Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

HAITI: Student Opposition Bodes Ill for Government

Jane Regan

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Dec 23 2003 (IPS) - When over 15,000 people marched through the streets of Haiti’s capital Monday, psychology student Vladimir Jean Charles was in the lead.

"We have to struggle. We have a responsibility to the majority of poor people who stay on the sidelines," said 25-year-old Jean Charles, a psychology student.

To the north in St. Marc and to the south in Petit-Goaves, high school and university students were also marching, taking part in separate anti- government demonstrations, setting up burning tire barricades, writing graffiti, shouting slogans.

"Too much blood has flowed! Aristide must go!" they shouted in St. Marc, where a young member of an anti-government organisation was murdered last weekend.

"Down with Aristide! They got Saddam! You’re next!" thousands sang in the capital as they flowed down the city’s main boulevard.

Across Haiti recently, a circumscribed but long-smouldering resentment toward Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s rule has erupted into a bona fide opposition movement, and in every city where demonstrators have braved police reaction and attacks by Aristide supporters, students are in the ranks.

Young people have been shot, beaten, gassed and stoned. Some have been killed. They have also thrown back their share of rocks.

Estimates vary, but most put the death toll at about 30 since the latest wave of demonstrations started three months ago.

Two men were shot on Monday when a group of unidentified gunmen opened fire on the march and police shot back. The toll also includes those shot by police during repeated raids in the northern port of Gonaives, where an armed gang has taken control of the seaside slum neighbourhood of Raboteau.

The gang’s revolt against the government, which has been supported by some students in the city, started Sep. 22 when its former leader Amiot Métayer was found murdered. Previously, Métayer had organised pro- Aristide demonstrations and virtually ruled Gonaives through threats and even armed violence.

For three months now, his angry former followers have held almost daily demonstrations, nearly shutting down the city for weeks on end. Violent police reaction, which so far has left well over a dozen often-innocent bystanders dead, fuelled discontent across the country.

Students at Haiti’s state university, which has about 15,000 students at 11 faculties, have been mobilising against the Aristide government for over a year, ever since pro-government students and government officials tried to halt elections for the three-member dean’s office.

The conflict ended with a march of thousands of students and professors to the administration building, and the resignation of the minister of education.

The mobilisation picked up again this fall. A turning point came when pro- Aristide militants, some of whom say they are students, violently attacked an anti-government protest Dec. 5 at the university’s faculty of human sciences (FASCH), where Jean Charles is working on his thesis.

The confrontation left over two dozen people injured, including Dean Pierre-Marie Pacquiot. Tendons on both his knees were severely injured when Aristide supporters beat him with iron rods.

The outrage was universal and widespread. Since then, three ministers, including Minister of Education Marie Carmel Paul-Austin, and two ministry directors have stepped down. Two senators have also disavowed their party, Aristide’s Lavalas Family.

While Prime Minister Yvon Neptune immediately deplored the action, Aristide remained silent for over a week, fuelling further discontent.

Dozens of local and foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs), groups in Europe, the United States and Canada and foreign governments all issued harsh condemnations.

Aristide then spoke out against the action, saying he abhorred it and that he deplored "all violence, no matter where it comes from", but he also called for mobilisation against what he and other government officials label a "campaign of disinformation".

Government officials say student protestors are being manipulated by Haiti’s opposition parties, who contested parliamentary elections in 2000 but have refused to participate in elections since then.

As a result of the political impasse, some of Haiti’s foreign donors and lenders have frozen or restricted several hundred million dollars in aid, although the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) recently announced some funds will be released.

Aristide has denounced the aid freeze as "economic terrorism" and an "embargo" whose goal is to fuel protests and undermine his rule.

But at the university – with its smashed computers and broken windows – angry students are not interested in accusations or excuses.

"The university won’t open until Aristide resigns," said Jean Charles. FASCH has been closed since Dec. 5. "This is not who we elected. He doesn’t care about students, about the state university, about the country. He wants to control everything."

Many of the capital’s private universities also closed in solidarity following the Dec. 5 attack.

Jean Charles’ determination is not surprising given Haiti’s history. Student mobilisation in 1929 contributed to the fall of a puppet- president and the end of the first U.S. occupation of Haiti (1917-1934).

Student strikes and marches also contributed to the overthrow of four heads of state, including dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in 1986. When Duvalier’s violent supporters, the Tonton Macoutes, shot down three Gonaives students on Nov. 28, 1985, it was the beginning of the end for his 29-year rule.

And student resistance against the army-led coup d’état – which sent Aristide into exile from 1991 to 1994 – helped bring the president back to power.

Like many others who were part of the "Lavalas Movement", including priests, unions, farmers’ groups and local and foreign NGOs, large segments of the student population have renounced their faith in Aristide and his government.

They say he has not kept his word to govern by the principles of "transparency, participation and justice", as he promised. Instead, they say, Aristide is no different than the dictatorship that the original Lavalas movement fought to overthrow, and that he oversees a corrupt regime that uses state force to squelch any dissent.

"Regimes fall when students get upset, and students are upset," said Haitian-born University of Virginia Professor Robert Fatton Jr. He recently published ‘Haiti’s Predatory Republic: The Unending Transition to Democracy’, which looks at the current political crisis and its economic and political roots, including Duvalierism and Aristide’s populism.

"This is the most acute crisis Aristide has faced since his re-election as president," Fatton said in a telephone interview from his U.S. home. "I think he has lost legitimacy in the eyes of huge segments of the population."

One such segment is the vocal sector of the student population, who feel deceived.

Following the Dec. 22 march, hundreds of students and professors from public and private faculties, as well as supporters like musician Theodore ”Lolo” Beaubrun, leader of the internationally known Haitian roots band Boukman Eksperyans, gathered in the yard of FASCH.

In their speeches and their cheers, students vowed to continue their mobilisation with concerts, marches and sit-ins.

"It’s always the students who struggle in Haiti. We march. We are willing to die," said Pranel August Ketant, who is studying business at the American University of Modern Business Sciences in the capital.

"Not all students are willing to take to the streets. But those who are, we are not afraid."

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