[News] Haiti - Mildred Aristide Interview

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Mar 3 16:27:21 EST 2015


*/HAITI SOLIDARITY (/**/www.haitisolidarity.net/* 
<http://www.haitisolidarity.net/>*/) INTERVIEW:/*//

/MILDRED ARISTIDE, /
/FORMER FIRST LADY OF HAITI///

/Mildred Aristide is an attorney, who as former First Lady of 
Haiti, headed the country’s National AIDS Commission and authored a book 
on the root causes of child domestic service.  Since her family’s return 
home from forced exile in 2011, Ms. Aristide and her husband, former 
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (known throughout Haiti as Titide) have 
focused their efforts on developing the University of the Aristide 
Foundation. ///

/The work to build UNIFA, has taken place in the midst of growing 
repression within the country. Long overdue elections have not taken 
place. Police and UN troops using live ammunition, chemical agents and 
clubs have attacked demonstrators protesting against the Martelly 
government. President Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected 
president, has been threatened repeatedly with arrest, with heavily 
armed police surrounding the Aristides’ home.///

/Yet UNIFA has persevered.  In this new interview, Ms. Aristide details 
progress made by this groundbreaking university over the last few years. 
Forged in the fight for democracy and inclusion, UNIFA is a true example 
of popular education in action.///

*

Haiti Solidarity: First of all, thank you so much for your time. It is 
an honor for us at Haiti Solidarity to be conducting this interview. 
Looking back four years ago, to March 18, 2011, the date of your 
family’s return from exile in South Africa, what do you remember about 
that moment?

Ms. Aristide: Without a doubt, our accompaniment home from the airport 
to the front door of the house – where we sat in the car for 15 minutes 
until a passage could be cleared through the crowd to get inside!It is a 
moment and a feeling that I’ll never forget.The four of us like to refer 
to it as a ‘tsunami of love.'

Q: Why was reopening UNIFA the central priority of President Aristide’s 
work upon your return to Haiti? Why is UNIFA so essential to the 
movement for real democracy in Haiti?

Ms. Aristide: Let me start with some background.Titide created the 
Aristide Foundation University (UNIFA) in 2001.It was an extension of 
the Haiti-Cuba cooperation in health care.Instead of sending Haitian 
students to med school in Cuba we would train more doctors and health 
professionals in the country.We broke ground on the campus in 2002.By 
2003 the first phase of construction was completed; approximately 247 
medical students began classes.Early February 2004, the university 
teaching hospital, Hopital Universitaire de la Paix, opened.Then there 
was the coup d’etat.While Titide and I were forced from our home and the 
country, UNIFA students were forced from the campus.University 
classrooms and dorm rooms were transformed into military barracks by 
soldiers of the multi-national force deployed to Haiti.Remarkably, most 
of the students made their way to Cuba and completed their training.When 
the earthquake struck on January 12, 2010, some of these young doctors 
staffed emergency clinics at the Foundation auditorium; two are part of 
our staff at UNIFA.

In the month before we returned to Haiti, Titide wrote: “A year on [from 
the earthquake], young people and students look to the Foundation’s 
University to return to its educational vocation and help fill the 
gaping national hole left on the day the earth shook in Haiti … I will 
return to Haiti to the field I know best and love: education.”Education 
has always been at the center of his life work – as teacher/priest, 
creating Lafanmi Selavi (center for street children), his writings, 
social justice activism, tenure as Haiti’s first democratically elected 
president, his scholarship in South Africa.And today, he brings all of 
that to UNIFA.

Right now, in the moment that Haiti is living, the university is 
essential.Haiti vitally needs a safe space where young people can come 
together, think country and construct a future under very difficult 
circumstances.A place where they can learn from and interact with 
national and international professionals.An institution that will 
address national issues and seek viable solutions to national 
problems.Dreams of working, prospering and changing Haiti – not chasing 
after a foreign visa or a job with a foreign NGO.This is UNIFA’s commitment.

Q: Could you describe the growth of UNIFA over the past four years, and 
the impact it has made in Haiti in this period?

