Stand With Haiti! Remarks by Mildred Aristide
First Presbyterian Church of Oakland, October 21, 2023
It is an honor to speak to you this afternoon from the First Presbyterian Church of Oakland. Our thanks to Pastor Matt Prinz and Associate Pastor Joel Mackey for hosting us in this space for this conversation about Haiti and the work of our university – Université de la Fondation Dr Aristide – UNIFA.
Thank you to the Haiti Action Committee and Haiti Emergency Relief Fund (HERF) organizers of today’s event. As HERF approaches its 20th anniversary and Haiti Action its 32nd, they continue to stand in solidarity with work in Haiti that uplifts, offers hope and improves the quality of life and dignity for Haitians. Our thanks to all the co-sponsors – too many to name. Joining with Haiti Action and HERF to give us this platform, in this moment of shared grief, mourning and outrage at the violence being waged against the Palestinian people, is a demonstration of principled solidarity. Political theorist Joy James, in describing the link between seemingly unrelated acts of solidarity, draws an analogy to a theory in physics known as Quantum Entanglement – a phenomenon that explains how sub-atomic particles can be intimately linked to each other, even if separated by billions of light years of space. In the list of today’s co-sponsors, this entanglement, between, among, through and across each and every one of us, is self-evident.
I bring you warm and loving greetings from my husband Titid. About 30 years ago he visited Oakland and the Bay Area to share his vision of justice and democracy for Haiti. Then in 2012 we chose Oakland for our first US-based presentation on the newly reopened UNIFA. I was amazed at the solidarity with Haiti here in the Bay Area. Eleven years on I am back in Oakland to share with you some of the critical advances made by UNIFA – against the backdrop of great volatility in Haiti and deteriorating conditions at every level. My brother Pierre Labossiere captured the extent of violence, social and political upheaval gripping Haiti right now.
Three weeks following the UN Security Council Resolution sanctioning deployment of foreign troops to Haiti, things are far from clear. Over the past 2 years killings, massacres, shootings, kidnappings, population displacements, arson have been normalized. Hunger is rising. Food production has plummeted. Prices have more than quadrupled in the last 2 years. The cost of diesel is $4.50 a gallon; electricity, the rarest of commodities. The sound of automatic gun shot no longer shock. Hospitals are being forced to close or suspend services. The September opening of high schools and grade schools was delayed not only because of insecurity and severe economic deprivation, but because schools are housing families forced to flee homes seized by paramilitary groups.
And layered over that, an anxiety, angst and trauma difficult to describe.
But we must believe that the situation is not hopeless. Nor is it the case that the only conversation about Haiti worth having today is about sending foreign troops. The focus on this – to the exclusion of everything else that can be done to combat insecurity now, alleviate hunger now, address the housing crisis, support the faltering education and healthcare systems now – is wrong. It limits our capacity to think broadly, creatively and humanely about what to do in the face of admittedly complex problems. To believe that nothing can be done justifies doing nothing. And that is unacceptable. If you took the time to be here today, and those of you watching on YouTube chose to tune in to today’s program, then you believe that there is hope.
But hope is under extreme pressure. At both ends of the socio-economic spectrum – and all through the middle – people who can are leaving Haiti. For some, the flight is away from the capital Port-au-Prince, the epicenter of most of the violence. Since unilaterally closing its border in September, crossing to the Dominican Republic is no longer an option. Many are choosing the open seas, like their predecessors the boat people of the 1980s. Increasingly the young are opting for a 2,000-mile journey that starts in Nicaragua. They cross Central America by bus, then through the treacherous 60 mile Darien Gap on foot, to reach the US southern border. In recent weeks, as many as 14 chartered flights a day are leaving Haiti, bound for Nicaragua, with upwards of 3,000 Haitians on board. Those with families or sponsors in the US vie for a spot in the US 2-year parole program. And in May, a new channel of migration opened by Canada prioritizing Haitian and French speaking immigrants with valued job skills in key sectors.
At the individual level, it is hard to deny that leaving is the rational thing to do. The danger is real. But at the collective level this exodus represents the singular greatest threat to the nation.
