The chanting of “Haitian lives matter!” contrasted greatly with the singing of the Dominican Republic national anthem in an unexpected event that occurred on the University Green at the end of the World Leaders Forum event on Sept. 23.
The School of Diplomacy and International Relations hosted Leonel Fernández Reyna, former president of the Dominican Republic, to speak in the Chancellor’s Suite as part of the World Leaders Forum, Seton Hall’s platform to host global leaders for discussion of international politics and relations.
Reyna, who received an honorary doctorate from Seton Hall, was president of the Dominican Republic from 1996 to 2000 and then again from 2004 to 2012. He discussed the evolution of Latin American international policy before an audience of about 300 people including students, professors, and deans of the School of Diplomacy and International Relations.
“I appreciate the fact that these events can take place here, where we can always speak freely on the discovery of what is good and true regarding international policy and relations,” Dean Andrea Bartoli of the School of Diplomacy and International Relations said.
Dominican and Haitian activists, along with some Seton Hall students, joined together to protest Fernández’s appearance on campus. Protesters cited a controversial ruling and law passed during his administration that some activists claim unconstitutionally stripped the citizenship of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent and threatened them with deportation.
“We’re calling it a civil genocide and we’re here to let Seton Hall know that he shouldn’t be honored for that type of thing,” said one activist, who refused to give her name. She then returned to her chants of “Haitian lives matter!” at the entourage of the former Dominican president gathered on the edge of the green.
Though Fernández couldn’t be reached for comment, he provided his viewpoint during the speech he gave for the World Leaders Forum, saying that, “The Dominican Republic and Haiti are two sovereign entities that cannot be seen through the lens of the United States constitution, but rather their own. The case has since been under much review and resolved so that (no more people will have their citizenship revoked).”
LatinoJustice PRLDEF, an organization dedicated to protecting Latino civil rights, weighed in on the matter, publishing a letter featured on its website addressed to both Seton Hall President Dr. A. Gabriel Esteban and Dean Bartoli.
The letter says, “We, the undersigned, consisting of lawyers, elected officials, religious leaders, activists, and citizens from diverse nationalities write to express our vociferous protest and opposition to Seton Hall University’s decision to invite Leonel Fernández, former president of the Dominican Republic… to speak at the University.”
Fernández was the first speaker at this semester’s World Leaders Forum. Notable former guests include: former president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, Liberian peace activist and Nobel Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee and U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
Some students voiced their concerns about both the former president and the protests.
Bryan Yeoh Quan Jin, freshman international student and diplomacy major, said, “I feel dialogue is the best way to go about finding the good and bad of every situation. It was right to invite him and we can learn from his mistakes even if we view them as mistakes.”
Thomas Ashe, senior diplomacy major, is unaffected by the claims of activists about Fernández’s past.
“I’m very happy that he was here even through the controversy. I was elated to hear that he was coming back to Seton Hall after his honorary (doctorate) degree,” Ashe said.
Both students, however, agreed that it is a concern for them to have outside agitators staging rallies of any sort on Seton Hall’s campus due to its unexpectedness. Seton Hall is an infrequent but not an entirely unused site for protests as it has seen a few in the past 15 years, according to the Department of Public Safety.
Sergio Oliva, assistant director of Administrative Services for Department of Public Safety, said the University has a general policy of public safety regarding protests and rallies on campus.
“When it comes to students, protesting is allowed but Public Safety will provide the safest location within sight of the event where students can exercise their first amendment rights,” Oliva said. “When it comes to outside agitators,” he continued, “the rules change. If it is a public forum where the outside public is allowed to attend, then a designated location is provided for non-students. If it is a private event going on on-campus, then we provide an area outside of campus.”
According to these guidelines, then, Oliva said that this protest was safe and Public Safety was on the scene.
Nicholas Zeitlinger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.