On Sugar and Shitholes

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Sugar cane. Picture from AFL-CIO.

Lately, it’s been difficult for me to imagine a “shithole country” as anything other than one that would elect Donald Trump as president. This news cycle has been little more than another reminder that xenophobia is still status quo in the US, as it has been since its inception. Before the amnesia kicks in and we become entranced by the next wave of outrageous headlines, I’ve opted to channel my rage into a post about the relationship the United States has had with Haiti through the lens of the commodity that has connected the two countries for centuries: sugar.

In college, while studying abroad in the Dominican Republic, I had the opportunity to meet and work with Haitian cane cutters in a number of sugar plantation towns, or “bateyes.” This was the first time I saw with my own eyes how directly we, American consumers, unknowingly perpetuate a system of labor that exploits silenced and marginalized workers: Haitian immigrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent. I spoke with some of the Haitian laborers cutting the sugarcane that sweetens our coffee and birthday cakes. They are, without hyperbole, modern-day slaves working within a social and political system designed over centuries to keep them working in the bateyes, out of sight and out of mind.

My time in the DR led me to further research on US trade policy and the impact the US has had on the living and working conditions in the bateyes. I found that our actions in and trade policies with the Dominican Republic have only helped to maintain and exacerbate the problem, despite the fact that we have the power to change it.

Peeling Back the Curtain

I distinctly remember the first time I visited a batey in the La Romana region of the DR. This batey belonged to American-owned Central Romana, the largest sugar company in the country and supplier to Domino Sugar. The journey there seemed to take forever. We took a guagua (bus) through a winding highway with rolling hills of sugar cane on both sides as far as the eye can see. We were eventually deposited on the side of the road, where a makeshift bus stop marked a dirt path which led straight into the cane. There, three men on motorcycles waited to take us over the horizon to the batey. It was another 20 minutes or so on the dirt road before we saw any sign of the inhabitants there.

Here, the residents lived in barrack-style houses, with entire families sharing a single one-room cabin. There were two outhouses and one source of running water, which the roughly 500 people living there used for both cooking and bathing. There was one small corner store selling basic essentials; I didn’t know it at the time, but stores like these are owned by the sugar companies, so any income the workers spend there goes straight back to their employers. There were no medical services and no schools.

There were also mango trees and children playing. There were elderly women sitting outside, some washing clothes. They spoke to each other in Haitian Creole. We waved and shyly called out “Bonswa,” good afternoon. The man we were meeting greeted each of us with a handshake and a smile. He was young, probably only a few years older than me at the time. Looking back, I wonder what he read in our facial expressions as we were walking around. He was probably used to wide-eyed foreigners passing through, thinly veiled pity or guilt or something of that nature filling the space between them. He told us stories of buses full of people from Punta Cana, tourists who paid to see the bateyes on a “cultural excursion” of some kind. They drove through without stopping, throwing candy out the windows at the children running alongside the vans, incapable or unwilling to see the irony.

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Haitian migrant workers cutting cane. Picture from PBS.

There was a lot of buzz around headlamps in the bateyes that summer. Workers are paid by the weight of the cane they cut, which typically amounts to less than $1 a day. There are no protections for these workers, so there’s no set maximum number of hours that the cane cutters can work. Having access to a headlamp meant that the workers can start before sunrise and end after sundown in order to make a couple extra cents each day.

I remember feeling self-conscious about sweating through my T-shirt. It averaged roughly 95 degrees Fahrenheit in that area during the summer. I remember making a point not to take pictures. These people were at home here, not on display. Our host offered us each a mango, and I took mine gratefully but worried about not being able to properly wash it. I ate it hesitantly at first, and it was so delicious I could’ve cried. When it was time to go, we mounted the motorcycles back to the bus stop and it occurred to me that the batey was intentionally located this far from the main road.

It cost us each less than $1 to get back to the town where we were staying. I thought about how even that amount was a barrier for the Haitians living in the batey. Apart from the money, many were at risk of deportation if they tried to leave, even for a trip to the grocery store or to see a doctor. We college students had arrived in the Dominican Republic in the middle of a tumultuous political scene, the implications of which I wouldn’t fully understand until I returned to the US. We were silent for most of the journey home, our hands and forearms still sticky.

