Mourners at Father Gerard Jean-Juste’s funeral accuse Catholic church, Haitian leaders of complicity in his death
‘Look at what Haiti’s tyrants did to me!’ said the priest who could have been president*: Haitian oligarchy jailed him, Catholic church denied him health coverage, hospital denied him care, Miami Herald denigrated his memory
by Marguerite ‘Ezili Dantò’ Laurent, Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network
Inside the Veye Yo headquarters, on June 6, after the church memorial at the Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Center, I met up with veteran Haitian human rights activists from all over the U.S., Haiti and Canada and we gathered together as a community in mourning but doubly determined to continue the work of Father Jyeri. We shared our stories and many made it a point to tell me how important and meaningful the work of our Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network (HLLN) is for them – our advocacy work, information, promotion of Haitian culture and counter-colonial narratives.
Old Angelina St. Phar sat in the same place at the Veye Yo headquarters that she has been sitting at for over 20 years of attending Veye Yo meetings. Everyone acknowledges that she had a very special relationship with Father Jean Juste. She’s your mother, your special grandmother, that aunt you have who is always making you a healing cup of tea. She was that for Father Jean Juste throughout the years at Veye Yo and, like Veye Yo, a safe harbor even when he was in Haiti.
Angelina St. Phar will not be named in the tributes to Father Jean Juste. In fact, his organization is virtually ignored by most in power, including the mainstream papers. But Lavarice Gaudin, the head of Veye Yo, and the members at Veye Yo, including the tall sentinel strength and true solidarity of Jack Lieberman, provided Father Jean Juste with the support, care and loyalty to do the work he did, draw the fire of the powers-that-be while the luckier Haitian poor, needy and without papers, would try to move behind him to safer ground.
Angelina St. Phar is a prime example of this strength. She was his quiet advisor and, with his death, Angelina St. Phar, like Haiti, lost a treasured son. Lavarice Gaudin, like all of Haiti’s young men and women, lost a father, spiritual leader and mentor.
I listened to the men and women of Veye Yo recount their many bittersweet memories of Father Jean Juste. It was a sad and tragic telling of a life of struggle, suffering and untold persecutions by the church and the political powers, both in the U.S. and in Haiti. Amongst all the telling, two veterans of Veye Yo, examples of solid courage like that of our warrior mother, Angelina St. Phar, these Haitian women told the episode I’m about to recount.
“Tell this story to the world, Ezili Dantò,” said Yannick Jolicoeur and Veronique Fleurime. I promised these unheralded Haitian foot soldiers that I would give them an international voice, that I would say this was “yon mo kle de Jean Juste.” I would tell of this relatively final insult, one of a hundred such cumulative injustices suffered by Father Jean Juste for us and on our behalf as a community. For what Jean Juste declared at that time most touched and tore their hearts.
At the time of his death, the Catholic church, after his 30 years of service and struggling to help the poor, had stripped him of the right to perform as a priest, suspended him. He thus had no resources to pay for his hospital treatment and health problems, caused by two prison terms in Haiti for speaking out against rule by force, the U.N. occupation and the U.S.-imposed Boca Raton regime from 2004 to 2006.
Father Jean Juste was a priest who struggled for Haitian rights his entire career. He was the spokesperson for the poor Haitian, the homeless and those without shelter, refuge and asylum. For this work for the poor and needy, he was ostracized, crucified, vilified, denigrated and imprisoned.
During his last hospitalization in Miami, in January of 2009, when the hospital insisted Father Jean Juste had to give up the hospital bed and leave without the medication he couldn’t afford, even though he was almost at death’s door unable to breathe with a respiratory problem, these women of Veye Yo, who sat with him, took turns sleeping in the hospital to comfort him, relayed this to be close to his very last words, said with some strength before he would fall into semi-consciousness.
Father Jean Juste had been fighting for human rights and equal treatment in Miami for Haitians since before 1979 when he headed Miami’s Haitian Refugee Center. Ultimately it was “Ben” from Veye Yo who would hurry and apply for Medicaid to stop Jyeri from being thrown out of the hospital without any medication while so ill. Reportedly, the hospital’s social worker, charged to do this task, never put the Medicaid papers through.
