By Elinor J. Brecher and Jacqueline Charles
May 28, 2009
The spiritual and political leader of the Haitian community in South Florida died in Miami after suffering a stroke. He was 62.
The Rev. Gérard Jean-Juste, the Roman Catholic priest whose passionate, relentless, 30-year human-rights crusade on behalf of his fellow Haitians cast him as their spiritual and political leader in South Florida, has died.
Jean-Juste was a liberation theologist, controversial in both the United States and his homeland, who battled the unequal treatment of Haitian refugees in the federal courts, in Miami's streets and in the media.
He suffered a stroke recently, according to Ira Kurzban, the Miami attorney who represented Jean-Juste's Haitian Refugee Center in several lawsuits against the U.S. government, and died Wednesday evening at Jackson Memorial Hospital. He was 62.
His death apparently was unrelated to the leukemia that Jackson doctors treated three years ago.
''The Haitian-American community has lost a visionary and a central figure who helped to establish the Haitian community in South Florida,'' Kurzban said. ``They lost a. . .friend whose arms and heart were always open.''
Marliene Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami, called Jean-Juste ``an icon, someone who gave himself wholely, selflessly to others without any need to''self-promote.
'He was the greatest champion of refugees' and immigrants' rights, and he showed that we, as a country, could do better in the way we treat people who leave their native land to come here.''
Bastien said that Jean-Juste ``goes all the way when it comes to defending the rights of the less fortunate. He fights with all his might in the pursuit of justice. He doesn't stop to eat.''
Jean-Juste was an unflinching supporter of ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas Party. On learning of his death, Maryse Narcisse, a Lavalas leader and spokeswoman for Aristide -- who is in exile in South Africa -- said, ``This terrible, terrible news. A big loss for us.''
Jean-Juste's demands for Aristide's return after a 2004 violent revolution, and his attacks on government corruption, earned him two prison terms in Haiti.
Unafraid to confront anyone, including Church superiors in two countries, he was suspended by the Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince -- and prevented from having his own South Florida church by the Archdiocese of Miami.
Some admirers called him ''St. Maverick.'' He once said, ``The taste of freedom for somebody else is a great victory for me.''
Former Aristide government Prime Minister Yvon Neptune has known Jean-Juste since 1965. They exchanged notes from adjacent jail cells after both had been arrested by the interim government of Gerard Latortue.
Neptune remembered how Jean-Juste's passion for Haiti led him to return from Miami to work closely with Aristide's administrations.
''He's going to be missed a whole lot, and he's going to be remembered in a very positive way even by some of his detractors,'' Neptune said in Port-au-Prince. ``Especially. . .in the 1980s, he was very instrumental in having the U.S. government consider the case of the Haitian refugees. He was very much involved in social work not only in helping the Haitians solve their legal problems but in helping them in many ways.''
Born to an unmarried mother, Jean-Juste left Haiti in 1965 to study at a Canadian seminary.
He returned to Haiti briefly after ordination and worked in a remote parish. He left after refusing to sign an oath of allegiance to the government.
He spent time in New York then attended Northeastern University in Boston, where he earned a degree in civil engineering.
In 1971, Jean-Juste became the first Haitian ordained as a priest by the Catholic Church in the United States. The first Haitian ''boat people'' began arriving in Miami the following year.
Initially they were treated the same as other refugees, but that began to change as their numbers grew and government policy shifted.
By 1978, Jean-Juste was running the Haitian Refugee Center in Liberty City -- and calling U.S. immigration policy toward Haitians ``our Holocaust.''
He upset Church officials by conducting funeral services for non-Catholic Haitians who drowned at sea, picketing the Archdiocese of Miami, and calling then-Archbishop Edward McCarthy a racist.
For Jean-Juste, there was only one priority: better treatment for the poor and hopeless.
''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.''
That year, the Mariel boatlift brought more than 12,000 Cuban refugees to Miami. At the time, the government routinely granted political asylum to Southeast Asians and Central Americans, as well as Cubans, while Haitians were detained indefinitely, sometimes abused, then usually deported.
