Visions of Haiti: Documentaries of the Dominican Sugar Industry


Haitians did not always dominate the labor force of the Dominican the sugar industry. Likewise, the Dominican Republic did not always produce sugar on a large scale. The modern sugar industry in the Dominican Republic and the role Haitians play in the harvesting of sugar is the result of over a century worth of investment in the cane fields by a variety of people from different nations—Dominicans, Americans, Haitians, and West Indians being the primary stakeholders.

Large scale sugar estates began to appear in the Dominican Republic at the end of the 19th century. In 1875, the Dominican Republic was like an open frontier. The wars with Haiti had diminished and the increasing stability in the country and the relative ease by which one could gain land attracted outside investors, primarily from the United States, to the southeast region of the country. There they bought large land tracks and drove out the longtime dwellers on the land. They could easily gain land not only because the Dominican government made it legally and economically feasible, but also because the country was under-populated and those who traditionally lived on the land often lacked official land titles. Once investors bought the land they began to plant sugar on a large scale. This operation, however, required a large labor supply. Sugarcane field workers were recruited in the country. Thus, the first people to work the large sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic were Dominicans.

Dominicans, however, did not remain the main source of labor for long. Employers found Dominicans to be an unpredictable and uncontrollable group in general because they often had their own land, were used to subsistence living, and only worked the harvest to meet personal financial goals. A lot of times, once they accumulated the amount they wanted they abandoned the cane field. What the employers wanted and needed for the growth of an industry, however, was a steady source of labor. They needed people who were going to work for very little pay and who were unable to leave the planation. In essence, the employers were looking for a labor force that they could control. When sugar prices fell in the 1880s and inflation rose in the country, Dominicans preferred to invest in their own fields rather than accept the paltry wages that employers were offering to bring in the Harvest. Employers however did not want to raise the cost of labor because they were trying to compensate for the drop in sugar value. The situation produced a labor crisis for the employers, who began to look elsewhere for a cheap labor supply. They turned primarily to the West Indies and for much of the early period of the sugar industry (1880s-1920), the majority of laborers were “cocolos,” men primarily from the British West Indies who traveled seasonally to the Dominican Republic to work in the fields. Haitians made up a secondary source of labor.

The situation changed, however, in 1916 when the U.S. Military occupied the Dominican Republic. The U.S. had already invaded Haiti only the year before. Thus, in 1916, the country controlled the entire island of Hispaniola. This political situation allowed the sugar planters to regulate the industry across the entire island. They were thus able to facilitate cheap labor from Haiti to sugarcane plantations in San Pedro de Macorís and other regions of the southeast. When the price of sugar on the world market fell in 1920, West Indians began to come less to the Dominican Republic. With the infrastructure already in place for the recruitment of Haitians, the planters readily replaced West Indians. When the military occupation ended in 1924, Haitians made up the majority of the labor source on sugar plantations.

In 1930, life became worse for everyone. The world economy was down, and people were out of work in the Dominican Republic as elsewhere. Over the course of the 1930s, the Dominican Congress passed laws that required all businesses to hire a 70% Dominican workforce. The sugar industry was exempted regularly, but the dictator Trujillo Molina made sure that the planters knew his wishes for a Dominican labor force. This situation reduced the numbers of Haitians on the sugar plantations, but production continued and thus so did the recruitment of Haitians. Things got worse in the 1930s as well because of Dominican racism against Haitians. In the 1930s Dominicans were less concerned about military invasion from Haiti as had been the concern for most of the 19th century. Instead, they became concerned with “peaceful invasion.” In 1937 Trujillo Molina ordered the killing of thousands of Haitians at the border. The massacre resulted in as many as 25,000 deaths and prompted the Haitian government to suspend the recruitment of braceros. The message to Haitians living in the Dominican Republic was clear. As Samanuel Martínez states, “”Regardless of the dictator’s intentions, no more chilling way could be imagined of conveying to Haitian immigrants that the sugar bateyes would thereafter be their only secure place on Dominican soil” (Peripheral Migrants, 45).

In 1941 Haiti officially reinstated recruitment, but this began a pattern in which the Haitian government would use open and suspend recruitment irregularly and for a variety of reasons (fear of invasion, to gain more money from the Dominican government, etc.) The Dominican government retaliated by rounding up Haitians already living in the Dominican Republic and transporting them to sugar plantations where they were forced to work. The Dominican government during that time also militarized the border. This meant that whenever there was a labor shortage they could also get laborers by detaining anyone who was crossing the border illegally and transporting them to the fields. In this way the illegal trafficking of Haitians began; employers could pay the military to round up workers for them.

Haitian recruitment rose again after Trujillo entered the sugar industry in 1952. During this time, the government orchestrated its first labor agreement with Haiti. As a result of the agreement, the migration of Haitians to the Dominican Republic transformed from a domestic matter to an international one. The agreement was renewed in 1959. After Trujillo’s fall in 1961, his plantation estates became the property of the Dominican government. The government thus set out to regulate the market. One way that they did this was to take over the responsibility of paying Haiti for the recruitment of labor. Previously payment was the responsibility of employers. The government’s control over the labor source made relations with Haiti more intense because both of the Duvaliers (father and son) suspended the recruitment of Haitian laborers on a number of occasions. The Dominican government retaliated by detaining Haitians as they did in the previous period.

1979 marked the first time an international organization criticized the Dominican government for their treatment of Haitian braceros. In that year, the Anti-Slavery Society for the Protection of Human Rights denounced the labort contract that the Dominican government held with Haiti. The government did nothing in response and conditions for Haitian laborers deteriorated in the 1980s as the prices for sugar dropped and the U.S. protectionist policies exposed Dominican planters to the world market. For many planters the situation came to a crisis moment in 1986 when Duvalier fled the country and many Haitians did not want to cross the border during the political upheaval.

Since the 1980s, life in the bateyes has not improved much for Haitian braceros. Fortunately, the situation drew more and more international attention in the 1990s and early 2000s, but the high levels of poverty, discrimination and disenfranchisement continue. Haitians and their offspring in the Dominican Republic have created non-governmental organizations to aid people living in the bateyes, but there is still a long way to go before those living in the bateyes can escape decades worth of abuse and poor living standards on Dominican sugar planations.

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