By Michael Deibert
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Aug 22 (Reuters) – Hundreds of students and faculty
trying to protest government interference with Haiti’s university system on
Thursday were blocked by thousands of government supporters at the gates of
the State University of Haiti.
The student protesters were prevented from marching through
Port-au-Prince by the pro-government activists, who tossed rocks, bottles
and photographs of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide over the
“Down with Convergence! Aristide or death!” shouted a young government
supporter, referring to Democratic Convergence, a coalition of parties
opposed to Aristide.
Aristide has been locked in a two-year electoral dispute with
Democratic Convergence since legislative elections were held in May 2000.
The coalition and international observers contend the results were
tabulated incorrectly in a way that favored Aristide’s Lavalas Family
The student protesters said they were not representing Convergence.
There were no high-ranking members of the coalition in evidence.
“We are defending the autonomy of the university,” said a student who
did not want to be named. “This is a student demonstration, not a political
one. We are independent.”
There were no reports of casualties during the confrontation, although
several people were assaulted by government supporters as they tried to
leave the compound. Riot police stood guard and occasionally pushed the
government crowd back but for the most part did not interfere.
Students waved banners saying “We are not afraid” and pictures of
Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara.
Conflict has been rife at the university for a month, following a
hunger strike initiated by students to force the dismissal of university
Vice Chancellor Pierre Marie Paquiot and delay student and faculty
After the announcement of the hunger strike, Haiti’s Lavalas-dominated
Senate backed the strikers’ demands. Minister of Education Myrtho Celestin
Saurel fired Paquiot.
The move was met with outrage by many students, who said the
government was trying to take control of the school.
Last week, students beginning a sit-in in front of the offices of
Minister of Education were attacked by government supporters. Three people
“The situation here is getting worse and worse every day,” said Pierre
Esperance, director of the National Coalition for Haitian rights, a human
rights group. “The government doesn’t want any element of society that
doesn’t agree with them to be able to speak.”