“Kounyè a espwa m fini. Si m paka jwen swèn medikal se pou m ale lakay mwen pou m’al tan lamò. (Epi li frape pye a tè li di:) Gade sa Neg d’Ayiti fè mwen!” “My hope is gone now. If I can’t get medical care, I’m being sent home to die. (Stamping his foot, he ends with emphasis on these words:) Look at what Haiti (Haiti’s oligarchy, tyrants) did to me!”
This occurred approximately two weeks before Jyeri was released from the hospital. He had flown into Miami on Jan. 7, 2009, directly from Haiti, going straight to the hospital. He went home once, in time to witness President Obama’s inauguration. But he would return to the hospital, after this brief home stay on an oxygen tank, and remain there until he died on May 27, 2009.
The question is, who will now draw the fire for us, until death, like Father Jean Juste did, in pursuit of better treatment for those Haitians without papers, without power, without asylum, safety and justice of any kind and who can’t risk telling truth to power?
Never following the path of least resistance, Jyeri’s power was centered on his faith and love of Jesus. He used it to serve and protect, not to maintain himself in a job or public position. He provided the needy protection and walked the perilous journey, in the frontlines of Haiti’s populous neighborhoods, with the 2004 to 2006 demonstrators against Bush regime change. They were demanding the return of President Jean Bertrand Aristide, denouncing the Haitian people’s wholesale disenfranchisement, the privatization of Haiti, foreign militarization, debt, dependency and domination.
Father Jean Juste’s huge sheltering presence is gone, but his indomitable spirit lives on. And, as witnesses and participants in this David-vs.-Goliath Haitian struggle for freedom and human rights, we at Ezili’s HLLN, in solidarity with all our collaborators, shall pursue justice for Father Gerard Jean Juste and for Haiti’s most needy – li kite res la pou nou menm – until U.S. immigration policy and the State Department start treating Haitians and Haiti equal to all other nationalities and countries, until they no longer embolden the Haitian oligarchy’s repressive and undemocratic rule.
Pursuing justice for Jean Juste: Ezili’s counter-colonial narrative to the Miami Herald’s coverage of his June 6 memorial services
Though I know better, it still amazes me when I attend a Haitian event, whether in the U.S. or in Haiti, and then read about it from the embedded press. Little of the majority view of things in Haiti, on Haiti issues or on the depth and visceral nature of what actually took place is captured by these folks. You’ll see the sound bites, yes, the begrudging “Even though Jean-Juste fought against a system he sometimes deemed unfair to Haitians, he respected and admired the United States.” But then the zingers will appear, such as these Miami Herald outlays: “Jean-Juste also had a knack for getting in trouble.
“In 1980, he was fired from his $16,000-a-year job at the HRC (Haitian Refugee Center) for what the Christian Community Service Agency called his ‘ineptitude’ and `erratic and unproductive behavior.’ …
“‘The jail time, the illness brought a lot of wisdom,’ (Rev. Reginald) Jean-Mary of Notre Dame said. ‘I wish he had developed it earlier.’”
Thony Jean-Thenor, a Veye Yo militant I spoke to, said the Miami Herald article on Jean Juste’s memorial was a “second killing.” The article almost gave the church Jean Juste fought all his life the last word on Jean Juste. They chose to quote not any Veye Yo members, but a priest who said that prison in Haiti and the resulting illness it caused had matured Jyeri – given him “wisdom” he didn’t have!
For every good word they are forced to say about him, there’s an awful jagged-edged pen-knife-stabbing ahead or below it. To wit: “‘The jail time, the illness brought a lot of wisdom,’ Jean-Mary of Notre Dame said. `I wish he had developed it earlier. At the same time, you have to respect his convictions. He was a fighter.’” (Miami Herald, June 7, 2009)
What the Miami Herald fails to tell you is that by 1980, Father Jean-Juste had incurred the wrath of the archdiocese of Miami by conducting funeral services for non-Catholic Haitians who drowned at sea and by picketing Archbishop Edward McCarthy of Miami, who he said was a racist for not defending the rights of Haitian refugees. No, the Herald will not contextualize. They butcher his reputation, even at his memorial.
Justice, according to Father Jean Juste, demands rectification, changes in the U.S. immigration laws, changes in U.S. policy that supports dictatorship, exclusion and coup d’etat, not charity after the harm has been done. He found that unconscionable, not generous and benevolent.
