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HAITI: Student Protests Rock State University

PORT AU PRINCE, Jun 15 2009 (IPS) - The National University of Haiti (UEH) has been gripped by crisis for the last two months, operating under the constant threat of student strikes staged to demand reinstatement of cancelled courses and an increase in the minimum wage.

Dozens of students have been wounded by police bullets in the ongoing clashes. Credit: Sylvestre Fils Dorcilus/IPS

Dozens of students have been wounded by police bullets in the ongoing clashes. Credit: Sylvestre Fils Dorcilus/IPS

Several of the schools which make up the UEH, including the Liberal Arts School and the School of Social Science, remain paralysed, with students in those departments following the call for a strike by students in the School of Medicine and Pharmacology (FMP) and the School of Medical Technology (ETM).

Since Jun. 4, the strike inside the different departments, particularly inside the Medical School, has spilled over into violent demonstrations in the streets. Both the Haitian National Police and the United Nations peacekeeping force (MINUSTAH) have launched tear gas and fired into the crowds of protesting students. The students, in turn, have thrown rocks and bottles back at the troops.

The students have burned and broken the windshields of several vehicles belonging both to the government and international NGOs. Dozens of students have been wounded by police bullets.

To date, 24 students have been arrested. Eight have so far been released from custody.

On Apr. 27, the students in the Medical School called for a work stoppage, hoping the strike would draw attention to the difficult conditions under which they are striving to obtain an education. They complain that they are without adequate faculty or the physical infrastructure befitting a state university.

They are demanding that the university administration reinstate more than 10 courses which they term “indispensable” and which have been eliminated from the curriculum. They are also calling for the “unconditional” resignation of the dean of FMP, whom they accuse of mismanagement.

The 165 students at the medical school, which was founded in 1861, take a five-year degree for which they pay only the registration fee of 500 gourdes (12 dollars) per semester and the cost of their books. At the end of their studies, they must perform a year of social service as an internship and may then chose a specialty.

Many more Haitians, an estimated 1,800, are studying medicine at various universities in neighbouring Dominican Republic.

Pouchon Azard, a fourth year medical student, told IPS: “We are using these waves of street demonstrations because we want to force the country’s leaders to recognise our recommendations. Too often, those who are in charge minimise our requests.”

“Our demands are the same: the unconditional departure of the administrative personnel of both FMP and ETM, the replacement of the dozens of courses which have been cut, and the improvement of the physical plant of our facility,” he said.

The student strikers, in the official state paper, Le Moniteur, have also called on President Rene Preval to approve the law raising the minimum wage to 200 gourdes a day, about five dollars, from the current 70 gourdes, which is less than two dollars a day.

President Preval has delayed signing the minimum wage bill which was passed by the Senate and the House over one month ago. Faced with opposition from business leaders, Preval has called for a dialogue among the opposing factions. The president’s attitude has sparked anger among many students.

“I do not believe that we are going to return to class without a concrete solution,” said Azard.

Both he and Beneche Martial, another medical student, said that they hold the state responsible for the recurring strikes because, they say, the resolution to their problems is always postponed and never resolved.

Azard expressed concern that the other demands from the students, such as the minimum wage issue, will overshadow the demands of the medical students which were the initial cause of the strike.

According to the chancellor of the University, Jean Vernet Henry, the crisis will jeopardise the entire academic year if the students do not find a path to dialogue.

“We in the administration are willing to talk with them but they are refusing to sit down with us to find a solution, which has lasted for too long,” he said.

The dean for academic affairs, Wilson Laleau, said that the administration cannot resolve the problem on its own. He said that the university faces a crushing problem of a lack of “human resources”.

According to him, the absence of qualified and available teachers was the basis for the decision that the administration made to eliminate courses.

“In addition,” said Laleau, “the entire university is facing this lack of human resources.” He said that he regrets that the fight has been taken to the streets and that the students appear to be burning the bridges which may lead to a negotiated solution.

In a press release issued last week, the Executive Council of the University noted that the during the two preceding weeks, the extreme violence has grown to an unprecedented level and is affecting both the citizens as well as the schools in question.

The protesting students are unwilling to stop their protests until their demands are addressed by the relevant authorities. This list of demands grows longer every day.

*With the assistance of Elizabeth Eames Roebling.

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