Free This Priest

Father Gerard Jean-Juste is no outlaw. He's a Magic City hero.

First a rock smashed the front window. Then, after a metal shutter was slammed shut, a bottle exploded against it. Then another. And another.

A thousand Haitians burst through a police barricade one steamy summer Saturday in 1990 and swarmed a storefront off Biscayne Boulevard. Inside, as muscular Cuban-American shopkeeper Luis Reyes snapped on a bulletproof vest, one Miami cop loaded his shotgun while another pulled his pistol. I sat on a box in the rear, terrified. "They've moved the Dumpster against the back door," Reyes said. "They're starting a fire."

Early in the day, after a store clerk had pummeled a Haitian-American shopper, Kreyol-language radio announcers egged on the attack at the Rapid Transit Factory Outlet on 79th Street. A mob gathered. I was there. Then a young news reporter, I had heard the broadcasts and wandered inside just before the violence began.

After several hours, when there was a lull and the fire had been extinguished, one of the cops decided I should leave. "It might get ugly," he said. "You'll be safer outside." So I tucked my notebook in my pocket, cracked the door, and exited. I was the target for a fuming crowd. "Journaliste," I shouted, hands aloft. "Reporter."

Several men crouched. One moved toward me. I distinctly recall his angry expression and bloodshot eyes.

Then there was a hand on my shoulder, the word friend was spoken in Kreyol, and in an instant the mood changed. The crowd embraced me.

The hand and the word belonged to Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, whose actions saved me and the others in the store that day. Speaking through a megaphone, he eventually, peacefully, helped end the attack.

Now Jean-Juste — a puckish, pudgy-faced, twelve-year South Florida resident who left Miami soon after the riot and has ministered to Haiti's poor children ever since — is stuck in a prison cell in Port-au-Prince. Falsely accused of participating in the killing of his cousin, journalist Jacques Roche, he has become a martyr. Amnesty International has declared him a prisoner of conscience. Thirty-four members of Congress have called for his release. And 400 clergy of all stripes signed a petition demanding his freedom.

The man ultimately responsible for jailing Jean-Juste on the trumped-up charges — he was in Miami at the time Roche was kidnapped — is long-time Boca Raton radio commentator Gerard Latortue, who's now the country's interim prime minister.

The dispute is a distinctly South Florida affair.

"Jean-Juste is still a hero here," comments Dufirstson Neree, a thrice-minted Ivy League grad and Haitian American who's running for Congress from an area that includes Little Haiti. "No one can defend the position that he is a terrorist or a menace to society."

Three decades ago, Jean-Juste became the first Haitian ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in the United States. In 1978, just two years before a huge wave of his countrymen transformed Miami in a boatlift, he helped establish the Haitian Refugee Center, a group that has fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court for the rights of people from the world's first independent black republic.

Jack Lieberman, another HRC cofounder, remembers that Jean-Juste manned the center in Liberty City and helped keep the peace during the many Eighties riots that shook the Magic City. "When he first came to the Haitian Refugee Center, most of the church agencies wanted to treat the Haitian refugee issue as one of charity," Lieberman says. "Jean-Juste pointed out that there was an injustice. Cubans were treated better than Haitians."

In the years that followed, Jean-Juste organized marches against Haiti's Duvalier regime, bad U.S. immigration law, and discriminatory policies in everything from housing to blood donation. For the Miami Herald I covered a half-dozen protests he led with megaphone in hand. I studied Kreyol and sat with him in the empty office of Veye Yo, a political meeting house on 54th Street he helped create.

He often spoke of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi. He was a true leader.

Of course, he was a rabble-rouser. Archbishop Edward McCarthy was suspicious of Jean-Juste's Liberation Theology leaning and denied him a pulpit. In response, Jean-Juste termed McCarthy a racist. After several drowned Haitian boat people washed up on a South Florida beach, Jean-Juste sued, claimed the bodies, and turned the burial into a protest.

In 1991, after Jean-Bertrand Aristide took power in a rare democratic election in Haiti, he returned home. "After all the years in exile, he needed to go back to minister to his people," comments Lavarice Gaudin, director of Veye Yo today. "He's always been a nonviolent man, but one who will nevertheless push for what is right."

He also gained political power as Aristide appointed him minister/liaison for Haitians living abroad. Then, only seven months after Jean-Juste had arrived on the island, Aristide was ousted by a bloody military coup. Jean-Juste went into hiding for three years.

