[News] Democratic Space in Adverse Times: Milestone at Haiti’s University of the Aristide Foundation

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Apr 24 10:05:00 EDT 2018


  Democratic Space in Adverse Times: Milestone at Haiti’s University of
  the Aristide Foundation

by Leslie Mullin - April 20, 2018

March 18, 2018, marked exactly seven years since Haiti’s former 
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Mrs. Aristide returned to Haiti 
from forced exile in South Africa, where they lived following the 2004 
/coup d’etat/that overthrew Haiti’s democratic government. On their 
return, they began to rebuild the University of the Aristide Foundation 
whose land and buildings had been appropriated, converted to military 
barracks and trashed by U.S. and Brazilian troops during the /coup/.

On the 7th anniversary of that historic return, UniFA held its first 
graduation ceremony in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. A delegation of Haiti 
solidarity activists from the U.S. was honored to be there representing 
Haiti Action Committee, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Global 
Women’s Strike, and the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund.

In a joyous celebration attended by over 1000 people, UniFA graduated 77 
doctors, 46 nurses and 15 lawyers. The setting was beautiful, the stage 
decorated with flowers and banners in the blue and white colors of 
UniFA. The famed Philharmonic Orchestra  of Sainte-Trinite 
Haitian folk music as well as classical music throughout the event. 
Cameras were everywhere to record the occasion, which was widely and 
prominently reported in Haitian media 
The UniFA choir, joined by the entire audience, sang Haiti’s national 
anthem, and later the song of UniFA. Two young men carrying the flags of 
Haiti and UniFA proudly led the procession of Faculty at the opening of 
the ceremony. As a child, one of them – soon to become a UniFA graduate 
– lived at /Lafanmi Selavi,/the center for street children founded by 
Aristide when he was a priest. His success is an example of the 
university’s commitment to overcome social barriers limiting access to 
higher education. “Education sans exclusion” – education without 
exclusion – is a central theme of UniFA, imprinted on its logo and 
manifest in every detail of this remarkable event.  The exhilaration 
that infused the occasion spoke to UniFA’s broader commitment, expressed 
by Mrs. Mildred Aristide, “to break down the long tradition of exclusion 
of the poor majority in Haiti from access to higher education.”

At the podium, Dr. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, President of UniFA, stood to 
address the gathering. His speech 
that the University’s role is not only to instill academic knowledge, 
but to promote ethical lives and nurture students’ relationship with 
their community.He spoke of the African philosophy of Ubuntu, which 
recognizes that the essence of social consciousness can be expressed as 
“I am because we are” – a person becomes a person through community.Dr. 
Aristide said that “it is not easy to eradicate evil at a macro level. 
But, on a micro scale, you can fight it rationally.” He noted that, “on 
a global scale, science is advancing, consciousness is declining. May 
your professional conscience contribute to the awakening of social 

To highlight this point, towards the end of the ceremony, each 
graduating class – MDs, nurses, and lawyers – pledged their commitment 
to serve their people.  In a country with fewer than two doctors for 
every 11,000 people, UniFA’s graduate physicians are already practicing 
medicine in regions throughout Haiti where formerly there were no 
doctors. It is a hopeful victory in difficult times.

After all the graduates received their  diplomas, there was a “passing 
of the torch” ritual during which graduates from each program passed a 
flaming torch to a student from the upcoming class. Gifts were presented 
to the valedictorians, and finally, the graduates celebrated with 
friends and family under an outdoor pavilion on the beautiful campus. 
Long years of effort to reach this day were visible in faces filled with 
grace, joy and pride.

One of UniFA’s chief architects, Mildred Aristide, an attorney and 
Haiti’s former First Lady, describes the university’s broader mission 
nourish democratic space within an undemocratic country: “Haiti vitally 
needs a safe space where young people can come together, think country 
and construct a future under difficult circumstances…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 

UniFA was born 
of Haiti’s grassroots struggle for democracy during President Aristide’s 
second administration in 2001. It recruited medical students from poor 
families in each of Haiti’s nine departments, equal numbers men and 
women. Talented young people from rural Haiti previously found it nearly 
impossible to attend medical school. UniFA sought them out, asking only 
their commitment to return to work in communities throughout Haiti after 
completing their training. By 2004, 247 medical students were studying 
medicine at UniFA. A School of Nursing was planned to open in the fall.  
The February 29, 2004 /coup d’etat/brought all of this progress to a 
halt.  The faculty and staff were forced into exile or hiding within the 
country. United Nations and U.S. military forces drove the students off 
campus, turning the site into military barracks.  The campus remained 
under the control of foreign forces until 2007 when it was officially 
turned back over to the Aristide Foundation for Democracy.

