Spring 1986

Haitian Bitter Sugar

By Paul DeRienzo

JIMANI, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC, (Feb. 1986)—Along the remote highlands here the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic snakes across the land of Hispaniola a great drama is unfolding. In response to the fall of the 29 year Duvalier dynasty in Haiti the neighboring Dominican Republic, which occupies the eastern two-thirds of Hispaniola, has been forced to close the vast frontier-not only to journalists but to tens of thousands of Haitian workers needed to harvest the great sugar plantations.

Sugar, which is produced from sugar cane on land controlled by the Dominican State and exported to the United States, is the major crop in this part of the world. It brings great wealth to a few at the expense of poverty and starvation for millions in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

The border lies 250 kilometers from Santo Domingo. There are only a few major crossings, although many lesser and unmapped crossings exist. I chose during the second week of February to visit the frontier at the closest distance from the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. That turned out to be the town of Jimani in the mountainous and southeastern portion of the Dominican Republic.

My route passed through the old Dominican cities of Azua and Barahona near the Caribbean coast before it turned inland along gravel and dirt roads through first cane fields and then, at the higher altitudes, banana plantations.

\The road wound through poor towns filled with curious, lively children. There was no running water or electricity. In the larger towns there might be a rundown school, however police and military establishments were more common. Prominently uniformed in military fashion were the National Police who commanded instant obedience, whether demanding to know a traveler’s destination or stopping a bus for a quick inspection.

Two days of bone-crunching travel finally brought me to the border, only 36 miles from my intended destination, Port-au-Prince, the shantytown capitol of Haiti. However my travels would meet a dead end where a Dominican military base straddled the road. It was to the clank of a bare hand slapped-on the magazine of an M-16 rifle that I learned the border was cerrado, closed.

For three nights I stayed at a little hotel across from the Dominican customs house waiting for a chance to cross into Haiti. While that chance never materialized, I began to understand that there was a part to the story of the rebellion in Haiti which was being left out of the news reports I had read back in the United States. It was here in Jimani, a remote forgotten town, that the real story of Haiti and its relation with the Dominican Republic unfolded, a story of Black slavery and all its horrors not only existing but growing to feed the insatiable demand of the USA for one product: sugar.

It wasn’t until I returned to the states and picked up a copy of the book "Bitter Sugar" by Maurice Lemoine that the pieces of my observations fell into place. It is Jimani where in different times thousands of Black Haitian workers were brought with the promise of jobs in the Dominican cane fields. There they were subjected to a life in concentration-like camps while payments were remitted to the Duvalier government.

As recently as 1981, the Haitian caneworkers in the Dominican Republic were contracted at a wage of thirty cents a day with a bonus of fifty cents for each ton of cane cut. But to receive even that meager amount was virtually impossible. The horror of hunger and starvation haunts Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, where 4001o of the children die before age five. This horror is extended to the Dominican state-owned slave plantations, which feed the U.S. sugar market. It remains to be seen if the rebellion in Haiti will upset this relationship.

The few Haitians I met in Jimani were not talking. One man put it straight-how do I know you’re not a CIA agent, he asked me through an interpreter. Some other

Haitians I met over a dinner of goat meat and yucca in a local canteen advised me to stay away from Haiti. When I pressed the point they told me that an occasional pickup truck load of people were being brought into Haiti early in the morning. The next day I waited, but no truck arrived.

The Dominican military camp, which sealed the border crossing, was the scene of continuous activity, as was the Jimani hotel, which boasted a well, stocked bar where military personnel hung out. In the military camp, visible from the road, were several buses from the government-owned line in Santo Domingo. One Jimani resident told me that busloads of Duvalier government officials had been taken to Santo Domingo in the days after Baby Doc’s fall.

On February 12th the roar of bus engines followed by a small solitary aircraft awakened me. I jumped out of bed and found the astonished townspeople around the hotel talking excitedly, speculating on what had just occurred. I ran into a friend and asked him to explain it to me. He said that the buses were full of Haitian government officials who were being taken to an expensive hotel, the "Dominican Concorde" in Santo Domingo.

On my return trip to Santo Domingo I paid better attention to the sugar cane fields that spread out along the road to Barahona. Dark-skinned Black men, the viejos, worked along the railroad paralleling the road. The viejos are part of the 250,000 Haitians who live in the Dominican Republic. Most had come during previous cane seasons, never returning to Haiti, making their homes among the fields where they work.

Railroad cars designed to haul sugar cane were being loaded from Cabrouets, two wheeled carts drawn by teams of oxen. A long train of cars filled with cane passed and behind it bands of children followed scooping up fallen pieces to devour.

The cane fields are subdivided into the Bateys. In each Batey are 300 workers who cut and load the cane. While the majority of Cane workers are Dominicans employed in the processing factories, on the railroad or as drivers, Haitian Kongos brought from Haiti by the promise of work are the ones who actually cut the cane: some of the world’s most brutal work.

The Kongos are drawn from the desperately poor millions that inhabit the urban shantytowns like Port-au-Prince, where 30,000 people are homeless and the average wage is $200 a year, or the rural areas where people live on $33 a year. They come to recruiting centers where 15,000 are chosen from tens of thousands that respond to radio ads for workers in the Dominican Republic.

