PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Supporters call him Haiti’s Martin Luther King — 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 evidence.
The mix of praise and condemnation has only fueled belief that the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste will seek Haiti’s presidency in fall elections — a move that could rekindle tensions with the United States.
Some among Mr. Aristide’s Lavalas Family party, including Father Jean-Juste, say they won’t contest elections until their deposed leader — whom they contend was toppled 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 Father 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,” Father Jean-Juste said with a laugh while sitting in the shade of a tree outside his St. Claire Church, overlooking Haiti’s gritty capital.
The 58-year-old cleric insists he isn’t planning to swap his flowing robes for the tailored suits of a politician. Church law forbids priests from holding any secular political office.
But he said he would “consider it” if asked by Lavalas, which is still led by Mr. Aristide, himself an ex-priest. Others say Father Jean-Juste lacks the national profile needed for a realistic bid for high office.
Some believe an election victory by a pro-Aristide hard-liner could again inflame Haiti-U.S. relations. But Father Jean-Juste, who lived in New York in the early 1970s, then went to Boston and later Miami in the 1980s, said he is hopeful of better ties if U.S. officials fully support Lavalas’ participation in elections.