In the endless debate about sending foreign troops to Haiti – the numbers, which countries will participate, the level of force to be used, under what authority, vague assurances that past repression, abuse, sexual violence and acts of gross negligent will not be repeated – the most critical debate is being sidelined: The debate on Haiti’s strategy to counter the existential threat that it faces.
Today I want to turn the camera on that.
Because strategizing for dignity, security and peace for all Haitians is UNIFA’s mission. It is the inherent mission of all universities, schools and institutions working with young people.
Education. Capacity building. The uninterrupted development of skills in the face of the current social collapse in Haiti and exodus of people qualified to teach these skills, is on life support. It must, at all costs, be protected. It is an essential lifeline to Haiti’s future. So that when Haiti emerges from this national trauma, there is a chance to rebuild the country.
But first I want to step back for a brief look at Haiti’s history – enough to offer a better understanding of UNIFA and the roots of the current situation in the country.
Barthelmey Boganda was a Catholic priest from Central Africa, turned freedom fighter in the late 1950s. As France tried to temper the spirit of African liberation with half-baked reform measures, Boganda countered with constant reminders of the abuses of French colonialism. Exasperated, a French legislator told Boganda: Stop talking about the past. To which Boganda famously responded: I would stop talking about the past, if the past was not so present.
The struggle for freedom, dignity, security and peace – has been a constant throughout Haiti’s history.
In 1791, at the start of the revolution, the population of enslaved Africans was estimated at 500,000; while there were only about 30,000 European settlers on the island. To compensate for being so outnumbered French colonial masters exerted unimaginable violence against the huge majority. The human supply of labor seemed so unlimited that it was cheaper to work an enslaved person to death and replace them, rather than feed them and maintain them in health.
At the price of this horror, Haiti was France’s richest colony. Nearly 20% of the French population owed its livelihood in some form, to the trade in or work of, African enslaved people in Haiti.
Not surprisingly accounts of the Haitian Revolution reported from slave owning nations like the US rarely mentioned the brutal acts committed against Blacks. The sole objective was to discredit the idea of Black political autonomy and paint Haitians as animals.
After independence in 1804, Haiti became the first Black republic to issue from a successful slave revolt. But the nation was isolated, encircled by slave colonies in the Caribbean Sea, the slave owning US to the west, and Haiti’s former European colonial masters to the east.
France never gave up hope of recolonizing Haiti. Former slave owners pressed their government to restore their colonial wealth. They demanded reparations. Compensation for the losses they sustained when Haitians became free. Which is precisely what the king of France gave them. In 1825 French warships sailed into Haiti’s port with an ordinance demanding that Haiti pay France an indemnity of 150 million gold francs, an amount representing 10 times the country’s then national budget. The terms were non-negotiable; the alternative was war and the threat of re-enslavement.
In another first, Haiti became the first and only nation to pay reparations to its former masters.
A six-part New York Times series published in May 2022 exposes this long hidden chapter of Haiti’s history. I encourage you to read it. The Times calculated that the actual cost of the indemnity to Haiti was anywhere between $21 and $117 billion dollars. And that as a result of multiple consolidations, repayment by the Haitian government extended well into the mid-20th century. Economists have long cited payment of this ransom as the principal cause of Haiti’s impoverishment. The brunt of the payment fell on the country’s Black rural peasantry. Heavy taxes were levied on agricultural produce – notably coffee, sugar, indigo and precious wood. A repressive Rural Code was enacted to maximize productivity. There was simply no money left for much of anything else, especially in the rural countryside.
Difficulty paying this so-called debt of independence was the backdrop of Haitian politics through the end of the 19th and into the 20th century. Eighty percent of government revenues went to the debt. Governments rose and fell on their ability to pay French banks, fostering instability and corruption. Under the banner of the Monroe Doctrine and National City Bank’s designs on these lucrative Haitian government loans, the US invaded and occupied Haiti for 19 years. With the protection of the US marines and a new Haitian army created by the US, CitiBank controlled Haiti’s national bank and became the repository of all Haitian national funds being collected by US officials. Citibank stayed in Haiti 13 years after the occupation ended in 1934, insuring that Haiti paid the very last penny of the 1825 indemnity.
My father, who was born in 1929, could still sing the jingle that he and classmates were taught as they threw coins into a basket to contribute to paying the last installments on the so-called debt of independence.
