examination and blood-drawing by Dr. Paul Farmer
revealed the priest was suffering from advanced leukemia. He was flown to Miami
and treated at Jackson Memorial Hospital. The leukemia briefly went into
While he was in jail, some Lavalas Family members drafted Jean-Juste to be the
party’s presidential candidate in Feb. 7, 2006 elections, despite an official
party boycott of the de facto-run polling. However, the de facto electoral
council disqualified him.
Once safely back in Miami, Jean-Juste endorsed the candidacy of former
President René Préval, who went on to win the election.
Jean-Juste’s defining moment came in Haiti in November 2007, when he appeared
before an appeals court which decided not to dismiss the charges against him.
When a judge questioned the weapons charge, he pulled something from his pocket
and uttered, to the boisterous applause of the courthouse, what has become one
of his most famous lines: “My rosary is my only weapon.”
Despite this deeply religious spirit, the Catholic hierarchy prohibited
Jean-Juste from carrying out his priestly duties following his 2005 arrest.
This sanction deeply hurt Jean-Juste and created psychological stress that
contributed to the relapse of his disease in 2009.
Since Jean-Juste’s death, radios, newspapers and the Internet have been
filled with glowing, heart-felt tributes to the priest.
”Honor to you, Father Jean-Juste! Respect for you, Gerry, our brother!”
wrote Aristide in a long Kreyol poem from exile in Pretoria, South Africa on
May 28. “You will always remain living in the spirit of those who love you.
That is how you have triumphed over death! The more we take the stars of
compliments to give you a crown of recognition, the more we will always
Bell Angelot, a Lavalas leader from Cap Haitien also wrote a long lyrical
tribute. “A powerful spirit has left this earth, and our mourning darkens the
whole city,” he wrote. “A griot left for eternity and the whole tribe is in
tears. But though the prophet is gone, his light remains.”
”Pere Jean-Juste was a Jesus-like revolutionary,” wrote Bill Quigley. “In
jail and out, he preached liberation of the poor, release of prisoners, human
rights for all, and a fair distribution of wealth.”
Politically, Jean-Juste’s doctrine, if it can be called that, had two
First, he was an assembler, and as such, non-sectarian. The bi-weekly meetings
at Veye Yo - on Tuesdays and Fridays - are often visited by people of different
political inclinations, sometimes radically different, from Veye Yo. But
visitors who want to speak are always granted a microphone. However, they may
be confronted afterwards by a Veye Yo leader or audience member. The result is
often a cacophonous, and sometimes anarchic, display of ideological struggle at
its most democratic.
For example, last August, a local Haitian politician came to Veye Yo, an
obligatory stop on any Miami campaign trail. After the would-be candidate
presented himself and asked for support, Jean-Juste took a microphone and
lambasted him for various positions he had taken in recent years. The animated
confrontation was followed with rapt attention, and some glee, by the audience.
Secondly, Jean-Juste was truly a man of the people. Aristide became elevated to
such symbolic, even mythic, stature that he could only be seen by the masses
from afar, usually behind a wall of body-guards, Father Gerry, however, was
readily available to anybody and everybody. He freely gave out his phone
numbers and often sat in the midst of the Veye Yo crowd during meetings. In
demonstrations, he marched and chanted with the people. He was entirely without
any pretensions of grandeur.
This humility and accessibility endeared him to the Haitian masses in both
Miami and Ti Plas Kazo, the two principal bases of his support.
Tens of thousands are likely to turn out from around the U.S. and Haiti at the
Miami exposition, which will happen on Friday, June 5th on NE 54th Street in
Miami’s Little Haiti in front of Veye Yo’s headquarters, and at the funeral
on Saturday, June 6th at Notre Dame on NE 62nd Street.
It is not yet clear where Jean-Juste will be buried. The family is reportedly
split on burying him in Miami or in Haiti.
”It is well-known to everyone that Gerry’s wish was to be buried in
Haiti,” Lavarice Gaudin, Jean-Juste’s right-hand man in Veye Yo, told Haiti
Liberté. “That is where is heart was, and that is where his body should
Most Haitians are shocked at the thought that Jean-Juste could be buried
anywhere other than Haiti. “He no longer belongs to his family,” said Guy
Ferdinand, a Lavalas Family leader and former Haitian consul in New York. “He
belongs to the Haitian people, and they want him in Haiti, as he would want to
All of us at Haiti Liberté mourn the passing of our dear friend and comrade of
many years, Father Gerry Jean-Juste. We will miss his hearty laugh, his
regular, encouraging phone calls, and above all, his generous, indomitable,
We’ll give Father Jean-Juste the final word in this short review of his life.
He held a mass meeting at Haiti Liberté during his last visit to New York in
October 2007 (see Haiti Liberté, Vol. 1, No. 16, 11/7/2007). In the meeting of
over three hours, he expressed his love of Haiti and his conviction to continue
the struggle for its liberation.
”In political matters, for us Haitians, it’s a question of life and
death,” he told the crowd. “The question of death is not what’s
important. It’s the ideas of Martin Luther King which are always primary in
my mind. If I don’t help, what will happen to our compatriots?”