A matter of justice for Jean Juste
The Miami Herald is “consistent in tarnishing the image of Father Gerard Jean Juste, just as it is in tarnishing anything that comes from the popular movement in Haiti and in glorifying anything the deviant people – the outlaw people put in place by the Bush administration in Haiti – do,” says Thony Jean-Thenor of Veye Yo. “Since the beginning until today, they’ve done their best to show that the coup d’etat that ousted democratically elected President Jean Bertrand Aristide was the best thing for Haiti. They always give the ‘de factos’ a voice while ignoring or vilifying the popular movement for justice … The day after the 2004 coup d’etat, the Miami Herald put Haiti on the business page for the very first time, as if to say Haiti has been reborn.”
“The Miami Herald denigrates Father Gerard Jean Juste because he didn’t want to support the kidnapping of President Jean Bertrand Aristide. President Aristide and anyone who was part of his government have been vilified all over the pages of the Miami Herald from 2001 until today,” confides Thony Jean-Thenor.
The United States had refused to come to the shipwrecked Haitians’ assistance to avoid having to bring them into U.S. territory. The Bahamas made the same choice. The shipwrecked Haitians had become skeletal from starving on the isolated Island for six days before Jean Juste reached them. Jean Juste ignored church warnings and went to their aid. These are some of the reasons, unexplained by the Miami memorial article, for its contention that Father Jean Juste “had a knack for getting into trouble.”
Father Jean Juste insisted that the Haitian refugees had a right to asylum because they were fleeing injustices. “‘Don’t go back to Haiti,’ Jean Juste warned after arriving aboard a television network’s helicopter. The leader of the band, Claude Pierre, said they ‘could not go any place but Miami. We sell everything to go to Miami,’ Pierre said. ‘We lose everything in Haiti. They (Papa Doc’s U.S.-supported Tonton Macoute dictatorship) will beat us up, kill us, put us in jail. It’s a decision between life and death.’” (See “102 Haitian Castaways Repel Rescuers; Demand Trip To U.S.“)
Back then, alone, a very young Father Jean Juste raised a media storm on behalf of these shipwrecked Haitians who were left to die on Cayo Lobos because the U.S. did not want to apply its “wet foot/dry foot” policy to Haitians, only to Cubans. Jean Juste’s intervention allowed for the refugees to, for once, tell their own stories. But still, they were brutally beaten by the Bahamians while the cameras were rolling and forcibly evicted and returned to Papa Doc’s Haiti because Reagan’s U.S. would not open its door to “black refugees.”
Knowledgeable observers believe that this public airing of the plight of Haitians to a world audience sensitized and influenced U.S. policy makers, embarrassed by the publicity, to begin to afford more equal and humane treatment to other Haitian refugees later on. By then Father Jean Juste had made some very powerful and fierce enemies.
You won’t see any of this in the Miami Herald’s article about why Jean Juste may have been fired. Instead, you’ll read in the Miami Herald that “In 1980, he was fired from his $16,000-a-year job at the HRC (Haitian Refugee Center) for what the Christian Community Service Agency called his ‘ineptitude’ and `erratic and unproductive behavior.’”
At that time, in 1980, Miami’s elected officials were telling all and sundry that all the Haitian refugees would be sent back to Haiti. As far as they were concerned, there was no place in Miami for a Haitian community as there was for the Cuban refugees. And but for Jyeri’s work, that would probably have stayed true.
Today’s Haitian community in Miami owes its existence to the pioneering work of Father Gerard Jean Juste. At his memorial services, Haitians and even Miami’s elected officials and the church paid homage to this. But don’t expect these details from the Miami Herald’s coverage on Jean Juste’s memorial. As we’ve already shown, if they write something good about him in a sentence, you may be sure that soon after they will insert a zinger, like: “Jean-Juste’s penchant for publicity – more than once he threw himself on the asphalt in defiance of immigration policy …”
Still, we all know that no matter how they vilified or denigrated his work on behalf of poor Haitians, abused and being murdered in the Bateys, in the prisons of Krome, at Cayo Lobos or in coup d’etat or dictatorship Haiti, Father Jean Juste always insisted: “My rosary is my only weapon.”
But, Ezili Dantò is writing this piece, and Jyeri showed us the path. Jean Juste taught us activists by example. When officialdom fired him from his job at the Refugee Center, or when they threw him out of the church he had built up in Miami, he had founded his own grassroots Veye Yo watch group organization to continue to give voice to the downtrodden, hungry and homeless. God, indeed, blesses the child who has his/her own.