A Little History (Because It Still Matters)

In order to understand how the sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic became dependent on migrant laborers from Haiti, and how the United States has remained an active beneficiary of this systematic exploitation, it’s important to explore some history.

In 1804, Haiti became the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere after the colony’s revolution against France, which was led entirely by former and/or self-liberated slaves. These leaders exiled the French elite, abolished slavery, and established the first government led entirely by non-whites in the hemisphere. At the time, many may have said that the leaders in Haiti were not “ready” to lead a nation, and thus led the country into ruin. However, I would argue that Haiti was born into a world that was not ready for it.

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Depiction of the Slave Revolt, which began in 1791. Picture from The Real African.

The odds were stacked against Haiti from the very beginning. In order to protect itself against the closest European military power, it was seen as a security imperative to invade the neighboring Spanish colony of Santo Domingo, which would become the Dominican Republic, to the east. In this way, the Haitian government took control of the entire island of Hispaniola. This invasion would have an enormous impact on the formation of the two country’s counter-identities in the future (more on that later).

But the world powers at the time (England, Spain, France, and the US) had a vested interest in seeing the “slave state” fail so as to discourage slaves within their borders from revolting as well. They refused to recognize Haiti as an independent economic entity. In other words, just as Haiti was starting to develop an economy independent of slavery and foreign land ownership, all the most powerful economies in the West refused to trade with the new country. This made it nearly impossible for Haitian leaders to re-establish an agrarian export sector, which was mainly sugar cane at the time of the Revolt. The land would instead be divided up into small plots for small-scale farming and subsistence purposes, turning former slaves into landowners.

Additionally, in order to be officially recognized as a sovereign nation by France and as compensation for the lives of French elite lost in the Revolt, the Republic of Haiti was required to pay 150 million francs in just five years. Thus, any revenues the infant government managed to collect went straight to France rather than being reinvested in its own development. In this way, the richest and most powerful countries in the world saw to it that Haiti began its independence heavily in debt and without any economic allies.

In contrast, when the Dominican Republic gained independence from Haiti in 1844, the new government was quick to reinstate the plantation system, seek foreign capital, and bolster its sugar exports to the US and Europe. Foreign capital from Cuba and the United States flooded the agriculture sector. With global demand rapidly increasing, sugar production in the Dominican Republic skyrocketed, growing at exponential rates between 1880 and 1930. Despite having secured the land and capital, though, sugar companies began facing a new obstacle to production: chronic labor shortages. Low wages, difficult working conditions, and uncontrolled inflation during the late 19th and early 20th centuries made jobs on the sugar plantations extremely undesirable for Dominicans. In 1884, in response to wage cuts, these workers organized a strike, the first and last of its kind on the plantations. As a result, rather than increase wage and improve working conditions, sugar companies resolved to look for labor elsewhere.

Enter the United States in 1916. The U.S. invaded and occupied both Haiti and the Dominican Republic due to “political instability,” referring to the fact that both countries had a large rural populations who were without work and increasingly unhappy with the government. People had begun enlisting in private armies, staging guerrilla warfare, and setting fire to the sugar cane. Of course, this was also the period in history when the U.S. was collecting islands in the Caribbean and Pacific as its own satellite colonies. It was also a coincidence, I’m sure, that 80% of sugar plantations at the time of the invasion were U.S.-owned. Nevertheless, the invasion was sold as entirely altruistic.

The presence of Americans in the DR had a number of important consequences that would shape the trajectory of the Haitian/Dominican relationship for decades. They implemented a program liberalizing and formalizing Haitian migration for work in the cane fields. Recruiters actively sought out workers in Haiti and lured them to the plantations with promises of better pay, then limited their access to all other aspects of the Dominican economy. They also extinguished the guerrilla warfare in the rural parts of the Dominican Republic and ended the rapid regime changes in the country’s capital by training the national police force. One of the unforeseen consequences of this training by the marines, though, was that Dominican authorities were now able to use force to coerce Haitians near the border into sugar plantations nearby. In other words, just as this new police force was effective in limiting social dissidence, it also contributed to forcing Haitians into the confines of the bateyes and limiting economic opportunities elsewhere.