The University opened with three goals: 1) to prepare doctors to care 
for the poorest of the poor; 2) to increase the number of doctors 
practicing in rural areas; 3) to break down the long tradition of 
exclusion of the poor majority in Haiti from access to high education. 
Today, UniFA has expanded its scope to offer degrees in medicine, 
nursing, dentistry, engineering, law, physical therapy and continuing 

 From exile in South Africa, a month before his return, President 
Aristide spoke 
education: “Education has been a top priority since the first Lavalas 
government – of which I was president – was sworn into office… on 7 
February 1991 (and removed a few months later). More schools were built 
in the 10 years between 1994, when democracy was restored, and 2004 – 
when Haiti’s democracy was once again violated – than between 1804 to 
1994: 195 new primary schools and 104 new public high schools 
constructed and/or refurbished.” The Aristide government mandated that 
20% of the national budget be directed to education. For the first time 
in history, Haiti began to implement a Universal Schooling Program 
at giving every child an education.

Aristide reaffirmed that, “As I have not ceased to say since 29 February 
2004, from exile in Central Africa, Jamaica and now South Africa, I will 
return to Haiti to the field I know best and love: education. We can 
only agree with the words of the great Nelson Mandela, that indeed 
education is a powerful weapon for changing the world.” UniFA’s 
graduation is a significant step towards transforming these words into 
reality. It is a remarkable accomplishment to have been realized in 
seven years.

While UniFA flourishes, elsewhere in Haiti education is under attack. 
Successive neo-colonial governments imposed by the United States by 
means of phony elections have been plagued by widespread corruption, 
leaving Haiti’s public sector on the brink of paralysis. According to 
Dr. Aristide,  “Like metastatic cancer, institutionalized corruption 
devours our social fabric, the future of our children and Haitian youth. 
The exodus of our young people stems from this cancer.” Nearly 1% of 
Haiti’s population left the country last year headed for Chile, a mass 
exodus driven by young people, and especially the rural poor. Many young 
people who want to attend college leave the country. There are now 54, 
000 Haitian students attending universities in the Dominican Republic.

Haiti’s former President Michel Martelly, who rose to power with U.S. 
support, made an empty promise guaranteeing free education funded by a 
tax on telephone calls and money transfers. Instead, many teachers 
haven’t been paid in as many as two years. Where is that money? Teacher 
strikes are met with growing repression and students from college age to 
grade school join striking teachers to demand the government pay 
teachers’ salaries. Everyone wonders what happened to the missing $3.8 
billion from Venezuela’s Petrocaribe program. Under Petrocaribe, Haiti 
was supplied with oil at a favorable price with flexible credit. The 
benefit to Haiti, estimated at approximately $3.8 billion, was intended 
to combat poverty. All reports indicate that the funds were stolen and 
misappropriated by the past two governments.

The State University of Haiti closed the schools of Humanities, Law and 
Ethnic Studies due to ongoing strikes and protests. Last fall, police 
attacked school children with tear gas in Les Cayes as they supported 
their teachers’ strike. In the north, hundreds of school children 
marched to demand, “We don’t want an army; we want education 
last November. The students were saying no to the government’s plan to 
restore the dreaded Haitian military, disbanded by Aristide, which 
formerly consumed 40% of the state budget. They demanded that the money 
instead be used to pay teachers their long overdue salaries.

UniFA speaks to the urgent need for democratic progress that has been 
denied Haiti during fourteen years of U.S./UN military occupation. 
Failed government promises contrast with the solid achievements of this 
people’s university, highlighting its importance as a living example of 
democracy in practice. “I like to tell visitors that they are standing 
on sacred ground” says Mildred Aristide. She continues, “This is not 
hyperbole. The stakes and the country’s needs are too high. UniFA is a 
national project that is slowly revealing itself to be a national 
institution in the service of the country.”

/*Leslie Mullin* is a retired medical research administrator, social 
justice activist, and member of Haiti Action Committee 

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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