PORT-AU- PRINCE – On a weekday afternoon, the School of Medicine and Pharmacology of the State University of Haiti on Oswald Durand Street is closed under the watchful eyes of police officers.
There have been no classes at the school since students took over the building on April 27. In the ensuing months, protests have spread to the School of Social Science and Ethnology. There have been almost weekly demonstrations by students in the city’s streets – protests which have sometimes turned violent. As the stalemate drags on into its sixth month, Haiti’s President Rene Preval has stepped into the fray. “The crisis shaking the State University of Haiti,” said Preval, “is degenerating and threatens the very existence of this important institution.”
The students’ initial demands were for better conditions in the Department of Medicine and Pharmacology. The president of the group leading the protests, fourth year medical student Pouchon Azard, said over a two year period there was an overall decline in the university.
“More and more courses were withdrawn from the curriculum,” he says rattling of a half dozen classes from medical statistics, to radiology, to genetics. He says the length of medical internships was halved and laboratories were taken over by the department and used for offices.
But what really drew the ire and mistrust of the students, Azard says, was a conversation they had with a Canadian at the school who mentioned new books and money for the library the Canadian government had sent. That was news to them says Azard who accuses the school of not using the money to improve the library and not making the books available to students.
Faculty member Dr. Philippe Desmangles says some of the students’ grievances were legitimate, some were lies, and others were beyond the scope of the school’s current administration. The conversion of laboratories into private offices was done by the previous dean he says and the school had to drop courses because it has trouble holding on to professors. One retired, another left after he got a good job offer in Canada. “You don’t get paid for your first year of teaching,” says Desmangles, explaining why it’s so hard to retain faculty.
On April 27, the student’s central committee presented the department with their list of demands. The document was signed by over two thirds of the student body. In their request for better conditions, there was nothing unusual; students in various faculties have been protesting poor conditions for years.
What was unusual was that student leaders also called for the removal of the department’s executive committee. Called the Decanat, it is made up of the dean, and two vice-deans.
The university’s top official, Rector Jean Vernet Henry says the protests at the School of Medicine could have happened in any department. The State University simply lacks the resources, he says, to hire enough lab technicians or to pay professors more than what he calls volunteer’s wages.
Henry says the university’s executive committee had already submitted a budget to try and address the deficiencies that sparked the protests. He also defends the School of Medicine and Pharmacology which he said offered intensive seminars taught by outside experts to replace cancelled courses.
As for the new books, they hadn’t been placed in the library because it needed fixing but renovations were planned and the students had access to the online catalogue of the University of Montreal’s Medical School library.
The Rector blames a hard-core minority of students for blocking all attempts at dialogue and intimidating other students who wanted a settlement. “Every mediator hit a wall,” Henry says.
It was the beginning of a long hot summer.
In June the protests took on a larger social agenda. At the time parliament was debating a new minimum wage law. Many of the students at the State University, which is more affordable than private institutions, are from very poor families. Students joined with grassroots organizations calling for the minimum wage to be raised to $5 US. The demonstrators tied up traffic on John Brown Avenue, a major downtown corridor, and UN troops were called in to disperse the students with tear gas. Twenty four students were arrested.
The following week, students marched to the courthouse to demand the release of their comrades. The police were overwhelmed and again called in UN troops who shot off tear gas canisters as club wielding police battled students. Over the course of the month the violence and tension ratcheted up. Students set up barricades of burning tires, pelted cars with rocks and set fire to a UN peacekeeping mission vehicle.
The crisis spread with students from the Departments of Social Science and Ethnology striking in solidarity with the medical students.
With classes cancelled for months, the Department of Medicine and Pharmacology announced that students would have to redo the year.
Henry says the University tried for four months to negotiate with students to no avail. “We went down to the faculty (of medicine) to talk to the students and we were driven away in a very disrespectful way.”
In late August and early September at the request of the Decanat, the University sent in police to flush out the students from the Medical School building. This angered student leaders who added the removal of the university’s rector and two vice rectors to their list of demands. For its part, the university banned for life a number of student leaders, and suspended others.
Finally, after staying quiet on the matter all summer, President Preval got involved.
Last Wednesday, the President announced the creation of a panel called the facilitating committee. Its task, to bring all the parties together and propose a solution that would allow classes to resume.
The seven-member body is made up of representatives from a wide range of sectors including academia, law, finance, the media and social services.
The new counsel was welcomed by the university’s administration, which admitted the problem had become too big for it to handle.
“The minute you have stones being thrown, windshields smashed, people injured, the rectorat can’t act,” Fritz Deshommes, the university’s vice-rector of research told the daily Le Matin.
But the news was not greeted warmly by the head of the protesting students at the Department of Medicine and Pharmacology. “There are people on the committee who are already on the side of the university,” says Azard. He cites committee member and spokesperson Herold Jean Francois as having written editorials against the students. “They can’t be judge and jury,” insists Azard.
Committee member Mathias Pierre responds that the body’s function is strictly advisory and has no executive power. He adds that the panel includes people from a range of backgrounds and views. And that many are sympathetic to student demands for better conditions. “At least three or four are former members of the National Federation of Haitian Students,” he points out.
Pierre who was a student at the university 20 years ago and was part of student campaigns then to improve conditions at the university, also passionately rejects assertions made by some students that the Government-appointed committee is an infringement on the university’s independence.
“If I thought the role of this committee was to violate the autonomy for which I fought and lost a year of school, I wouldn’t be on the committee.”
Pierre and others note that this is a generation of students who have come of age in the Post-Duvalier era, a period of serial crisis marked by violence. They say the protesters have learned that the way to achieve one’s ends is through violence and intimidation.
Dr. Desmangles says he tried to warn his students about the consequences of such tactics. “They told me, at a certain point violence is necessary. I said if you are violent you will be met with a much more violent force, and one that will be legal.”
The Committee’s proposals for resolving the conflict are due in 3 weeks.
Whether or not classes resume soon, some believe the State University of Haiti and the Department of Medicine and Pharmacology will take a lot longer to recover from the wounds inflicted by the events of the past five months.
Dr. Desmangles says an already ailing institution is now in worse health. “Most parents want to send their children to private universities,” he says. Two year’s ago a major international organization was hiring doctors in Haiti, Desmangles says, “not a single graduate of the State University was hired.”
“The University already had bad image, Desmangle says, “this will make the problem worse.”
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