The U.S. marines also brought to the island with them their racial ideologies, which exacerbated Dominican animosity towards Haitians. Of course, the Americans did not create the tensions that already existed between the DR and Haiti. The Dominican Republic was still licking the wound of being invaded and controlled by Haiti. To this day, the country’s Independence Day celebrates independence from Haiti, not Spain. Dominicans were already defining themselves in contrast to their Haitian counterparts, highlighting their likenesses to Spain and their European heritage in stark contrast to Haiti’s African roots. Still, given the Americans’ own prejudice towards people of African descent, they legitimized, normalized, and amplified the already existing hostility towards the racial “other” in the Dominican Republic. The Americans affirmed to their Dominican comrades that Haitians were nothing more than uneducated, lazy, and damaging to Dominican society, and therefore must be contained on the plantations where they were most useful.

The irony is heartbreaking. One of Haiti’s first measures as an independent nation was to abolish slavery and plantation-based agriculture with the intention of freeing its people from forced labor forever. Yet decades later, Haitians were forced to work under these circumstances across the border in the Dominican Republic.

The occupation of the DR did not end until 1924 and in 1930 Rafael Trujillo easily assumed the presidency. He would maintain his rule as the country’s dictator until his assassination in 1961. An industrialist and investor, he had stakes in all of the economy’s most important sectors: cement, paper, glass, medicine, liquor, textiles, and sugar. Given his “absolute control of the country and his remarkable financial capacity,” it would come as no surprise that his regime was characterized by rapid commercial, industrial, and urban growth the likes of which the country had never seen. With special attention given to those industries that Trujillo had stakes in, the sugar industry continued to grow. He began investing in sugar processing facilities and distilleries. He used public funds to build chemical fertilizer plants, the products of which were destined for sugar cane fields.

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“In this home, Trujillo is a national symbol.” “Rectitude. Liberty. Work. Morality.”

He also incited social stigma to ensure that Dominicans and Haitians alike knew where the Haitian immigrants belonged: in the bateyes. He did so by employing propaganda campaigns depicting Haitians as racially inferior to Dominicans. Emphasizing the racial disparities between Dominicans and Haitians facilitated the identification of Hatians as “social filth” within the Dominican politic. This racialized concept of Dominican national identity justified excluding Haitians from mainstream socioeconomic opportunities in the Dominican Republic. Trujillo, who was partially of Haitian descent, was known for wearing white powder on his face to appear lighter in complexion. He was so averse to anything evoking blackness that the popular beer crafted in his honor, called Presidente, had to be lightened from dark brown to a pale yellow.

Finally, Trujillo used violence not only to intimidate Haitians into compliance but also to promote his notion of hispanidad (the idea of preserving whiteness in the population) by discouraging intermixing of the two nationalities. In 1937, he conducted what would become known as the Parsley Massacre, a government-sponsored genocide along the Haitian border. As many as 30,000 people of Haitian descent were murdered. The killers identified their victims based on whether they could pronounce the word for parsley, perejil in Spanish, without a Creole accent. If not, men, women, and children were slaughtered indiscriminately. This sent a clear message to those already living in the bateyes: they were not safe, they could not leave.

How did the United States react to this racial genocide so close to home? The US government pressured Trujillo to pay a fine to Haiti, which amounted to $30 per victim. Due to corruption in Haiti’s government, though, only about 2 cents were given to survivors as reparation for their losses. But the US and the Dominican Republic remained steadfast allies. Trujillo may have murdered tens of thousands of people during his presidency, but at least he wasn’t a Communist.


Understanding the backstory of the relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti is necessary in order to realize the gravity of the situation on sugar plantations in the DR today.

In 2014, the Dominican Republic passed a law rescinding citizenship for all Dominicans of Haitian descent who were unable to prove that their families migrated to the country prior to 1929. After a grace period of a few months to collect documents and attempt the complicated application process (which took place the summer I was there), literally hundreds of thousands of people were stripped of birthright citizenship and became stateless. The UN, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Oxfam, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights all condemned the ruling. The United States government has yet to acknowledge this human rights violation in any capacity.