Haiti entered the second half of the 20th century with an impoverished rural sector that had little to no government services like healthcare or education. A color/class divide – akin to apartheid in South Africa – was fully entrenched. People of the rural countryside were called moun endeyo: literally people outside. Their birth certificates – including that of my husband born in the South in 1953, stamped with the word: “peasant.”
The mid 20th century saw the rise of François Duvalier, Papa Doc. He established the notorious tonton macoutes, an armed corps of paramilitaries. During his 14-year reign of terror, Duvalier was responsible for up to 50,000 executions. Near the end of his term, he amended the constitution twice, first to appoint himself president for life, then to name his 19-year old son, Baby Doc, his successor. All this with no real opposition from Haiti’s strongest ally, the US.
But in the 1980’s there arose in Haiti a dynamic democratic movement. The period was marked by the active participation of progressive members of the church, the ti legliz – Christian base communities, agitating for social and political change. Popular organizations, women’s groups, labor unions, agricultural cooperatives, youth groups, engaged in literacy and adult education programs; Kreyol language radio stations began to inform and disseminate ideas reflecting on a new society.
The young, Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a leading liberation theologian and a spokesperson of this movement. In 1986, Baby Doc was forced to flee Haiti.
After Duvalier, a succession of military juntas controlled the government. For 5 years they thwarted attempts at free elections and demands for democratic rule.
Until December 1990.
Haiti organized its first free elections and Aristide won by a landslide. His election crystallized a process of both political and social mobilization in a popular culture called Lavalas (cleansing flood) that stood squarely against a polarized society that excluded the vast majority of the population. The flight of refugees to Miami stopped. Thousands of Haitians who had fled the country under Duvalier returned. The exact opposite of what we are witnessing today. There was hope. The economic elite was made to pay their fair share of taxes and the minimum wage was set to increase.
President Aristide’s goal was at once simple and at the same time profound: To move the country from misery to poverty with dignity.
Fast forward nine short months later: an army-led coup d’etat brutally ended Haiti’s experiment with democracy. Between 4 to 7,000 people were killed, tens of thousands forced to the high seas, 300,000 internally displaced and countless more victims of illegal arrests and torture. Aristide was forced into exile.
After 3 long years of clandestine mobilization in Haiti and with the powerful support of the Haitian diaspora, Aristide returned home to finish the last 15 months of his term. In perhaps the most consequential act of his presidency, he demobilized the murderous Haitian army and established a civilian police force. A truth and reconciliation commission was established to examine the crimes committed during the period of the coup. And in 1996, for the first time there was a peaceful democratic transition of power in Haiti.
Five years later President Aristide was re-elected to continue the work begun in 1991: constructing schools, investing in healthcare, strengthening the justice system, creating public parks and spaces. But the international community had other plans for Haiti. The government’s access to international loans to finance policies like a vitally needed clean water project was blocked. Instead, money flowed freely and abundantly to groups with the sole mission to undermine – through violence and propaganda – the democratically elected government.
In 2003, as President Aristide’s government prepared to celebrate the bicentennial of Haiti’s independence, he established a commission to study the debt of independence. That 150 million franc ransom that France had forced Haiti to pay in 1825. In his public call for dialogue with France to address this historical injustice, President Aristide could already foresee the “beautiful schools, universities and hospitals” that would be built for our children; making the case for reparations and restitution.
Ten months later, on the night of February 29, 2004, President Aristide was overthrown in a coup d’état; his second and the thirty-second in the country’s history. And this time with direct help from foreign soldiers that had boots on the ground. He and I were shuttled to a French military base in Bangui, the capital of the Republic of Central Africa – birthplace of Barthelmey Boganda. At the end of our second week in Central Africa, the ever-fearless Congresswoman Maxine Waters and the late Randall Robinson, great friend and founder of TransAfrica, boarded a leased plane, negotiated our release and accompanied us to Jamaica where we reunited with our 2 daughters. After 3 months we went back to Africa, this time South Africa where we spent 7 years in exile.
Now, against this historic background, enters UNIFA.
