Little Haiti welcomes freed activist priest
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
Hundreds crowded the sidewalks and clamored to caress his face -- his status as a former prisoner of the post-Aristide government elevating him to an almost saintly level. As they reached for him, they cheered and sang a hymn, ``Don't touch Jean-Juste. Don't touch Jean-Juste. Otherwise hell will come to you.''
The Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, remembered as the champion of Little Haiti, returned to Miami on Tuesday eight days after being released from a Haitian jail cell. He has been accused by Haiti's interim government of inciting violence among loyalists of ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Jean-Juste, a Roman Catholic priest and former Miami community activist who demonstrated for the rights of Haitian refugees when he lived here, used the moment Tuesday to call for a truce and peace in his homeland, where his legal case is still pending.
''Put the guns on the ground to see if we can celebrate the holiday in peace,'' he begged of those back in Haiti, a country ravaged with political violence and still recovering from recent floods that killed thousands. ``We must try and bring peace and understand that so many Haitians are suffering.''
Since pro-Aristide groups began stepping up demands on Sept. 30 for the former president's return to power, more than 100 Haitians have been killed and countless others have been wounded in political violence.
700 IN CELLS
Equally alarming, Jean-Juste and his supporters said, are the more than 700 Aristide supporters who are being held as political prisoners in deplorable conditions in Haiti's jail cells.
''I am one set free,'' Jean-Juste said. ''There are more than 700 more to go. We in Haiti and abroad, we want freedom for all the political prisoners.'' Jean-Juste, who elicited cheers from a crowded room when he declared that Aristide is still the president of Haiti until the end of his term on Feb. 7, 2006, blamed Haiti's current woes on what he called the country's ``illegal de facto government.''
He accused Prime Minister Gerard Latortue's interim government of using United Nations peacekeeping troops ''to kill, oppress and destroy the masses,'' and said they should declare they have made a mistake and go away.
''The best way to solve the issue in Haiti is to let President Aristide back in,'' Jean-Juste said.
The Latortue administration blames Aristide supporters for the violence, and says the Aristide administration was corrupt.
The 58-year-old Jean-Juste remains the same fiery and controversial figure who organized street demonstrations in Little Haiti during the 1980s and 1990s to fight for legal U.S. residency for Haitians and who once publicly called a Miami archbishop a racist.
The former director of the now defunct Haitian Refugee Center, he is also the founder of Veye Yo, the grass-roots political watchdog group that helped Aristide become Haiti's first democratically elected president.
It was inside Veye Yo's storefront headquarters at Northwest 54th Street and North Miami Avenue that Haitians like Miami pastor Clarvoes Francois anxiously awaited Jean-Juste's 11 a.m. arrival.
''Jean-Juste is the father of this community. If you see we Haitians are here today, it is because of him,'' said Francois. ``His arrest was arbitrary, and they don't have anything to hold him on. They arrested him because Jean-Juste was in communication with Jean-Bertrand Aristide.''
Jean-Juste hinted as much during his news conference, saying that he was arrested three hours after he got off the phone with Aristide, who is in exile in South Africa following his Feb. 29 ouster from office.
ARRESTED AFTER CALL
He believes his telephone was tapped, and that phone call sped up his arrest. ''It was the last drop that made the water flow,'' he said.
As he prepares to head back to Haiti today, Jean-Juste said he is not afraid.
''Nobody can scare me. Nobody can take me away,'' he said.