The government considered them economic, rather than political, refugees, despite having fled the oppressive regime of Jean-Claude ''Baby Doc'' Duvalier.
About 1 percent of those who sought asylum between 1972-1979 won it. Dozens drowned trying to cross 800 miles of ocean in small boats -- some shoved overboard by the smugglers they'd paid.
Many languished in immigration jails for months, sick with anxiety, depression and fear. Many attempted suicide; some succeeded.
Jean-Juste assailed the government's policy as heartless, racist, and in at least one case, criminal. That 1978 case involved an 8-year-old girl locked in a cell for two weeks with 40 adults after she entered the country illegally with her father.
Jean-Juste said she was hysterical when he found her.
The center's volunteer director since July 1978, he was named executive director drawing a $16,000 salary, shortly after rescuing the little girl.
But he was fired in the fall of 1980, several months after calling the Church in Haiti ''a prostitute'' for endorsing Baby Doc's marriage to a divorcee.
He launched The Haitian Refugee Center Inc. as an independent agency on Northeast 54th Street, and continued his fight through lawsuits.
In July 1980, U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King handed Jean-Juste's cause a major victory. He ruled that the Immigration aned Naturalization Service had systematically discriminated against Haitian refugees by issuing sweeping deportation orders, and told INS to conduct new hearings for 5,000 refugees.
''We are very happy,'' Jean-Juste said. ``Judge King is a man of the Constitution.''
''Father Jean-Juste spearheaded all this,'' said Kurzban, the lawyer. ``He provided the political direction. . .He was a tremendous organizer and got people to demonstrate, and that completely changed the dynamic in South Florida.''
Jean-Juste returned to Haiti to work for Aristide. He fell ill with leukemia while behind bars in 2005, charged in the murder of a journalist.
International pressure the following year led a Haitian judge to drop the charge so the ailing priest could seek medical help in Miami.
He still faced what supporters called trumped-up weapons and criminal conspiracy charges. Eventually cleared -- and apparently in remission -- he returned to Port-au-Prince in early 2008, and had been pondering a run for president.
Miami Archdiocese spokesperson Mary Ross Agosta Wednesday night called Jean-Juste ``a man, a priest and the voice of the poor, both here and in Haiti. We pray his commitments in his life will bring him rewards in heaven. May he rest in peace.''
He is survived by two sisters and two brothers.
LETTER FROM A HAITIAN JAIL
In November 2004, Fr. Jean-Juste sent this letter to supporters via his attorney Bill Quigley of Loyola University School of Law, New Orleans, as he languished in the Omega-Carrefour Jail in his country. It is a powerful message to keep struggling for human rights and dignity even in the face of adversity and should be this brave priest's legacy to all of us who still live to carry on the struggle.
Greetings and Gratitude! Courage and Persistence!
I can't stop thinking of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as I am sending you this short letter. Quoting by heart and in substance Dr. King, allow me to remind you of this:
"It is not, if I help my brothers and sisters, what's going to happen to me? Rather, if I don't help them, what's gong to happen to them?"
Hooded men, intimidation, masked gunmen, massacre, masked men attacking the churches, forced entries in our rectories, arbitrary arrests, defamation, character assasination, prison, threats of death - SHOULD NOT STOP ANY HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST OR INSTITUTIONS advocating for the enjoyment of basic human needs for all, especially the poor ones.
I think of all of you who advocate for my release, all who demand the release of all political prisoners, under the "de facto", illegal, unconstitutional Latortue-Alexandre government imposed facistically by the administration of Presidents G.W. Bush, Jacques Chirac, and Prime Minister Paul Martin.
Freedom and democracy shall prevail in Haiti.
Visiting Haiti in 1983, Pope John Paul II called for real change: "Things must change." LET IT BE!
The represssion on all levels is so heavy. I call for: an immediate return to constitutional order; the release of all political prisoners; the respect of the vote and the will of the people; the rejection of kidnappings, coup d'etats from whoever the authors.
Let the word of God win our souls! Let love of God and humanity prevail! Let us start our heaven on earth as God wants it!
Gratitude, Peace, and Love to you all!
Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste (Nsera Njeri Jan-Jis) 509-405-3244