The university was established in 2002 during President Aristide’s second presidential term. Founding a university was not a stretch. While a priest, he had been a teacher for many years and had created a center for street children, Lafanmi Selavi (family is life). In 1997 he founded the Aristide Foundation for Democracy that included Radio/Tele Timoun, broadcasting services co-run by children and focused on educational and civic programming.
At the time of UNIFA’s founding, Haiti had a medical education exchange program with Cuba. We took it a step further creating UNIFA, in Haiti, to multiply the training of urgently needed healthcare professionals. The late Paul Farmer, founding advisor to UNIFA, wrote of UNIFA’s unique strategy to recruit students from poor families, “talented young people that previously found it nearly impossible to make their way to medical school.”
From the start, UNIFA’s mission has been clear: To provide quality higher education and break down the long tradition of exclusion of the poor majority in Haiti from access to higher education.
By Fall 2003, there were approximately 240 students enrolled in UNIFA’s medical school. But within days of the February coup against President Aristide, the international force deployed to Haiti ousted the students and seized the campus. Within a week, UNIFA transformed from university to military installation.
In March 2011, when we returned to Haiti from South Africa, Titid immediately set out to reopening UNIFA. The challenges were many. The buildings were in disrepair. Learning material, computers, furniture, desks had been destroyed. The residential campus settled by families displaced by the devastating January 2010 earthquake. He was undaunted; always the great gatherer, he assembled a staff, reached out to former UNIFA teachers, Haitian medical professionals, UNIFA graduates who had continued their studies in Cuba, local and international supporters, and in October 2011 we opened the medical school with 126 students – 63 women and 63 men.
UNIFA is a private university. We do not receive a subsidy from the government. We are financed by student tuition, some grant funding and donations. To keep UNIFA accessible to as many young Haitians as possible, tuition is lower than all comparable universities in Haiti, and we offer scholarships for academic excellence. The campus sits on approximately 33 acres in the municipality of Tabarre about 4 miles from the national airport. Apart from the academic buildings, there is the university hospital (which I will talk about below), a residential campus that house up to 300 students, professors and UNIFA staff and a sports field.
In the 12 years since reopening 8 additional schools have been added. In the health sciences: schools of nursing, dentistry, physical therapy; pharmacy and bio-med sciences. There is a law school, and schools of engineering, business administration and agriculture. This year caps at 1,176 the total number of doctors, lawyers, nurses, physiotherapists, dentists, engineers and administrators trained by UNIFA since 2011. The daughters and sons of Haiti’s poor and struggling middle class. UNIFA putting into practice the Kreyol adage: Tout moun se moun – every person is a human being.
Our graduates have organized themselves into a dynamic alumni association – a cohort of young professionals equipped to enter Haiti’s workforce with a commitment to be active agents of change. And UNIFA is proud to count among our newest hires, over a dozen of our own graduates. In 2021, with institutional support, graduates organized mobile clinics to respond to the earthquake that hit the South. Dental and law students lecture at area high schools and lead topical debates on the airwaves of Radyo and Tele Timoun. This year again, UNIFA med school graduates secured several of the top 10 slots in the competitive national medical residency program.
There is a wonderful African proverb: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. With support from our partners we have been able to keep pace with a growing student population and expand access to higher education in Haiti. Classroom space has tripled; coveted student and professor housing has been repaired; investments made to broaden Wi-Fi access throughout campus; a cafeteria and snack bar built; hundreds of trees planted to promote serenity – including a new plaza, Place Dignité, nestled under the shade of mango and eucalyptus trees, a variety of oak trees, almond, cherry, moringa and lemon trees, next to a small medicinal plant garden. Through the years, visiting professors have lectured on topics ranging from African Renaissance; the law of human dignity; environmental law; gold mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to a 5-day neuro-anatomy seminar led by a professor from the California Davis School of Medicine.
As a stepping-stone to the teaching hospital, UNIFA opened a clinic at our nearby Foundation headquarters. We are awaiting delivery of 12 additional dental chairs at the end of this month that will nearly double the reach of services to the community and training capacity for our dental students. An adjacent farm offers invaluable training for the agronomy students. Thanks to donations from HERF, we recently purchased a tractor, which students will learn to operate and use to increase agricultural production. This summer we began construction on 2 commercial chicken coops to be run by professors and students as a work cooperative program overseen by the School of Agriculture.
