Image from Haitianalysis.com. Father Jean-Juste is in the center in blue.
I have a short story on Father Jean-Juste’s passing in yesterday’s Free Speech Radio News headlines.
Listen to a longer version of that piece below. Includes comments from Brian Concannon Jr., Director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, and Ira Kurzban, a Miami-based attorney – both friends of Father Jean-Juste who worked closely with him on several legal cases – as well as audio from an older interview with Father Jean-Juste himself.
Rest In Power, Father Jean-Juste. MP3 here. Transcript and full-length interviews below.
This is a Mediahacker.org podcast published on May 28, 2009. Noted Haitian civil rights leader and former political prisoner Father Gerard Jean-Juste died Wednesday at the age of 62.
Jean-Juste was a Haitian Catholic priest often compared the Martin Luther King Jr. for his non-violent human rights activism. He died in a Miami hospital from stroke and lung problems, but just three years earlier he languished in a Haitian jail suffering from leukemia. The interim government of Haiti imprisoned him following the 2004 U.S.-backed coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, for whom Jean-Juste was a prominent supporter.
Amnesty International designated the priest a “prisoner of conscience” and Jean-Juste was released after 18 months in prison. All charges against him were dropped in 2008, but he continued to receive medical treatment in Miami.
“He was one of the top leaders of the resistance to Duvalier, he was also one of the top leaders to the resistance to the 1991-94 military regime, and again was a top leader of the resistance to the 2004-2006 dictatorship in Haiti.”
Brian Concannon is the director of the Institute for justice and Democracy in Haiti and has worked closely with Father Jean-Juste.
“So every time there’ s been a dictatorship in Haiti in the last twenty years he was one of top people out there resisting it. He was also a leader in the United States where we’ve got a problem of treating Haitian immigrants discriminatorily. He’s not only achieved results including ending all three of those dictatorships, but what’s probably important was how he achieved those results – because he was a steadfast proponent of nonviolent tactics including sit-ins, demonstrations, popular education, those kind of things. He was very effectively able to channel the Haitian people’s desire for justice into concrete activities.”
Father Gerry, as he was known, was raised in Les Cayes, in southeastern Haiti. He became the first Haitian priest ordained by the U.S. Catholic Church in 1971. With Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Jean-Juste helped lead the “Ti Legliz” or “little church” movement in poor parishes that eventually toppled the second Duvalier dictatorship in 1981.
Despite his work for the poor of Haiti, or perhaps because of it, Jean-Juste had a rocky relationship with the official church. In 2006 The Catholic Church of Haiti suspended him, while he was still jailed by the Latortue interim regime, when supporters tried to register his candidacy in Haiti’s presidential election.
“Well I think ultimately he would have been president of Haiti, quite frankly, in a fair and full election – if there was a fair election.”
Ira Kurzban, a Miami attorney, who has represented Jean-Juste and the former Aristide government, says Jean-Juste’s legacy is important to poor people everywhere.
“But just like Father Jean Bertrand Aristide, he represented the poor. I mean, his parish was the parish of the poor. And the poor of course are 95% of the people in Haiti. So they knew whose side he was on, who he stood for, they knew that he wanted to change their economic condition. So he was deprived of that opportunity by Latortue, by the U.S., French and Canadian governments, who really have conspired, I think fairly consistently over the years, to diminish democracy in Haiti and not promote it.
But I think his legacy is really still an incredibly legacy of creating, really, a Haitian community in South Florida and significantly changing the law for all refugees. I mean, we have countless examples where through the grassroots work that he did and the organizing, and going out in the street, and our bringing lawsuits, we for example developed the right that asylum seekers and get work authorization while their cases are pending. That didn’t exist before we brought one of the lawsuits here. The grassroots work he did let ultimately called “The Haitian Refugee Center versus McNiery” that went ultimately to the United States Supreme Court – and protected the rights of over 200,000 farmworkers.
And I think the last mark of what he did, politically, is the work he did everyday as a person, as a priest, as a human being who always had his heart and his mind and his whole being open to ministering for the least well-off, here and in Haiti, has an impact on all of those people.”
In a 2007 interview with Global X, Father Jean-Juste spoke about the miracles he witnessed at a soup kitchen he founded in Haiti.
“I was receiving some friends in Haiti once. They asked me, “What can I do to help?” They visited my parish. And I remember the cry of a young child, a five-year-old boy, who said, “Father, I’m hungry.” That cry, really stays into deeply into my heart. I went to the alter and cried to God, What can I help. This child belonged to a family of ten children – mother ill and father passed away. And then suddenly, this group who visited me with Margeurite Frost, they offer help. And since 2000, we have started a canteen, a soup kitchen and we are feeding thousands and thousands of people, to help so many people.
I wanted to put in practice Jesus’ command, “Feed the hungry.” And a boy came, and I found him. I didn’t know how I was going to do the miracle – it reminds me the embarassment of Philip when Jesus ordered him to feed the crowd! Philip didn’t know what to do…[laughing, unintelligible] “What are we to do, look at this crowd, we have nothing!” And the miracle has been done. This is the type of miracle that really keeps me at work and ready to sacrifice myself, all the way, for these people that we are getting out of hunger.”
The Archdiocese of Miami released a statement saying, “He is to be remembered for his never-ending work with and for the poor both here in Miami and in Haiti.” This has been a Mediahacker.org podcast.