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24825: (news) Chamberlain: Haiti-Priest Power
Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>
By STEVENSON JACOBS
PORT-AU-PRINCE, April 4 (AP) -- Supporters call him Haiti's Martin
Luther King Jr., a fiery Roman Catholic priest who electrifies the masses
with populist sermons urging social equality and nonviolent protest.
The U.S.-backed interim government recently accused him of inciting
violence and hiding gunmen loyal to ousted President Jean-Bertrand
Aristide, jailing him for weeks before freeing him because of a lack of
The mix of praise and condemnation has only fueled beliefs that the
pro-Aristide Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste will seek Haiti's presidency in fall
elections -- a move that could re-ignite tensions with the United States.
Some among Aristide's Lavalas Family Party, including Jean-Juste, say
they won't contest elections until their fallen leader -- whom they claimed
was deposed in a U.S.-backed coup -- returns from exile in South Africa and
dozens of his jailed allies are released at home.
But that hasn't stopped people wherever he goes from urging Jean-Juste
to run for president, according to him.
"If you go anywhere abroad, in the diaspora or any place in this
country, people all think that I'm running," Jean-Juste said with a laugh
while sitting under a shade tree outside his St. Claire Church, a
peach-colored structure perched atop a hill overlooking Haiti's gritty
So will he?
The 58-year-old insists he isn't planning to swap his flowing robes for
the finely tailored suits of a politician. But he said he'd "consider it"
if asked by Lavalas, which is still led by Aristide, himself an ex-priest.
Others say Jean-Juste lacks the national profile needed for a realistic bid
for high office.
"I will consider it ... but I always would prefer somebody else," said
Jean-Juste, wearing a white frock and occasionally glancing at his
constantly buzzing cell phone. "My purpose is not power for power. My
purpose is to serve as many people as possible."
Some believe an elections victory by a pro-Aristide hard-liner could
again inflame Haiti-U.S. relations. But Jean-Juste, who lived in New York
in the early 1970s, then went to Boston, and later Miami in the 1980s, said
he's hopeful of better ties if U.S. officials fully support Lavalas'
participation in elections.
"But if they go the Iraq way and try to force elections down our throat
.. forget it," said Jean-Juste, who was ordained in the United States..
"We'll be back in the streets marching."
The transition from priest to possible presidential contender follows a
life of struggle for Jean-Juste, first in protests against oppression under
the Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier regime and later as an advocate for poor
Haitian refugees in the United States.
His stature grew in October, when masked police stormed the presbytery
of his church and seized him as he was handing out soup to scores of hungry
children, touching off an international outcry.
Justice Minister Bernard Gousse accused Jean-Juste of being linked to
criminals wanted for "barbaric" attacks against Aristide opponents, and of
sheltering and organizing meetings in his home "with gang leaders."
He was freed nearly seven weeks later after a judge ruled there was no
evidence to support the accusation, which Jean-Juste calls "a character
But his time in prison appears to have only bolstered support for the
bearded, raspy voiced clergyman.
At Easter mass in the capital, hundreds packed the church to hear his
sermon, which blasted Haiti's divide between rich and poor and denounced
the United States and France for "kidnapping" Aristide in a coup last year
-- a charge both countries deny.
"He's a bright shining light for us," 60-year-old Deluce Delva said
outside the church. "Only God knows if he'd make a good president, but we'd
all support him."
But to get that far, Jean-Juste first would have to bridge a deep rift
within Lavalas, between hard-liners wanting to skip elections entirely and
moderates looking toward political life after Aristide, who was overthrown
in a February 2004 uprising.
Violence has since surged in the capital in clashes among pro- and
anti-Aristide street gangs, ex-soldiers, police and U.N. peacekeepers. More
than 400 people have been slain since September, raising fears that armed
groups could disrupt elections in October and November.
Some, however, say Jean-Juste lacks the name recognition at home that he
enjoys in Haitian communities in the United States, whose members won't be
allowed to cast ballots in this year's elections.
"It's helpful that he was in prison ... but I think he would still have
to raise his profile even further to be a true national candidate," said
Dan Erikson, the director for Caribbean projects at the Washington-based
But others note that it wouldn't be the first time someone in Haiti
traded the priesthood for a shot at the national palace.
"Aristide opposed elections for years before joining the race in October
1990," said Henry Carey, a Haiti expert and professor at Georgia State
University. "So Jean-Juste could also reverse himself."