On Wednesday, Sept. 7, as part of a human rights delegation from the U.S., I visited Amnesty International prisoner of conscience and Lavalas Party leader Father Gerard Jean-Juste. Jean-Juste, who seemed tired but in characteristically upbeat spirits, was recently moved from Port-au-Prince's main penitentiary to his current confines in a decidedly less medieval facility in the Pacot neighborhood.
The Pacot annex is a former private residence with clean surroundings, breatheable air, sunlight and room to move around, a far cry from the downtown lockup where I visited Jean-Juste in July. Getting in to see Jean-Juste was also more difficult in July, when the prison director told my colleague and me that we could not meet with the activist priest (apparently due to bureaucratic oversight, we later did anyway on a tour of the prison). On Wednesday, we arrived as a group of Jean-Juste's parishoners from St.Claire church were leaving. The five of them, including an elderly woman who was positively glowing, were happy to have relayed the message that Jean-Juste's feeding programs for hundreds of local children are ongoing despite his incarceration.
Jean-Juste's arrest on trumped-up charges was facilitated by a demonization campaign of ousted President Aristide's Lavalas Party waged by right-wing elites who control most of Haiti's media. Jean-Juste was violently attacked at a funeral he attended, the physical assaults on him only ending with his arrest, which he calls a classic case of "blaming the victim".
Lavalas has maintained consistent demands regarding Haitian elections the UN, with the support of U.S., Canada and France (the three countries most prominent in facilitating the coup which forced out President Aristide's Lavalas government and brought back a reign of military and paramilitary terror) has arranged for November and December. The party continues to argue that the elections cannot be free and fair unless there is an end to the brutal repression of Lavalas supporters, the over one thousand political prisoners are freed, and President Aristide and other political exiles are allowed to return to Haiti to help restore constitutional democracy. If this does not happen, Lavalas faithful are saying there will be "selections" by coup-friendly major powers, not true elections.
But given the millions of dollars being channeled into the electoral process (while cuts to Lavalas social programs by the coup regime exacerbate already dire conditions for most Haitians) seem likely to guarantee that elections will go forward no matter how the majorty feel, many on the streets are hoping that Jean-Juste will be named a last minute candidate.
Mario Joseph, Jean-Juste's Port-au-Prince based lawyer, told me, "People from the steets want him to run. People trust Father Jean-Juste and feel like they have no choice, so they'll take this chance. Father Jean-Juste feels embarassed at this call to be the candidate of the people, and doesn't want to leave his parish. But he's the only candidate people trust. Jean-Juste serves the poor, always goes to the poorest neighborhoods when there are demonstrations, and helps with funerals after police and UN soldiers kill protestors. Other politicians say they'll serve the poor, but usually don't."
Joseph added, "He has the trust and love of the people for all he has done for them, which is why the government wants to stop him and he is in jail. The U.S. embassy and UN don't want to use him as a peacemaker, because that would make him politically stronger and a threat to elite interests."
Jean-Juste concurred, saying that the son-in-law of the current de facto President had targeted the priest for "incendiary sermons." Jean-Juste had repeatedly said that Article 21 of the Haitian Constitution forbids cooperation with anyone working to destroy the government of Haiti, hence the coup regime should not be supported. He also argued that corrupt elites behind death squads and arbitrary executions are the worst criminals, and hence are hypocrites to accuse all street dissidents of being "bandits" (a term constantly used to describe vicitims of police and UN repression, including a man sitting outside his home confined to a wheelchair who was shot in the head by UN "peacekeepers").
Jean-Juste told our delegation, "I also spoke out to condemn the July 6 massacre of civilians by Brazilian troops in Cite Soleil, and in a visit to Miami called for a demonstration at the Brazilian embassy. So I'm paying for a lot of things. It is wrong for the government to take state power against an innocent person, to crush me. But I will forgive them on a spiritual level if they release me."
Of the potential for his candidacy, he said, "the amazing part is this is coming from the poorest ones" and expressed his admiration for the persistence of their struggle. He also made clear that he needs to speak to President Aristide (who remains exiled in South Africa) before making any decision, but such communication had not been permitted by his captors.
Jean-Juste pointed out that George W. Bush's betrayal of the people of New Orleans was similar to his silence on the demands of Congressional Black Caucus members to oppose repression of Lavalas. "We should take a lesson from the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. When people are in need we should take care of them, and disengage from war. The young men and women at war in Iraq should not be there. It's a war for lies, the same as the right wing lies about Aristide."
He added, "if Aristide was still in Haiti, there would be uniforms and books for children who are now unable to start school. Malnutrition is so high, food is so expensive. This is what the coup has brought."
Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, another high profile prisoner the coup regime is refusing to release despite sustained international pressure, is confined in a separate wing of the Pacot annex. Jean-Juste had not been allowed to visit Neptune, but briefly saw him and said his health was "bad". Jean-Juste himself is in need of blood and other tests after collapsing in his former cell, but though the interim government provided treatment for a skin condition shared by many in the National Penitentiary, the Lavalas leader has not yet received the needed tests. When asked how if he felt confident of his security in the current facility, he answered "no".
He expressed his appreciation for international solidarity, and asked that it be continued as much as possible. To disheartened fellow Haitians, he said, "Don't cry too much, there's work to do. Let's do it."