We, at Ezili’s HLLN have our own Ezili Network. Our daily posts and writings are circulated over and over again and reach millions upon millions of people. As a Haitian-led, Haitian capacity building organization, we are the foremost counter-colonial narrators for Haiti and so the Rochambeaus of this era will not be writing Haiti’s history and telling our story. No.
When they fired him, he kept going.
When they imprisoned him, he never stopped feeding the poor or ministering.
Father Jean Juste gave away the food his parishioners from St. Claire Haiti brought to him to other prisoners and even over the prison bars and fences to people in the neighborhood outside the prison who were hungry.
Like Haiti’s great revolutionary hero, Kapwa Lamò, Father Jean Juste would not let any suppression of the truth stop his trajectory. Neither will we allow this Miami Herald article the final world on Father Gerard Justice. No.
We write here today to counter the Miami Herald’s lies with truth. To support the footsoldiers at Veye Yo who won’t be acknowledged in their darkest time and grief period. It’s a matter of justice for Jean Juste. And, yes, we own this space, this place Haitians gather to, to duck this era’s cannonballs of oppression being hurled at us by the media and their corporate and ruling tyrants.
Like Jyeri, we say no to violence, no to exile, no to arbitrary arrests, indefinite detentions, no to coup d’etats, no to unequal immigration treatment of Haitian refugees, no to the plunder and pillage of Haiti by the Haitian ruling oligarchy on behalf of transnational corporations, no to the media’s butchering of Haiti’s freedom warriors and glorifying of the internationals’ paid thugs, death squads, imposed dictatorships and U.N. occupation.
Batay la Fèk Komanse – The battle has only just begun!
We’re still here after 300 years of enslavement and over 200 years of containment-in-poverty. No, our ancestors did not yield to the combined forces of the whole world. Neither shall we. As far as we’re concerned, nou pap bay legen – the battle has just begun.
Ezili’s HLLN is the place Haitians come to if they need a message of truth on Haiti circulated. So, go to our photogallery to experience the thinking of Haiti’s popular movement as expressed at Jean Juste’s memorial and learn how Haiti and Miami came together on June 6, 2009, to the Veye Yo headquarters to mourn, honor and remember the life and works of Father Gerard Jean Juste.
Jean Juste founded Veye Yo across the street from the Haitian Refugee Center (HRC) when HRC became embroiled in political and funding battles during the early 1980s of the Reagan years. Veye Yo, a political action and humanitarian assistance organization, formally split the legal and political work of Jean Juste so that the Haitian Refugee Center could freely raise money to support the legal work and Veye Yo could do the “political work” through volunteers, funding itself and not soliciting funds and salaries as a non-for-profit. The “legal” entity requiring outside funding and paid staff did not last.
Today, Veye Yo, because it meets the needs and constraints of Haitian life and reality, is the largest and most powerful Haitian grassroots group, not just in Miami but in the Haitian Diaspora. But you won’t read that in any mainstream paper, certainly not in the Miami Herald.
Jyeri did not deserve to die this way. Ironically, as soon as he was dead, the Catholic church immediately reinstated him fully as a priest. It was his dearest wish when he was alive, but he never got that respect until he was dead.
At his Miami church memorial, on June 6, 2009, the archbishop of Miami, John Clement Favalora, who could not stay for the entire service, came on first and proclaimed: “His presence with us was a sign that God was walking with us … He has walked the journey with you. … He has given you hope, strength and courage, but your walk is not over. … This leadership is needed. The journey for Jean Juste has ended. But the journey for you has not ended. … The church in the United States and the archdiocese in Miami walk with you on your journey.” That said, the archbishop immediately left the church, hurrying to another more pressing engagement.
Ezili’s HLLN Pays Homage to Father Gerard Jean Juste, a compilation of tributes to, press coverage about and quotations from Father Jean-Juste
Mèsi Pè Jan Jis travay Père Renaud François
Omaj pou pè Jan Jis, Mod Jan-Michel (Sanit Belè),
Our Father Thou Art in Heaven, Ambassador Renaud Bernadin (died Oct. 4, 2002), translation from French by Hyppolite Pierre
*Editor’s note: This alludes to the effort of Father Jean-Juste’s supporters to draft him for president of Haiti in 2006, a race he would almost certainly have won, but the de facto government barred his candidacy because he was in jail and the Catholic hierarchy threatened to strip him of his priestly authority.