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Bondage in Old Hispaniola: The Haitian Canecutters

by George Cotter

Father Cotter, M.M., isá presently assigned to the Justice and Peace Department of the Maryknoll Fathers. This article appeared in the Christian Century October 13, 1982, p. 1018. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Haiti cast a spell over me in 1978. Never had I visited a land where such a tiny minority of people owned so much wealth while the majority, without enough to eat, accepted their portion as though decreed by fate. Their fatalism bewildered me then, but a 1981 visit to Haiti and the Dominican Republic disclosed some of the forces governing the two nations and revealed, a new spirit coming into being among the island’s people.

In December, six of us, two nuns and four priests, went to the Dominican Republic to look at the condition of the Haitian sugar-cane cutters and report on employment practices in the sugar industry, especially in that part of it controlled by the Gulf & Western Corporation. Then two other priests and I went on to Haiti. Most of us were members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility -- a New York-based coalition of religious investors which monitors and encourages responsible business policies. We looked hard at the canecutters and were pained to see men enduring such bitter bondage.

On our arrival in the Dominican Republic, we heard a Jesuit tell of watching paramedics lift into an ambulance two young canecutters who had collapsed from exhaustion and hunger. The young Haitians, aged 18 to 25, who go to the Dominican Republic to cut the ripe sugar cane find that their pay is so low, their 11-hour workdays are so infrequent, and their living expenses so high, that they do not get enough to eat. “Not enough to eat” was a cry we heard over and over again on our trip.

We visited the canecutters’ living quarters, smelled the stench of human waste, watched the prostitutes cavort, stuck our heads into the tiny rooms crowded with bunk beds, and spoke with an old man whose foot had been infected for several years. The parish priest, who was highly respected by the Haitians, was with us as they told us of their miseries. We marveled at their dignity, for poor and powerless though they were, with no future, their smiles nevertheless conveyed toughness, a quiet gentleness and a feeling of self-esteem. We asked if they would prefer to be in Haiti. They answered No, since here, with luck, they could earn cash and save as much as $100 in the six-month harvest season. In Haiti there is no work for them.

Visits to the workers’ quarters of five Dominican plantations were enough to show us that the laborers were tied to the sugar fields as a goat is roped to a stake. The priest explained that the sugar producers draw over 40,000 cutters from Haiti every year, though they cannot employ that many. When the cane ripens, they bring in many extra workers to ensure an efficient harvest and eliminate delays from work stoppages or sickness. This means that the extra cutters will not have work or pay, and must remain at the quarters hoping to be called. A worker is paid $2.33 for each ton of cane he cuts and loads on an oxcart. A healthy man can cut one or one and a half tons on a normal day, but he will need to spend half of what he earns for his daily bread.

Although our guide kept repeating, “The Haitians have no legal rights in the Dominican Republic,” it took us several days to realize what he meant. The Dominican and Haitian governments have an accord for the traffic in canecutters, but the migrants themselves have no legal status -- no passports, no visas, no rights. Viewed as illegal aliens, they have no right to compensation for work injuries, no claim to medicine and no recourse to sue in courts for wages or grievances. When the cane is cut at one plantation, they are herded onto trucks and driven to another. Just before our visit, the Dominican government decided that too many Haitians had come across and ordered the army to round up several thousand for return to Haiti. Among those snatched up were many who had been born and raised in the Dominican Republic, but since Haitians born in the Republic do not receive birth certificates, they could not prove they were citizens. Considered illegals, they were kidnapped, transported to Haiti and forsaken in a land they had never seen.

It is paradoxical that our government is dealing with the Haitian refugees to the United States in the same way that the Dominican government treats the Haitian canecutters: by denying them legal rights and herding them together. When persons have no legal rights, governments have absolute control over them. By allowing our political support for Haiti’s President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier to dictate U.S. immigration policy, we withdraw our traditional welcome for refugees and jeopardize the legal system which protects all of us.

Our trip to the Dominican Republic gave us time with a “colono” -- a private cane grower. He explained Gulf & Western’s sugar network and told us how beneficial it was for him, since the corporation provides cash for weeding his fields, for starting new cane, for cutting it and for transporting it to the Gulf & Western mill. When the sugar is processed, the corporation sells it on the international market and divides the income with the private producer, who receives a bit more than half.

