PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti—The Fondation Connaissance et Liberté (FOKAL) strongly condemns the Haitian government’s violent response to student protests at the University of Haiti on December 5, 2003. The incident reveals the government’s hostility to higher education and to basic human rights, including the right to demonstrate peacefully, says FOKAL, a member of the Soros foundations network and affiliated with the Open Society Institute (OSI).
At least six people were shot and wounded on December 5 outside the university in Port-au-Prince during a confrontation between dozens of supporters of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and some 100 students calling for his resignation. Two days earlier, a small group of the president’s supporters had thrown stones and harassed some 200 students who were marching downtown and chanting anti-Aristide slogans.
Haiti has been in political turmoil since 2000, when parties supporting the president won the majority of seats in legislative elections. Opposition parties and civil society organizations contend that the elections were rigged, and they have been demanding that Aristide step down before his term ends in 2006. The president has rejected their demands, thus prompting increased anti-government demonstrations around the country.
Violence Affects Young People and Education Opportunities
Although it is an independent, nonpartisan organization, FOKAL has been dragged into the turmoil by virtue of its association with the University of Haiti. It has supported the school through grants for libraries, computer and research labs, and study programs in addition to administering a small scholarship program as part of an effort to increase education opportunities throughout Haiti. Some of the victims of the recent violence are recipients of FOKAL scholarships.
FOKAL’s office is located near the university and site of the December 5 demonstration. FOKAL said in a statement that staff members observed the following, which the organization claims directly indicates that government supporters attacked defenseless, peaceful students and were aided by the police:
- Groups of pro-governmental militia, called chime, regrouped in front of FOKAL’s building, visibly preparing to attack the student demonstration;
- Militia members distributed firearms, wooden and iron sticks, rocks, and other objects capable of causing significant injury;
- Pro-government forces were equipped with walkie-talkies and cellular phones that enabled them to organize efficiently and eventually order commandos to attack the students;
- The police were not neutral as has been reported, but instead acted as accomplices to the militia. On several occasions, the police opened the way for the chime’s attacks and also covered their backs;
- Children as young as 12, some in school uniforms, were encouraged by the pro-government militia to throw rocks and attack the students with firearms;
- Police and militia members set fire to a vacant house nearby and harassed bystanders trying to put out the fire. They subsequently accused staff members from FOKAL and other local organizations of being allies of the students and threatened to burn their vehicles and buildings. FOKAL staff were forced to barricade themselves in their offices for four hours after militia members blocked the building’s exits.
FOKAL decries the destructive and illegal actions of the militia and police and notes that the toll could have been much higher. The organization’s cultural center offers a public library service through the Monique Calixte Library. The library was closed that day for renovation; otherwise, more than 100 children and teenagers who use the library’s services would have been in the vicinity and placed in great danger.
FOKAL is appalled by the government’s apparent emphasis on teaching young people violence and hatred instead of trying to instill a love of learning and tolerance. The organization vows to continue to fight for the existence of libraries and of free cultural spaces throughout the country because it is convinced of the essential role of education and culture in the construction of a free, united, and democratic Haiti.
About the Fondation Connaissance et Liberté (FOKAL)
Based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, the Fondation Connaissance et Liberté (FOKAL) seeks to unite the many civil society organizations scattered across the country, build economic and cultural relationships, and create comprehensive networks with other organizations. It solicits the involvement of international organizations as part of an effort to develop effective public policy and further an open society in Haiti.
Through extensive library and education programs, FOKAL has provided children and youth from historically marginalized communities with access to information and new technologies. The Fondation has organized art exhibits, conferences, debates, and economic education programs to engage and inspire young people. FOKAL has also developed a national network of women's organizations by providing computers and Internet connectivity and by promoting joint advocacy activities.
143, Avenue Christophe
Tel.: 509-224-1509, 224-5421
Email: [email protected]
Executive Director: Michele D. Pierre-Louis