Jean-Juste impatient to return to Haiti
The Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste — powerful Haitian activist and former political prisoner — longs to minister again in Haiti, but he is thwarted by political backlash and his own fragile health.
Watching the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste relax on a folding chair at the storefront office of Veye Yo, a political group he founded in Little Haiti, it is hard to tell the priest was wracked by leukemia.Two months after finishing chemotherapy, his sallow complexion has cleared. He has gained weight. And he no longer uses a cane to walk.
”I’m very patient. I think my health will get better with time,” said Jean-Juste, who led a decades-long fight in South Florida to legalize Haitians in the United States.
Leukemia was Jean-Juste’s ticket out of Haiti’s National Penitentiary last January. His illness and imprisonment for various alleged criminal offenses turned Jean-Juste, a potential presidential candidate and a staunch supporter of deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, into a cause celebre for human rights activists. Amid intense international pressure, former Haitian Prime Minister Gerard Latortue offered Jean-Juste a humanitarian release so he could receive medical care in Miami. Once his health improved, the government said, he would have to return to face charges.
But even as he remains in medical exile here, the priest, known for courting controversy, is fighting several battles. His targets: the Haitian government and the Catholic Church.
His biggest fight is over his suspension from his priestly duties at his parish of St. Claire Catholic Church in Port-au-Prince.
Joseph Serge Miot, the archbishop of Port-au-Prince, suspended Jean-Juste in September 2005 when it appeared he might run for president — a political activity that the Vatican prohibits for priests. Jean-Juste immediately appealed the suspension to the Vatican.
The priest insists that his suspension is baseless. ”When I was in jail, I could not register to run for president, so I didn’t run,” he said.
In December, Vatican officials responded personally to Jean-Juste. The letter, Miot said, supports his decision to suspend Jean-Juste.
The sanction, Miot told The Miami Herald in a telephone interview Wednesday from Haiti, will stand until Jean-Juste personally writes him promising, “he will not engage in politics, and only tend to his pastoral duties.”
”He has not done anything,” Miot said. “He only wrote Rome saying that the suspension was unjust. He has to write me and say what he’s going to do.”
“He says he is waiting for me. He has to to send me a letter saying he’s only going to work for the church and not engage himself in political affairs. He has not done anything.”
Jean-Juste also complains that Miami Archbishop John Clement Favalora has neither interceded on his behalf in the dispute nor provided him a stipend to get by during his months of treatment.
”It wouldn’t be appropriate for another bishop to interfere,” said Mary Ross Agosta, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Miami, explaining that Jean-Juste has never even served as a priest in the Miami diocese. “But, the Archbishop is concerned about the Rev. Jean-Juste’s spiritual well-being.”
Even if he were to win that battle with his church, Jean-Juste also must settle the criminal charges against him. He is charged with conspiring to kill Haitian police officers and harboring illegal weapons in his parish. The priest has denied all wrongdoing.
His lawyers, Mario Joseph and Brian Concannon, are trying to dismiss the criminal charges against him in Haiti.
In July 2004, Haitian officials accused Jean-Juste of murdering Jacques Roche, a prominent journalist, after he showed up at Roche’s funeral. A judge dismissed the charge last year, but Haiti’s new government has yet to determine what to do with the conspiracy and illegal weapons case.
Jean-Juste’s return, while welcomed by members of Aristide’s Lavalas Family Party, would be unsettling for President René Preval, who has built a fragile coalition government absent any high-profile members of Aristide’s once all-powerful Lavalas Family Party.
”He doesn’t say so publicly, but I don’t think Preval wants major figures of Lavalas back in Haiti. He certainly doesn’t want them engaged in political activities,” said Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia.
“Jean-Juste’s return would rekindle and intensify the political divisions in the country. At the time of the election, most analysts had assumed if he could have presented himself as a candidate, he would have won the presidency.”
Exalted by Haiti’s poor as a natural successor to Aristide, cancer has reminded Jean-Juste that he is vulnerable. He has not escaped the unpleasant side effects of chemotherapy and spends his days resting in Fort Lauderdale or commiserating with Aristide supporters at Veye Yo on Friday nights during the group’s weekly meetings.
His throat scarred from a biopsy, Jean-Juste says he has trouble swallowing and may have to resume chemotherapy treatments.
His diagnosis is the stuff of spy thrillers. Paul Farmer, a longtime friend and infectious diseases specialist at Harvard University, visited the priest in jail in 2005 and took blood samples when prison guards were not looking. He later spirited them to a University of Miami hematologist for analysis.
Instead of fearing prison guards, Jean-Juste now fears infections and mosquito bites. Both are plentiful in Haiti. Despite the risks, the priest insists he is well enough to go home. His parish needs tending. His food program, which serves 1,000 people a week, needs money.
”My doctor said I can go back for three days at a time,” Jean-Juste said.
While he complains of being treated like a pauper by church officials, Jean-Juste points to the generosity of his supporters at Veye Yo, who have given him new clothes, a cell phone and money.
Activists like Jack Lieberman, who worked to free the priest from jail, are incensed that criminal charges against Jean-Juste still remain. ”If Haiti is to be a democracy, the prosecutions of people who were victimized by the illegitimate regime [of Latortue] need to be rescinded,” he said.
Jean-Juste spoke bitterly of Latortue, whose return to the United States last year could not be more different than the priest’s. After a tumultuous two years of heading a caretaker government, Latortue has quietly resumed his retirement in Boca Raton.
”Speak of the devil,” the priest said, as he watched the former prime minister’s image appear in old television footage of Haiti at Veye Yo. Now out of power, Latortue declined to respond to Jean-Juste’s attacks of his administration.
Without a country to visit or a church to lead, Jean-Juste remains ever defiant.
”This is ridiculous! I am a priest convalescing and I am not able to serve. That’s what makes me sicker!” Jean-Juste said from his lawn chair.
Miami Herald Staff Writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this story.