Interview with Father Gerard Jean-Juste 1992


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Interview with
Father Gerard Jean-Juste

[By Mev Puleo, 1992]

They Can Take My Body, But Not My Soul!

Interview with Father Gerard Jean-Juste in hiding

During the Duvalier dictatorship, Father Gerard Jean-Juste spent 26 years in exile, most of it working with Haitian refugees in the United States. He is now back in Haiti, working as head of the "10th department" -- all Haitians living in the diaspora. Though he is living in hiding, Jean-Juste remains an outspoken critic of the de facto military government that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from office in September 1991. "The army says there's a price on my head. Well, they can take my body, but not my soul!" So proclaims the Haitian priest, Gerard Jean-Juste with a defiant smile. Armed with a cellular telephone, Jean-Juste is a thorn in the side of the coup government, giving daily interviews to radio stations in Washington, D.C., New York, Boston, and Miami, as well as news reports to Haitian periodicals and radio stations. The following is a transcript taken from an interview that Mev Puleo did with Gerard Jean-Juste in Haiti in 1992.

In Haiti, for years we have tried to have a democratic system so that Haitians can develop their talents at the service of our country, at the service of our people, having allies all around the world to come and help, to get out of that permanent state of misery.

December 16, 1990 was a big day for Haitians when most of them risked their lives to vote. The result was that Aristide has become President, chosen by the great majority of Haitians, receiving 67% of the vote out of a field of eleven candidates.

I was with President Aristide during his last trip to the United States and we returned to Haiti together. He was very concerned about what some officials told him. Already there had been rumors that there would be a coup d'etat. Some U.S. officials were clearly behind that coup. They wanted to get rid of Aristide because he was a "communist" or "leftist" priest -- which is not true at all.

Aristide made the key option for nonviolence. The day of the coup, when the coup leaders arrived at the Presidential Palace and started shooting at some of Aristide's people, President Aristide said to the people, "Let's surrender. We are not going to use arms against these people."

This was the best option, otherwise at the present time Haiti could become like Yugoslavia or Beruit -- we'd be killing each other in a civil war. But we have chosen to practice nonviolence in a very active resistance.

Freedom is a Constant Struggle

The military are crazy -- they are corrupt, they use drugs, they will keep power by any means, kidnapping, stealing, anything! We Haitians need to keep up the pressure. It's time we send a message to the military that we are not going to put up with this. Haitians in the majority have voted for democracy. If they have a coup here in Haiti, it can happen anywhere.

We must use every way possible to oppose the de facto government -- radio, media, talking to people, encouraging Haitians to return to Haiti. We must take courageous steps. Freedom is not given to you -- you have to take it.

We Must Be Willing to Give Our Lives

When I am afraid, I pray a lot, I read a lot and try to find news coming from outside through newspapers and the like. This really helps me. But the best discovery of my life during this time is that I finally have time to pray all I want. It's like a retreat! I have time to meditate on the situation, write about it, call my friends and keep them aware. As part of my work, Haitians from all around the world are calling me daily.

If we look at the church, some priests, nuns, and lay people have committed themselves. They are very persecuted all around the country. Some brothers and sisters have quit their parishes and gone into exile. I disagree with this option. I think we have to stay in Haiti and face the monster. We have to take cover and hide ourselves, but we cannot leave Haiti to the monster. They can try to kill our bodies, but the freedom of spirit, the democracy we are searching for, they cannot kill. It has to survive.

Many priests, nuns, and lay people have committed themselves to the people. They are the ones who are being persecuted. I believe that as Christians, as believers, we should give an example unto death. We should not be afraid of the killers in the sense that we run away every time they come around. We have to speak out.

The military can try to kill our bodies, but the freedom of spirit, the democracy we are searching for, they cannot kill. It has to survive. I think we have to stay in Haiti and face the monster. We have to take cover and hide ourselves, but we cannot leave Haiti to the monster.

Some of these bishops have refused to take positions when nuns and priests of their own dioceses have been persecuted. They say nothing. When you see Bishop Kebreau, the auxiliary bishop of Port-au-Prince, going out and blessing this de facto government -- it's shameful!

And, worse than that, the Vatican is the only state that has recognized the de facto government of Haiti. That has hurt us a lot! I think the Vatican has made a big mistake by recognizing the illegal government of Haiti. I always say the "Vatican" instead of the Pope, because I am giving the Holy Father a chance -- maybe he's not really aware of what is going on!

In the actual church hierarchy, only Bishop Romelus of Jeremie denounced the de facto government. He has done a great service to the struggle. Keeping a moral stand, he is saving us as a Haitian Catholic Church. To see all the nasty things that some bishops have done, and then to see that many Haitians have kept the faith in spite of it -- I think God has blessed us a lot in that sense.

Stop the Torture!

We are really struggling to organize ourselves as religious men and women in Haiti. Whenever something happens to priests and nuns -- for example, if they get in trouble for signing a petition -- I try to take up their defense and bring the issue to the media. You see, a lot of nuns and priests don't know how to deal with the media in Haiti. When something happens in Haiti, many people believe the best thing is not to talk about it. When they are beating you up, the saying goes, "Don't yell." This is wrong!

So we are teaching people how to make press releases. We are teaching them not to be afraid of the media, but to be educated about it. If the police or military have done something wrong against us, we must use this opportunity to embarrass them!

For example, a week ago, a pregnant woman was beaten in S'Deau. I am very concerned about the beating of pregnant women, handicapped people, and children. I immediately made a press release and made a statement on the radio about it, calling for the end of torture in Haiti, to stop the beating of innocent people.

I called the newspapers, I called some bishops, I said, "Please rescue that woman!" I talked to Bishop Lafontant, the nuncio's secretary, and I left messages for all the other bishops. I put pressure on them to try to make them sensitive to the issue. Next time I will be even more firm and try to pull them forward.

When these things happen, we must awaken people's consciences! We need to demand that the people who commit these crimes be brought to justice. We need to make sure there is some reparation. The people who have been beaten must find compensation. When I see more and more people talking about putting an end to beating, to torture, to the killing of innocents -- that makes me happy. We need to raise this issue every opportunity we get: "Stop the torture!"

We Have to Make Our Faith Practical

In the United States there are many bishops who are sympathetic to the Haitian issue. We must bring them information so that they can all together put some pressure on the Haitian bishops. I know that many Haitian bishops receive their financial assistance from some bishops in the United States. We should make them understand that the money of the Catholic people should not be used to enable repression, but to liberate the Catholic people.

There is a song from French Canada that says, "Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die!" In Haiti and abroad, we have to wake people up because, beyond death, beyond the threats of death we have to keep on fighting -- from generation to generation. That's the reason why our faith is a big help.

When I have the opportunity to preach to young people, I try to make them believe this. I say, "You are Christians. You say that you believe in God. If you believe in God, if you are doing good deeds, you shouldn't be afraid. Death should not stop a good Christian, a believer, from acting. We say that we believe that Jesus has overcome the power of death and we have to act accordingly." We must practice what we believe.

This is the message that I want to send to my friends in the United States: "I'm still in hiding, but I'm in good shape. The hiding allows me to share information with Haitians abroad. It is true that my name is on some of the death lists, and I am receiving death threats. But, I have great hope that I'm going to make it, and in case I don't, I'll see you in heaven!"

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