He told us that cane must be cut within a month of ripening and must reach the mill within 72 hours of cutting, or it goes bad. This time line demands a rigorous planting and harvesting schedule so that good cane reaches the mill when ripe and is processed immediately. If more cane arrives than the mill can handle, it goes bad, but if too little arrives, the mill operates under capacity and profits shrink. Hence Gulf & Western has locked its own plantations and those of private owners into a rigid network of schedules for planting and harvesting, credit for wages, and teams of advisers to over- see the work. The availability of the Haitian canecutters is essential to the timing and efficiency on which the company’s profits depend. Without willing cutters the industry collapses, and the Haitians are willing because they are hungry, unorganized and illegal.

Friends had warned us not to visit a Gulf & Western field where Haitians cut cane, as armed private police would descend on us. Nevertheless, our “colono” drove into such a field, where we spoke with the cutters in Spanish and French, and with a cart driver who showed us the tickets given the cutters for receipts and the column where the weights were later marked. When the approach of an armed supervisor made us decide to leave, the cartman’s parting words provided a clue to the mystery of old Hispaniola: “Here there is total control.”

His farewell crystallized our thoughts. Sugar production demands control: control over the canecutters, over the carts, railroads and mill, over the private planters, over the markets and, to a certain extent, over governments. This need for control explains the bondage of the Haitian canecutters.

Both the Dominican Republic and Haiti were once colonies built on slavery. After Columbus’s discovery of the island of Hispaniola, Spaniards settled the eastern two-thirds of it (now the Dominican Republic), enslaving the Indians to work the gold mines and to develop farms and plantations. When the colonists saw the proud Caribs die rather than submit to slavery, they sent their galleons to Africa for black workers. Later, French pirates settled the western third of the island, retaining its Indian name, Haiti. With an economy also based on slavery, it became France’s richest colony. The availability of a strong, mobile work force made sugar production possible and profitable on Hispaniola. In fact, plantation work was so hard, the harvesting schedule so exacting, and the market so demanding that the sugar industry would not have flourished without slaves.

Today slavery is outlawed in the Caribbean, and both the Dominican Republic and Haitian governments deny that they practice it. But the Haitians cutting cane in the Dominican Republic are bound into an economic system that is very like slavery. We learned that an accord exists between the two governments -- that the Haitian government receives $80.00 from the Dominican government for each Haitian it delivers and that the cutters are deliberately kept illegal and hungry so that they will work when needed. The cutters collect an agreed-upon wage, but it is so low that it compares with the subsistence food which slaves received to maintain their health.

In the Dominican Republic, we were greatly impressed with Gulf & Western’s efficiency. The cane ripened when expected, the laborers were on hand to cut it, the network of railroads worked smoothly and the mill thundered day and night. We had a pleasant interview with the managers and expressed our surprise that a company so efficient and successful would pay such low wages and be so negligent in providing the essential human services of housing, latrines and water. We could not believe their excuse: “We wanted to raise wages, but the government refused, as it would destabilize wages throughout the industry.” We learned that, through negotiations, Gulf & Western had convinced the Dominican government to accept pesos rather than dollars for all tax and debt payments -- an agreement that saves the corporation 30 cents on every dollar it pays the government. The corporation has power. Two university professors told us that Gulf & Western operates with a budget larger than the government’s, that it rivals the government in political influence, and that it obtains the labor laws it desires. Yet spokespersons for both industry and government told us nothing can be done about the bondage of the Haitians. “The price of sugar is too weak.” “The whole industry would collapse.” “The growers will turn to mechanization.” “Artificial sweeteners and European sugar beets are killing the sugar market.”

It seems that sugar is so important to American interests and to the United States and Dominican governments that our government reinforces the present arrangement that keeps the Haitians illegal and powerless. At the U.S. Embassy in the Republic we met with two of the staff whose line of thought followed the line we received at Gulf & Western, especially regarding a pay raise.

As we crisscrossed the Dominican Republic, we noticed the large number of soldiers along the roads. Our hosts declared that the Dominican military is very strong and that it is more loyal and more responsive to American generals than to its own government. Informed persons told us that if a revolt were to erupt in Haiti, Washington would send the Dominican army to put it down rather than use American troops, and that the Dominicans are prepared to go. We were also told that one out of four Dominicans depends on food from the United States. The Dominicans’ dependence on us gives our government great control over the Republic’s internal affairs.

An early sign that the Dominican military is tightening the security screws was the deportation last summer of four religious workers who were successfully organizing rural villagers. Military regimes do not like that kind of religious dedication.