Those 15,000 think they are the lucky ones, even as their passports are taken away and they are loaded on buses for the cane fields. Once they cross the frontier the Kongos soon discover that there really is no turning back. As the foremen and the viejos constantly remind them, they have been bought.

Dominican sugar production is organized into ingenios, a system of sugar mills fed by nearby plantations. The Dominican Republic owns 12 ingenios, which cover 247,000 acres; private Dominican investors own three more. American investors control the rest of the production. That segment accounts for 40 percent of Dominican sugar production and another 15,000 Kongos.

The Kongos who labor in the private cane fields are often obtained by professional slave catchers. They are paid $11 a head to lure Kongos who are fed up with conditions on the government plantations with promises of better work. ‘

On the private plantations conditions are even worse. There isn’t even a pretense made of a wage, just one meal a day and work. The Dominican government was in fact subsidizing the labor costs of the private operations since the Dominicans had paid Duvalier $86 a head for the Kongos in the first place.

By the time the Kongos arrive at the Batey, they have begun to suspect the reality of their situation. They have been kept in outdoor pens, denied food and without permission are injected with unknown drugs. In the Batey they are dumped on the ground in the midst of the cane fields and often wait for weeks before the work begins. They are allotted 75 cents a day when they can get it and soon run up credit at local company stores.

Disturbances in the Batey result in clubbings and shots from the police. Escape is difficult and while some succeeded in reaching Santo Domingo, nearly all are trapped. To run is to risk death and many ‘who tried have been shot down.

One of the most remarkable things about Santo Domingo is the 12-mile esplanade along the waterfront. It seems that sugar money has been good to this city until one enters the working class districts. In the first two weeks of February a Santo Domingo newspaper reported that 405 people had been picked up trying to leave the country. Reportedly they leave by a variety of unorthodox methods, including one incident where 61 refugees were picked up in a 22-foot boat headed for Puerto Rico.

Confrontations with police have also been on the rise since riots protesting an increase in food prices last April. On February 14th, police dispersed an unpermitted demonstration in Haina, a Santo Domingo suburb where there have been repeated uprisings. Their courageous resistance to the Dominican regime over the years has made Haina a rallying cry throughout the country.

Throughout the Dominican Republic people expressed support for the rebellions in Haiti. The Dominican people share the hatred held by Haitians for the Ton Ton Macoutes, Duvalier’s private Gestapo that until the dictator’s fall on February 7th ruled Haiti like the mafia.

Several Dominicans I spoke to believed that the frontier with Haiti was closed to prevent the Macoutes from fleeing the vengeance of the Haitian populace. They felt that the Dominican government feared the population would join in the hunting and killing of Macoutes which has become something of a national sport in Haiti,

Lurking in the shadows of events unfolding in Haiti is the United States. The U.S. has had a big investment to protect on the island since the marines invaded Haiti in 1915 and the Dominican Republic, for the first time, the following year.

Soon after the invasion the old system of obligatory work for landlords and forced labor on the roads was reinstated. 15,000 Haitian peasants revolted against the Yankees and in 1918 the U.S. marines launched a counter-insurgency campaign against the rebels. Practicing search and destroy tactics which were later used against Augosto Sandino’s rebel army in Nicaragua, the marines killed thousands of peasants.

Haiti would henceforth be the cheap labor pool for the sugar plantations the U.S. would set up in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. However, the system was hit hard in 1959 when Fidel Castro took power in Cuba and put an end to the slave trade. Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic, who styled himself after Mussolini and had 40,000 Haitians massacred in 1938, was assassinated in 1961. After a breath of freedom, Lyndon Johnson sent in 35,000 troops from the 86th Airborne to "save lives" and reinstate the corrupt Dominican ruling class.

In 1957, Francois Duvalier, "Papa Doc," seized power in Haiti and tightened his grip through the Ton Ton Macoutes and the use of feared voodoo imagery. In 1966, Haiti and the Dominican Republic signed the first agreement for the employment of Haitian agricultural workers for the sugar season. An agreement that had remained in effect up until this February 7th.

The "Dominican Concorde" hotel is far from the bustling downtown and working class slums of Santo Domingo. It’s in a neighborhood unlike any other in the city. Expensive German cars sit behind high iron gates in the carports of recently built mansions. Occasionally, an especially large mansion belonging to a powerful figure will have a military guard-post in front.

The hotel itself is a monument to tacky American opulence, with a casino and bar filled by an assortment of U.S. tourists. Sitting next to me at the bar was a man who couldn’t resist buying me a beer. He was from Miami, he told me, a refugee from Cuba for 25 years. When I told him I had been up at the Haitian border he gave me a worried look. "My son was there before Duvalier fell," he said. "He was selling a small rice milling plant to a Haitian businessman." He continued with a weary expression, "thank god he got out," and downed his drink.

"I hope you’re not political," almost pleading me as he downed another and pointed out a bulky man in an expensive suit. "That’s a bigwig in the government here. He helped get my daughter into medical school in Santo Domingo along with a lot of my friends who fled Castro" he explained. Then in a low voice looking me in the eye, he said, "If they can’t open the border, there’ll be problems… without the workers from Haiti, you know."

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