Students in Haiti Feel the Political Turmoil

AT first glance, Place Jeremie in Haiti's capital seems like any other city square where students socialize at twilight. But most of the contact among the students gathered here is merely bumping into each other as they walk about memorizing lessons under the flickering street lights. At home, they have no electricity to study by.

"I've fought long and hard to be where I am - or rather where I should be," says Jean L., a fourth-year agronomy student at Haiti's only state university. (Like others interviewed for this article, Jean refused to give his full name out of fear for his safety.) "I have only one semester left, but because of the political problems inside the university, I'm already two years behind."

"Everyone is talking about the violence in the country," he says. "But are they aware of the violence directed at us, the students, the future of our country?"

Students have been the target of political repression in Haiti for decades. But since the September 1991 coup that ousted elected President Jean Bertrand Aristide, attacks against them have been particularly fierce.

"We were one of the first sectors to react to the coup, and subsequently we were one of the first to be targeted by the military," says Pascal, a leader of the National Federation of Haitian Students (FENEH), who was forced into hiding last year. "The Army sees us as their enemy because we have an organized voice, and anyone that speaks out is a threat to the military."

FENEH students met shortly after the coup to organize. Nearly 200 students were attacked by the military and more than 120 were arrested. Many were beaten and psychologically tortured.

Just a few months ago Jean, a 23-year-old student, was arrested on the eve of a demonstration he was planning as a member of Zafe Elev Lekol (Student School Affairs). He was severely beaten, deprived of food and water for three days, and released a month later only after paying a bribe.

Over the years, Haiti's students have also been attacked in more subtle ways. President for Life Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier passed a law in 1960 giving him the right to name deans and professors, essentially giving the state control over the university. Spies reported on student activities, which led to arrests, tortures, and disappearances.

After the departure of Mr. Duvalier's son, Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier in 1986, students and teachers worked together to reclaim control of the university. They forced certain deans out of power and held elections to replace them.

Following the 1991 coup that ousted Aristide, however, all the elected deans were fired by the de facto minister of education. Certain schools within the university were forced to close.

"Students and professors protested, so courses had to stop," says Marie, a professor at the school of medicine. "Even those who wanted to go back couldn't, because their spots had been replaced by loyalists to the de facto government." Today, three of the 11 schools in the state university are closed, and only six are functioning full time.

"There's an attempt to privatize the university because [the coup leaders] see it as a bastion of resistance," says a third-year student in the school of natural resources. Like many students, he comes from a poor background. "They want to change the clientele - make it for the elite, for people less rebellious," he says.

When Gerard Bissainthe was appointed chancellor of the university in November 1992, he immediately "restructured" the school. He split classes into two groups, doubling professors' workload and taxing physical structures that were already buckling from overuse. He ordered that students carry identification cards. Last December, the government closed the schools of science and the social sciences.

"I don't think [the policy is] an attempt to privatize as much as it is to destabilize," says a professor from the school of education. "They want to shut the mouths of people who are talking too much about a return to democracy."

Reforms begun under Aristide were stopped dead by the coup. Losly Voltair, Aristide's education minister, was going to regulate conditions for hiring and firing professors, replacing the standard practice of employment by political favor. There were to be standards for teaching. Today, only 10 percent of teachers are qualified nationwide. A site had been designated for a new campus. No improvements have been made in the university buildings for more than 40 years.

Those reforms still remain a goal for students.

"The problems with the university are aligned with the political problems of the country," Jean says. "We're not going to buckle under pressure. We've weathered some hard times, but they haven't beaten us. We have our future to work for."

The July 3 United Nations-brokered accord calling for Aristide to return Oct. 30 has renewed some students' hope for improvement in scholastic conditions. Aristide is expected to choose a new prime minister this week, and a new Cabinet - including a new education minister - may be appointed soon.

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