Many of these people affected have never been to Haiti, don’t have any family there, and can’t speak the language. They can’t vote in the Dominican Republic, collect the pensions they’ve earned working their entire lives, or open bank accounts. Many of the Haitians in the bateyes are illiterate, most were not born in a hospital and have no birth certificate. All of them were suddenly living in the Dominican Republic illegally and were facing deportation.

The deportations began immediately and continue today. Police began stopping people on the street who “look Haitian” and asking for papers. In 2015, there were reports of vigilante groups of men waving machetes and threatening dark-skinned Dominicans along the border. Some families chose to cross the border to Haiti on their own accord rather than risk violence against their families. As many as 70,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent crossed the border to Haiti in the summer of 2015 alone. Potentially hundreds of thousands more have been deported by the government. Those forced to leave have gathered in makeshift towns just over the border in Haiti. Unable to gain citizenship and work legally there, they’re in limbo.

But what about the sugar plantations? How could the sugar industry survive if the Dominican government systematically deports all of the laborers living without papers on the bateyes? While the new legislation technically applies to these workers as well, in practice they are exempt. The Dominican police do not enter the privately-owned sugar plantations, so as long as the workers stay there, they’re safe from deportation. Thus, these new laws have acted as yet another mechanism to ensure a sufficient labor force on the bateyes while depriving Haitians access to the rest of the Dominican economy.

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Batey Las Papita, from Al Jazeera (read the article here).

News of the situation on the sugar plantations has received intermittent media attention in recent years. There have been a number of documentaries created to raise awareness (you can watch The Price of Sugar in its entirety on Youtube). The Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz has spoken out against the deportations, and in response the Dominican government stripped him of a national prize he won in 2009 citing “un-Dominican” activity. Overall, though, Americans remain unaware of the living and working conditions of, and the institutionalized racism against, the people producing the sugar they eat.

Despite the 2014 legislation, the deportations, and the growing awareness of the tragedy taking place on the sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic, the United States continues to uphold preferential trade agreements with sugar companies operating out of the DR. The US currently buys sugar from the Dominican Republic at roughly twice the world price, ensuring that these companies have a market and that this labor system continues. While sugar from the Dominican Republic is only a small percentage of total sugar imports, the US is still the biggest consumer of Dominican sugar in the world.

In other words, the US has the power to control the future of the sugar industry in the Dominican Republic, and the lives of the stateless migrant workers trapped there. To date, it has chosen not to. This, one can assume, is largely due to the fact that taking action against agricultural labor practices in another country would be immensely hypocritical, considering the United States’ own approach to securing migrant laborers in agriculture.

The Bigger Picture

Trump’s comments about immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries are abhorrent, but not surprising. As one of the wealthiest countries on the planet, many of us have this elitist notion that poor countries need only be more like us in order to stabilize their economies, end social upheaval, and improve the lives of citizens. Their problems are entirely their own fault, and the solutions are entirely ours.

While this logic is inherently flawed on many levels, in particular it ignores the fact that the US has played a huge role in destabilizing smaller, less powerful countries for its own benefit (think Central America in the 50’s and 60’s, NAFTA and Mexico, etc). The example of American sugar companies in the Dominican Republic, and the sugar industry’s dependence on migrant laborers from Haiti, is no exception.

Of course, this is only one small piece of Haiti’s history, but one that the US has had an enormous influence on for many years. Haiti has also faced political corruption, what seems like a marathon of natural disasters and epidemics, and insufficient aid in order to get back on its feet. Yet, perhaps feigning ignorance, Americans continue to wonder why so many people look to the United States for a chance to start over.

I wanted to write this to demonstrate one example of how we, American consumers, have tangibly benefited from racism and xenophobia in our food system without even knowing it. It has meant the success of our sugar enterprises in the Caribbean for over a century. It has meant a constant and growing supply of cheap sugar (and by extension cheap products that contain it) at all costs. But the Trump era has, if nothing else, been a badly needed awakening for those of us who have been willfully ignorant of this institutionalized racism, which we benefit from as others suffer silently. We consumers are slowly gaining consciousness of where our food comes from, how it’s produced, and who is affected along the way. I hope that this awareness translates into a change in the way we make decisions around our food. I hope we can begin to collectively demand better labor practices in our food system. It is because of us that these practices exist today, and our efforts to end them are long overdue.

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