Ms. Aristide: UNIFA’s first admissions exam in 2011 drew over 1,000 
applicants – when we could only accept 126 students for that first 
class!One hundred and twenty six is a tiny fraction of the approximately 
50,000 students who complete high school every year in Haiti; it speaks 
to the urgent need for access to quality university education in 
Haiti.Last year it was reported that there are about 30,000 Haitians 
attending university in the Dominican Republic at a cost of 80-90 
million dollars a year.So an immediate – albeit limited – impact that 
UNIFA has had is to offer Haitian parents more options in the education 
of their daughters and sons.

**

Every year, we work to expand those options.Since beginning with the 
medical school, we have added a school of nursing, law and this past 
September, in partnership with Stony Brook University in NY, Haiti’s 
first school of physical therapy.Our student population stands at 
approximately 1,200.We grew from a handful of instructors to over 65 
instructors across the 4 different schools.Our Haitian instructors are 
complemented by a visiting instructors’ program.American and 
Haitian-American professionals who spend up to a week teaching on 
campus.Last year we had the privilege of welcoming Jeffrey Brand, former 
dean of the University of San Francisco Law School.As well as Dr. Henri 
Ford, Haitian-American chief of pediatric orthopedics at LA Children’s 
Hospital.Our 3rd and 4th year medical students are enrolled in clinical 
training at area hospitals, plus the Mirbalais Hospital established by 
Partners in Health.Third year nursing students as well.

In terms of student services, we now have a fully functioning cafeteria 
for students and staff, we have increased our broadband width – although 
it’s still not enough – and are actively working with our partners at 
Rosalind Franklin University of Medical Sciences (Illinois) to have 
access to their online library and human anatomy program.The partial 
renovation of the residential campus has meant that we have been able to 
lodge visiting instructors.And this year 10 students are residing on campus.

Q: Can you discuss the health care issues facing Haiti right now – and 
UNIFA’s role in helping to meet those challenges?

Ms. Aristide: Of course cholera remains a very serious public health 
crisis.At the end of 2014, several reports indicated spikes in the 
number of infections and deaths attributable to cholera across different 
parts of the country.I wouldn’t be surprised if we passed 9,000 deaths 
already.That, added to chronic infectious diseases like AIDS and TB, 
makes for a very difficult health outlook.All this against the backdrop 
of a hugely insufficient number of physicians for the 
population.Existing and new hospitals built since the earthquake 
function well below 100% levels because of staff shortage.The clinical 
support that responded to the earthquake has left.Haiti counts only a 
handful of trained physical therapists, when the need for therapy 
skyrocketed after the earthquake.The capital’s General Hospital does not 
have a properly functioning morgue.There is an urgent need for Haitian 
trained health care providers, nurses, technicians, pharmacists, and 
administrators – at every level.Education and training in the health 
sciences must be a priority in any viable national health plan.

Q: In Haiti, university education has traditionally been the province of 
the elite. How has UNIFA begun to break this mold?

Ms. Aristide: When UNIFA opened in 2001, government support allowed us 
to be tuition free.When we reopened in September 2011 (without 
government financial support) it was clear that we would not be able to 
survive without tuition.The current tuition at UNIFA(less than 1,500 USD 
a year) is less then what other private universities charge.So that is 
already broadening access.Still we know that for Haiti, in these most 
difficult economic times, that tuition is still a lot.And the solution 
may be making more need-based scholarships available; to do that we have 
to raise more money.Beyond the economic factor, there is a psychological 
and social barrier that UNIFA is committed to overcoming: The notion 
that only some people can be doctors or can go to university.And in fact 
the student body at UNIFA is representative of a broader spectrum of 
Haitian society than you might see at other Haitian 
Universities.Students and their families know that UNIFA’s doors are 
open to all.Both the Foundation and UNIFA are built on this guiding 
principle: “Tout moun se moun”.Every person is a human being.Every young 
person should be able to go to university, every person has the right to 
health care.#BlackLivesMatter.

