The Rev. Gérard Jean-Juste, the Roman Catholic priest whose fierce, lifelong struggle for Haitian human rights made him a hero to his community in South Florida and beyond has died after a stroke at age 62. Jean-Juste, a controversial liberation theologist who was an unflinching supporter of ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, waged a relentless battle against unequal treatment for Haitians in the courts, the media, the streets, and occasionally, from jail. On learning of his death, Maryse Narcisse, spokeswoman for Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas Party, said it was “terrible, terrible news. A big loss for us.”
Born in to an unmarried mother in 1947, Jean-Juste left Haiti in 1965 for Canada and later the United States, where he attended Northeastern University in Boston, earning a degree in civil engineering. Ordained a priest in 1971, just before the first Haitian ”boat people” began arriving in Miami the following year, he would become their champion through his work at the Haitian Refugee Center. Having already declared the U.S. immigration policy toward Haitians “our Holocaust,” he also 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. ”Haitian people had no rights in Haiti and they have no rights here,” he told The Miami Herald in 1980. In July 1980, U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King handed Jean-Juste’s cause a major victory. He ruled that the Immigration and Naturalization Service had systematically discriminated against Haitian refugees by issuing sweeping deportation orders, and told INS to conduct new hearings for 5,000 refugees.
During the 1990s and until shortly before his death, Jean-Juste worked on behalf of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his movement, a path that led to difficult political and legal struggles. A determined opponent of the interim government of Prime Minister Gérard Latortue after the overthrow of Aristide’s government, he was arrested in 2005 in Port-au-Prince, charged with the abduction and murder of journalist Jacques Roche in what was widely believed to have been unfounded and politically motivated charges. It was his second incarceration under the interim government and, within weeks, Amnesty International had named him a “prisoner of conscience.” In late December, 2005, while still imprisoned, doctors confirmed that Jean-Juste was suffering from chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a treatable form of the disease that can develop into a more virulent strain of cancer. All charges against him were eventually dropped. In 2008, with the leukemia in remission, Jean-Juste returned to Haiti and was pondering a run for the presidency.
Reactions to Jean-Juste’s death underscore his commitment to the Haitian people. Miami Archdiocese spokesperson Mary Ross Agosta Wednesday night called Jean-Juste “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.”
”The Haitian-American community has lost a visionary and a central figure who helped to establish the Haitian community in South Florida,” said Ira Kurzban, the Miami attorney who represented Jean-Juste’s Haitian Refugee Center. “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 wholly, 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.”
Former Aristide government Prime Minister Yvon Neptune remembered how the two of them—who had known each other since 1965—would exchange notes from adjacent jail cells after both had been arrested by the interim government of Gerard Latortue. ”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.”
See the article in the Miami Hearald at http://www.miamiherald.com/news/miami-dade/story/1068886.html
Photo from Danny.Hammontree’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/digitalgrace/18022204/