Congolese medical students in Havana want their government to pay up.
Students from the Republic of Congo have been protesting for weeks in the Cuban capital in an effort to force Congolese officials to send them their stipends, some of which have gone unpaid for two years. The demonstrations turned violent on April 8, when clashes broke out between students and the Cuban police.
Around 2,000 Congolese students are currently enrolled in universities in Cuba, most of them in medicine, as part of a 2013 agreement that allows exchanges between the two countries' health sectors. The students are given a stipend of 450 euros each semester by the Congolese government.
"Up until now, we've stayed quiet because it is difficult to protest in Cuba”
Gildas (not his real name), a Congolese medical student who arrived in Havana in 2016, said some students' stipends have gone unpaid for two years. He wanted to remain anonymous for security reasons.
The last time we got our stipend was in April 2018. But even then, we hadn't been paid in over a year, which means that we haven't received our stipends for 27 months in all. That’s why we started protesting in late March. Up until now, we've stayed quiet because it is difficult to protest in Cuba. It’s not something that is done here. [Editor’s note: Only state-sanctioned protests are allowed in Cuba.]
The students have been gathering in front of the Congolese embassy in Havana to protest, and some refused to attend class until they were paid their full stipends. They also rejected the Congolese ambassador's offer to pay them six months' worth of stipends, students told the France 24 Observers.
Photos of a student protest in front of the Congolese embassy in Havana posted on the Facebook page "Je Ne Rentre Pas Sans Mon Diplôme," or "I won't go home without my diploma." The post says, in part, "Everything has a limit, we can't stand it anymore."
One Facebook user wrote that the Congolese government's offer to pay six months' worth of stipends, instead of the full 27 months, was "indecent" and "insulting."
“One police officer took his gun out”
Violence broke out during a protest on April 8 near the entrance to the Salvador Allende student residence hall, Gildas said.
Cuban police came on the scene after getting a call from the residence hall director. They entered the dining hall and tried to shut down the protest. That’s when the confrontation occurred. I was outside at that moment, but I saw students breaking down the door to get out of the building. I also saw police officers using tear gas and setting dogs on protesters. One of them even took his gun out. Then police reinforcement arrived and the student protesters stood down. The whole thing took less than an hour.
Police set dogs on protesting students on April 8.
A police officer took his gun out during confrontations on April 8. Another video of the scene, taken from a different angle, is available here.
A video of the confrontations on April 8.
A video of the confrontations on April 8.
Several students were injured, while others were hit with batons or bitten by dogs. Around a dozen were arrested and later released.
The Cuban health minister told the official newspaper Granma that the government continued to support the health exchange program.
The Ministry of Public Health reiterates its commitment to training medical professionals from any country that wants to participate in the program, especially those from the African continent... and that such acts of indiscipline will not be allowed and appropriate measures will be taken.
"Some students are working, even though it is illegal"
Gildas told the France 24 Observers team that students were often forced to find other ways to earn money to pay for their expenses.
I’m lucky because I have parents who can send me money. But that’s not the case for everyone.
In our residence hall, some people make money by selling bread, peanut paste, fruit, grilled meat or even clothes. Some are washing other students’ clothes or repairing shoes for a bit of money. But all of this is illegal in Cuba since foreign students are not allowed to work.
Our housing expenses is covered and we can eat meals in the hall. But if we have to go to classes or to the hospital, for example, then we have to buy our bus tickets and additional food. This is a major problem for the students who don’t have money. For example, in our third year, we have to do 120 hours of on-call shifts at the hospital. Since some people can’t afford to buy food while they are working, they leave early so they can eat at home, which makes it hard for them to finish the required coursework.
A post on the "Je Ne Rentre Pas Sans Mon Diplôme" Facebook page says that a typical Congolese medical student in Cuba spends an hour waiting for the bus while others are able to pay for taxis.
Congolese officials to meet with students this weekend
Thierry Moungalla, a spokesman for the Congolese government, told the France 24 Observers that the situation was "concerning."
The fact that these stipends haven’t been paid is concerning. But it's tied to the current economic situation: there are not enough public funds to cover the cost. We are currently in talks with the IMF about this. The government does not intend to leave these students in distress when they're so far away from home.
A Congolese delegation that includes representatives from the ministries of foreign affairs and higher education, as well as other high-ranking government officials, are on their way to Cuba. They will meet with the students and Cuban authorities to try and find a solution.
Students said that despite the unpaid stipends, they did not regret their decision to study in Cuba. Gildas told the France 24 Observers:
The professors here are good and we are entitled to a stipend in theory. I still think studying here is better than in the Republic of Congo.
This story was written by Chloé Lauvergnier (@clauvergnier).