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  • Mar 27, 2023
  • 6 minutes

Haiti:  The student’s fight for the autonomy and independence of the university

Jean-Sonel Basquin

When Jean-Bertrand Aristide rose to the presidency of Haiti, he was taken down seven months later.  Since that moment, the political climate of the country continued to deteriorate up until the return of the deposed president, in 1994.  Furthermore, things were especially complicated during his hard-fought reelection in November of 2000.  Two years later, the socio-political environment presented another set of conditions:  Aristide had to confront the demands of the students of the State University of Haiti and an opposition that was progressively more visible in both the middle class and working class areas, in particular, the farmers in the middle of the country.

The history of the student movement in the State University of Haiti had two chapters, each one based in different demands:  an academic demand, that developed between July and December of 2002; and, a political demand, that began in December of that same year until the exit of the present Jean-Bertrand Aristide, on February 29, 2004.  This piece, concretely, will focus on the academic demands with the goal of visualizing the collective nonviolent struggle lead by the Haitian students against all forms of authoritarian government, to protect the Haitian Public University. 

During those years, the State University of Haiti (“UEH”) came across some serious problems.  One had to do with the renovation of the University Council – the reform included a term of 3 years.  The elections were realized, but the did not reach the necessary majority and this generated concerns about the legitimacy of the electoral process.  The new elections were postponed for a future date.  Some of the students were opposed to these selections and demanded that, before making this move, first they should resolve the problems of management in the faculty of the UEH.  The suggestion, then, like a supreme organ of control, orientation and arbitrary of this universities center, tried to resolve this situation through dialogue a Provisional Commission to manage the UEH.  Not only that: they also prepared two law projects to address the crisis of this university and to reform the universal Haitian public.

After these events, the students of the UEH performed two actions.  First, on July 24, 2002, they opposed the candidacy of the outgoing dean Pierre Paquiot – who was from the defunct Universities Council and planned to take back his position – and decided to occupy the office of the rectory initiating a hunger strike.  Secondly, there was a decision by the Judiciary related to the university that declared the mandate of the University’s Council null and void, ordering the Superior Minister of Education to intervene in matters relating to the UEH.  This decision put at risk the function and future of the university, which has a high value in Haitian society, now that professionals that occupy high positions in the country have emerged from their classrooms and is, also, an institution that participated in the regulation of the Haitian higher learning.  This university pertains to one of the five pillars on which the organization of the state stands, as indicated in Article 208 of the Constitution. 

The Minister of Education opted to throw more fuel into the fire: having a judicial order in their favor they felt they had the authority to make decisions without considering the potential consequences.  As such, on July 27, 2002, they published a communication in which they denounced the executive authorities of the State University of Haiti, substituting them for a Provisional Commission and detaining the electoral process.  Not satisfied with this, the minister also named a new dean for the UEH, a measure contrary with the Constitution’s frame in which rules the UEH.  In this way, he put an autonomous academic institution, that was independent, under the supervision of a minister and they created a grave crisis in the most important national institution of higher learning.  This triggered the students fight.  The student felt threatened because there no longer existed autonomy of the university as a result of the minister’s decision.  Said in another way:  they could no longer have legitimate elections to substitute the University’s Counsel, a right that the constitution granted them under the dictatorship of Fancois Duvalier. 

As such, the university students decided to apply diverse actions and nonviolent strategies:  conferences, hunger strikes, sit-in’s – nonviolent protests that consist with sitting in groups in public ways, music, poetry, theater, art, peaceful marches, protests, and other things.  From there began the Front of the Resistance in the Faculty of Social Sciences in the UEH and began to spread to all the other public universities in the country, giving conferences about university autonomy, reform of the universities, and the struggle of students in Latin America and across the glove.  All these events involved numerous rallies. 

On August 13, 2022, the students decided to organize a peaceful march on the streets of Puerto Principe during the “chimeres” – the Chimeres: minions in favor of the ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, organized in armed groups and spreading terror in Haiti in the period understood to be between 2001 and 2005 – and the supporters of the government, surrounded the UEH.

Three months later, in November of 2002, they performed at least three demonstrations.  The first was organized in front of the Haitian parliament.  It was there that they accused the president Jean-Bertrand Aristide of being the cause of everything that was occurring in the public university, and they pleaded with him to leave his post/position as it was not right play president, in particular, for all the irregularities that were produced during the national elections what brought him to power.  In the second demonstration there were more than 5,000 people, a majority students, that were concentrated on the streets of Puerto Principe in favor of independence and autonomy of the UEH.  During this demonstration, lead by the University Council and the Front of Resistance, the university community regained the rectory that was occupied by the University Council which the government had named.  Afterwards, a third large mobilization was done in front of the National Palace.  There they demanded to the government that they withdraw their measures in relation to the naming of a Provisional Commission to direct the UEH. 

The pressure maintained by the students made it that Jean-Bertrand Aristide would have an impromptu meeting with the University Council.  Finally, on December 2, 2002, a decision of the Minister of National Education repealed the decree of July 27, 2002, and shortly thereafter, also announced the dimension of the Minister of National Education. 

For the students, the first victory was the abolishment of the decree of July 27 which named a dean in front of the State University of Haiti under the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the second victory was the dimension of the Minister of National Education at the same time.  There is more to say about the participation of different social sectors in the live of this movement that was undeniable.

This movement of students converted, in the end, in a portal of change that could take the Haitian population out of the subhuman misery that they have endured for generations. 

This student movement became the final carrier of a change that could pull out the Haitian population of the subhuman misery in which they lived for centuries. 

*Jean-Sonel Basquin

He is an activist and a licensed educator of development projects.  In 2020 he participated in the Regional Program for the study and the practice of nonviolent strategies action in the Americas (Quito – Ecuador).  He is creating a center with other youth to answer some of the problems in Haitian society. 

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