He turned up on the island again in 1994, after U.N. forces returned Aristide to power. For the next ten years, he traveled often between the United States and Haiti, paying particular attention to South Florida, where more than 250,000 Haitians live. He visited his sister Francine, who lives in Broward County, and sometimes led protests. At a demonstration in Washington, D.C., in 1997, the year the Florida Marlins won the World Series, he told the assembled thousands: "The same way all of us came together in Miami to celebrate the Marlins — black, white, and brown — let us all come together for justice, peace, and fairness."

In 1998, on his radio show from Port-au-Prince, Ginen, he helped authorities find the parents of a twelve-year-old girl who was gunned down in an Allapattah flea market.

In Haiti he ministered to a parish of 80,000 Haitian families in a church on a dirt road outside Port-au-Prince. He organized a program to feed 600 youngsters twice a week. And, of course, he politicked, pushing relentlessly for Aristide, even after the president was overthrown in a bloody coup in February 2004.

Jean-Juste's serious problems began in October of last year. Armed security officers dressed in black and wearing black ski masks arrived at his church, broke through iron bars and windows, and then dragged him away on suspicion of inciting violence and hiding pro-Aristide gunmen.

Back then, only 20 of 1000 inmates in the prison where Jean-Juste was housed had even seen a judge, according to Bill Quigley, a Loyola University law professor who has represented Jean-Juste in Haitian courts. "In jail," Quigley says, there were "no beds, no blankets, and no water to bathe."

The priest was released after seven weeks for lack of evidence. "It is a big mistake of trying to lock up this guy who is speaking truth," Quigley adds. "He has never said anything about violence; he has never raised a gun."

This past July, Jean-Juste visited South Florida and led a demonstration at the Brazilian Consulate in Miami. The protestors urged that nation — which is led by a former union organizer named Luiz Inácio da Silva — to speak out against the United Nations' role in 23 killings in Cité Soleil on the island. "He came to town, said we had this massacre occur, conditions are horrible, please do something," Lieberman says. "So we went to the consulate and basically pleaded our case."

A couple of days later, Jean-Juste headed back to Haiti. Three Veye Yo members I spoke with said a pro-government Kreyol-language radio host in Miami called for violence toward Jean-Juste back on the island. "Before Father Jean-Juste left, everybody knew something would happen to him," Veye Yo's Gaudin comments. "But he said he had a mission."

In Haiti, Jean-Juste — along with Quigley, who was visiting — decided to attend the funeral of the murdered journalist Roche, a supporter of the interim government whose family is related to Jean-Juste's. There the crowd beat them and chased them into a toilet stall before Jean-Juste was arrested and thrown into a jail, where he has remained ever since.

Amnesty International termed him a political prisoner a few days later. This past August, Jean-Juste fell ill and nearly died in the prison. Recently recovered, he now sleeps on a rubber mat on a concrete floor beneath a picture of murdered Salvadoran priest Oscar Romero.

In September a group of U.S. Representatives including Kendrick Meek, Robert Wexler, and Alcee Hastings — all Democrats — sent a letter to Prime Minister Latortue calling for Jean-Juste's freedom. Referring to the release of a convicted murderer, Louis Jodel Chamblain, Meek said, "It is a sad day when a respected community leader, committed to helping the poor, is locked away in a prison cell while a convicted human rights abuser walks free."

In Little Haiti, Jean-Juste's supporters have hung pictures emblazoned with "Free Jean-Juste" in many restaurants and businesses. "Jean-Juste is my best friend," says Merus Benoit, who owns Ben Photo studio on NE 54th Street. "He suggested I go to Miami Dade College to learn English. Any time he needed a picture taken, I took it. I'd do anything for him"

At the urging of the Bush administration, elections in Haiti were scheduled for November (though they were recently postponed until December) and more than a half-dozen Haitian presidential candidates have raised money in South Florida. Jean-Juste has even pondered a try; on August 25, he told the Associated Press he would run for president "if Aristide approves my candidacy." But then, after the Archdiocese in Haiti disciplined him, he withdrew.

The problem in Haiti is not quick elections (just as that is not the answer in George W. Bush's more distant morass, Iraq). The answer is more U.S. aid to Haiti, more help to beleaguered U.N. troops there, and a concerted campaign to free Jean-Juste and jailed former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune. Miami, more than any other U.S. city, has a strong tie to the island nation. And to many of the Haitians here, Jean-Juste's imprisonment is the top issue.

"Jean-Juste is a black eye on the government of Haiti," Neree says. "As long as he is in jail, there can be no free and fair elections."

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