Q: One of the impressive features of the University is its gender 
balance.Each of the schools – law, medical, nursing and physical therapy 
– has at least 50% women students. Could you discuss the significance of 
this for Haiti and how this has been achieved?

Ms. Aristide: Another social barrier to tear down: That the university 
is the domain of men.We start the year with a 50-50-gender balance 
(except in nursing where the pool of applicants is overwhelming 
feminine) and we have no difficulty finding qualified female 
candidates.One thing we have seen though is that there is a certain 
amount of attrition along the way, and attrition among female students 
is slightly higher, which means that the balance is not always 
maintained.So here is something we are looking at, asking what 
additional barriers to completing their studies do female students 
face?How can we as a University address that?Our commitment is always 
for gender parity.

Q: In the past period, there has been a growth in repressive measures 
against political expression in Haiti, including threats to arrest 
President Aristide. How has this impacted you and your family? How has 
it impacted UNIFA?

Ms. Aristide: Unsettling, but not surprising.Sadly, the absence of the 
rule of law means that anything is possible; anything can be said.Human 
rights are routinely violated, like what happened to Titide.There is a 
Creole expression: The dogs bark, the caravan rolls by.In August, as the 
political machine spewed its lies, here is what he was doing: Preparing 
for a 4th year at UNIFA; registering students; overseeing construction 
of the school of physical therapy (which is now 95% complete); working 
with the new dean of the medical school; assessing completion of the 
second 3-week international social medicine summer class.Committed as he 
has been all his life to working with the people of Haiti.

There are people that are visibly surprised when they visit our 
campus.They see students in white lab coats bustling to and from 
class.They stare at these young women and men sitting on benches, 
studying, eating lunch, hanging out, checking their email.An eyebrow is 
raised when they see a well-known practicing physician or lawyer step 
into class.Normal, everyday events for us, yet UNIFA has to push back 
against false perceptions.The wheel is turning.I like to tell visitors 
that they are standing on sacred ground.This is not hyperbole.The stakes 
and the country’s needs are too high.UNIFA cannot be a pawn in political 
fighting.There should be no attempt to use or manipulate our students to 
serve political ends. UNIFA is a national project that is slowly 
revealing itself to be a national institution in the service of the country.

We have 3 goals: (1) to prepare doctors to care for the poorest of the 
poor (2) to increase the number of doctors practicing in rural areas and 
(3) to break down long tradition of exclusion of the poor majority in 
Haiti from access to higher education.

Q: What are some of UNIFA’s goals for the next few years? How would you 
like to see the University’s reach expand?

Ms. Aristide: There are no lesser priorities, but in my book, these are 
five top priorities:First, UNIFA’s own teaching hospital. Second, a 
sizeable endowment that can allow us to lower or better yet eliminate 
tuition.Third, a school of science (biology, chemistry, math and 
engineering).Fourth, complete renovation of the residential campus so 
that we can accommodate students from all across the country.And fifth, 
a stand-alone library.

Q: We know that UNIFA has done all of this work with such limited 
resources. What are the ways in which people and organizations outside 
of Haiti can help further UNIFA’s work? How can people with ties to 
universities and medical institutions help?

Ms. Aristide: Well, the most straightforward cooperation is 
financial.While a portion of the budget comes from student tuition, we 
depend on international and national support for the rest.We also 
encourage donations/contributions of teaching material, like anatomical 
models and charts, laboratory equipment, etc.I recently came across an 
article online titled “Learning surgery in Haiti”.A group of surgeons 
and 2 American med students came “to Haiti” (no hospital or medical 
school is mentioned) for 5 days and performed 46 surgeries.This was a 
wonderful and most likely life-saving event for the 46 patients 
treated.According to the article, the students had “opportunities 
unavailable to them back home.”To perform the surgeries, “the team 
shipped 18, 50-pound boxes of instruments and materials.”Now, imagine if 
that group had gone one step further and partnered with a Haitian 
medical school to train Haitian students too. That is the kind of 
engaged cooperation and support that UNIFA seeks to strengthen.

***
-- 
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