In September 600 of you tweeted President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela asking him to intervene to ‘save’ UWC Simon Bolivar from a government process to ‘rescue’ the College land for more socially useful purposes. The most up to date posts on the UWC website and one small paragraph in the November 2011 issue of United World magazine—with little information and no discussion of the current crisis facing UWC Simon Bolivar—indicate the future of the College to be ‘uncertain’. This is overly optimistic as it is almost certain the Government wants control of both land and all College infrastructure to open a public university in place of the UWC Simon Bolivar. The greatest uncertainty is the process for incorporating UWC students and the role, if any, of FUNDACEA (the UWC Simon Bolivar Board and a registered foundation administering the College) in the new educational establishment. FUNDACEA declared itself bankrupt some months ago. The academic year did not begin, students have not returned to the College and as no salaries have been paid for some months, staff are not working.
As an Atlantic College alumni, a National Committee member and a recent Professional Volunteer at UWC Simon Bolivar, I want to appeal to those 600 tweeters and all UWC members to think about the personal stories behind the ideological debates that raged about the Chavez government, the minimal updates and the bureaucratic and political games of the past 4 months. The College has just 8 international students. Five of these students are from Haiti. None of the Haitian students, who are on Venezuelan government scholarships administered through FUNDACEA, had the resources to go home for the vacation, so were in the country (some not having left the College at all) when the crisis broke. Since August, they have been at the College.
I myself was at the College during September/October (when I was encouraged by FUNDACEA to leave), and in Venezuela until a few weeks ago. During this time, conditions and morale at the College deteriorated daily so that by December all staff had downed tools leaving campus with no services. The Haitian students remained alone on an already unacceptably poor quality campus, and literally had to fend for themselves. Throughout the past 4 months communication with these students from FUNDACEA, the Haiti National Committee, the Venezuela National Committee and the International Office (IO) has ranged from non-existent to minimal. Only latterly has the International Office been persuaded to communicate directly with the students and both they and the Haiti National Committee have made a small direct financial contribution to the students for food and other essential items.
While all students at UWC Simon Bolivar face an uncertain future it is of a different magnitude for the Haitian students and they face a different set of circumstances compared to most other students. These 5 students come from a poverty-stricken, insecure country still reeling from a devastating earthquake. Unlike the majority of UWC students they do not have the luxury of returning home to secure housing, supportive community structures, education, and opportunities. UWC offered them a way out of this and it is now being pulled from under them. They want an education so that they are able to help re-build Haiti and support their poorly resourced families. Most of their families have sacrificed much by letting them go to Venezuela and are depending on them for future income and support. Some students have not yet found the courage to tell their families what has been happening. On 27 December, without discussion and without preparing them for the unilateral decision, they were given 5 days notice to leave the College campus and return to Haiti. The airline tickets (but they must arrange and pay for their own overnight accommodation in Caracas) were secured by FUNDACEA’s Director from the Ministerio del Poder Popular para la Educación Universitaria. One of the arguments put to the Ministry was that the students did not want to stay in Venezuela. This is not true. The students DO NOT wish to return home at this point in time. They DO NOT want to leave the College and Venezuela without any qualification and without any decision about their future education. They DO NOT have faith in a second hand promise that they can return when (and if) an educational institution re-opens. For them, leaving now in this way is like being thrown into an abyss.
When a student house burned down at Atlantic College last year, many rallied round with support and offers of practical help and the core UWC values shone through. In the words of a lucky Pearson College student from Congo Brazzaville in the November issue of United World, “one beautiful aspect of UWC life is that you are never alone, people will always help you”. However, these particularly vulnerable students from Haiti have not felt the force of our values and now feel abandoned and rejected by all authorities responsible for their education. There may be little action the UWC movement can take in relation to the future of the College but these individuals can be helped. Tim Toyne Sewell, in the same issue of United World, tells us we must focus on our values. Now is the time for values such as international and intercultural understanding, mutual responsibility and respect, compassion and service, and a sense of idealism. As well as individuals, our governing bodies must be seen to live by the UWC values or we are all wasting our time trying to change the world.
As I write (31 December 2011), the five Haitian students are beginning their unwilling departure from the College and are without access to the internet. On their behalf and at their request, I open this discussion and make the following requests on behalf of Geraldine, Jobert, Margarette, Martino and Ricardo. They need your moral support and your action. They have already lost an academic year and cannot wait for months and possibly years for the situation to be resolved. They wish to continue their education, realistically now in another institution/country, and to receive some kind of certification of their studies at UWC-Simon Bolivar.
They ask you to help in the following ways:
1. Write to FUNDACEA, the Haitian National Committee, the International Board and International Office to say you want them to support the students through practical, positive and ongoing action to find alternative educational paths (UWC-SB students are already university age and do not study for the IB but for a Higher Diploma in Farm Management). Students should be informed clearly and in writing about what is being done to support them.
2. Urge UWC to quickly issue certificates to these students (and all current students who want them) certifying their studies at the College.
3. If you know of, or are in a position to offer alternative educational pathways to these students, with financial aid, please let myself, Ricardo Jean-Baptiste (representing the Haitian students) or the International Office know.
My experience is that the UWC community will respond when called. In anticipation of this, I offer my thanks and that of the Haitian students, for taking time to read this and for any support offered.
Happy New Year!
UWC AC 1982
Haiti National Committee: firstname.lastname@example.org
Venezuela National Committee email@example.com
International Office: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ricardo jean-Baptiste: email@example.com