At the end of the 2023 academic year, enrollment stood at 5,060 with just over 135 professors.
This summer, high school students and parents defied news reports of shootings and unrest in Tabarre, to register for admission. An unrest that forced even the neighboring US Embassy to close its doors. On September 22 this same courage – and hope – was displayed when hundreds turned out for the admissions exams. As I approached, the front gate it was lined with taptaps (brightly painted covered pickup trucks), motor-taxis and cars dropping off students; food vendors were back offering fruits, coffee, eggs, grilled corn. The space was alive with hope. A visceral reminder to UNIFA’s assembled staff of the moral obligation to redouble our efforts to make this academic year happen.
I go back to political theorist Joy James. James defines revolutionary love as love shaped by political will. Titid’s vision to create UNIFA was an act of revolutionary love. The political will that sustains it and pushes it forward is his commitment to education and to planting a seed for Haiti’s future.
Five years ago we planted a second seed, our most ambitious project to date – a university teaching hospital. Construction on the UNIFA hospital began in earnest in April 2019 following a site visit by Maxine Waters, actor/activist Danny Glover and lawyer/social justice activist Walter Riley. The work drew principally from UNIFA expertise: the architect who designed the hospital is head of the architecture department at UNIFA; the civil engineer in charge of construction teaches at UNIFA; and the agronomist who designed the surrounding green space teaches in the School of Agriculture. Construction persisted despite both massive general strikes that shuttered the country for about 3 months, and the COVID lockdown.
The 3-level hospital complex encompasses over 54,250 square feet and in its final phase of operation, will accommodate 205 patient beds in a mix of private, semi-private and multi-bed wards. While the building is connected to the national power grid we have 2 additional sources of energy, one solar and 2 independent electrical generators. Construction was completed at the end of 2021, and a phased opening of services began in 2022. This period coincided with the height of political tensions and kidnappings targeting physicians. Today our 2 surgical suites are operational, as are the 6 specialized out patient clinics, the medical lab, and the radiology department that includes x-ray, sonogram and mammogram machines, and a 126-slice CT Scanner – one of precious few scanners in Haiti. The number of hospitalizations are rising. The dean of the medical school is working with the hospital’s medical director to establish residency programs.
Investing in medical education in Haiti – from classroom teaching through to clinical training at a fully equipped teaching hospital – is one of the most effective strategies in reversing the decline in Haiti’s healthcare system.
Last month the teaching hospital at Mirebalais, was attacked. Mercifully there were no injuries. But staff – including the UNIFA interns working there – had to be shifted to other sites, as the hospital announced a suspension of new admissions. UNIFA is not immune to the catastrophic country conditions that are forcing people to leave. The day before the start of classes this month a key member of our administrative staff was kidnapped, last month 2 professors were forced to abandon their homes to paramilitary groups and earlier this year a professor was kidnapped and held for 2 weeks. Unfortunately this list is not complete. Three weeks into the start of the academic year and we are still assessing the departure of professors, staff and students. Right now in Haiti, there are only a handful of working radiologists. In fact they are so few they can be named. Our head of radiology shares his time across 3 institutions. Tele-radiology – sending images online for interpretation – is only a partial solution. The real solution is having radiologists in Haiti to train new radiologists – which UNIFA fully intends to do.
On October 2nd there occurred on the same day two consequential events relating to Haiti – one inside Haiti – the start of UNIFA’s academic year – the other hundreds of miles away – the vote at the United Nations to send foreign troops. Solutions to Haiti’s complex problems will not come easy and will certainly not come from outside. Solutions must be pursued by and with Haitians, simultaneously, on many fronts and with equal resolve. What is certain is that in this moment, as we search for solutions, access to education at every level must continue, and must, at all costs, be protected.
Medical services and education provide indisputable areas of moral clarity. Respect of this principle in Haiti is the only way to insure that when Haiti emerges from the horrific situation that we are living, there will be farmers, carpenters, doctors, lawyers, metal workers, IT specialists, contractors, electricians, mechanics, nurses, geologists – the full breadth of vital skills needed to reconstruct the nation.
A wealth of human spirit, President Aristide has called it, to lead us into the future.