When our visit to the Dominican Republic was over, we went on to Haiti for more talks. Church workers told us many grim tales of the Tonton Macoutes and of this legalized Mafia’s hold on the people. We were told that they murder without fear of retribution, extort money, cattle and land from the poor and have so filled the land with spies that everyone fears his or her neighbor; even the canecutters in the Dominican Republic expect their words and deeds to be recorded. We were told that Duvalier is so afraid of revolution that his helicopter is kept ready for instant flight.

One church official told us that the people of a mountain village made him sit and listen while they described how 50 of their children had starved to death within a few weeks. The fathers were cutting cane in the Dominican Republic and had not sent home money for food. As we listened to this horror, through my mind ran the words of Florida District Court Judge James King: “Much of Haiti’s poverty is a result of Duvalier’s efforts to maintain power. It could be said that Duvalier has made his country weak so that he could be strong.”

The religious workers we met in Haiti were surprisingly hopeful about the country’s future. They said that Duvalier had gone too far, that he had made serious mistakes, that the people had courage and a new spirit and that perhaps President-for-Life Duvalier may not have long to go. We learned that even the tilted cupola of the cathedral’s tower in Cap-Ha´tien, blown askew by an ill wind, is interpreted by the people as an omen that Duvalier is about to topple.

A missionary asked us, “If Duvalier falls, will the United States replace him with another strongman?” We answered that that was likely, since the bondage of the Haitians, especially the canecutters, seems to be an inherent part of U.S. foreign policy. Because American business benefits from the sugar industry, our government wants a dictator who will maintain stability and keep the profits flowing. To achieve this, our armies have already invaded Hispaniola three times: they overran the Dominican Republic in 1916 and 1965; they conquered Haiti in 1915 and ruled it until 1934.

Our trip was a lesson in Washington’s global power. Though our leaders speak of us as the “defenders of freedom,” we found that others look upon us as ruthless masters, the heirs of the Spanish, French and British empires. To maintain domination some American officials seem willing to bribe the leaders of foreign governments, to seduce their military officers from national loyalties, to make whole nations dependent on our low-cost food, to spy out the deepest political secrets, and to treat other nations like American provinces that we may invade when they become too independent.

But invasions can be costly. Napoleon sent Haiti his best troops to help the colonists put down a revolt of the slaves. Instead the slaves (helped by yellow fever) drove off the troops and created an independent nation. After losing Haiti, the emperor knew he could not maintain the French colonies in Louisiana, and the territory was sold to the United States. The loss of Haiti started the dissolution of the French Empire.

Similarly, we cannot hope to keep ourselves strong by making our neighbors weak. The island of Hispaniola is important to our geographic security, business interests and international markets, but the loyalty of the island’s peoples is evaporating.

The rector of a religious high school in the Dominican Republic said that many Dominican graduates accept scholarships to study in Russia. Then, when they return to the airport in Santo Domingo, the security forces arrest and incarcerate them. The Russians want to disengage the island from American involvement, and they will succeed if America persists in its present rapacious ways.

As Americans, we want to see our nation retain global primacy in both allegiance and strength. The U.S. can do this by promoting its spiritual values among nations without seeking to control them. This means fostering democracies, not dictatorships; dealing fairly with sovereign nations and treating them as friends, not subjects; respecting our neighbors more than our corporate markets; and creating jobs, not food dependencies. We will rightly earn the respect of other nations when we recognize the Dominicans and the Haitians as partners, and ease the Haitians’ forced labor and fight for their freedom. The allegiance of the island’s people will safeguard our interests better than repressive governments can.

With respect from Americans, the Dominican and Haitian governments could answer to their people, representing and serving them instead of taking directions from Washington. It is these governments that must guarantee their citizens legal rights and fair wages, and provide the law’s protection for labor unions. With true political power, honest governments in the Dominican Republic and in Haiti could achieve a fair equilibrium between the dividends of stockholders in corporations such as Gulf & Western, and the wages of those who cut the cane.

Throughout both the Dominican Republic and Haiti, church workers told us that a new spirit is permeating the people. It comes from the events in Central America, from migrants to the States, and from a deepened awareness of personal dignity. This new spirit, a holy spirit, will not be satisfied with food handouts nor intimidated by guns. It demands liberty and justice. The same spirit provoked the American Revolution, overthrew Somoza in Nicaragua and is moving the Polish people. The might of the British Empire could not smother it, nor could Somoza’s helicopters, nor will the armies of Russia extinguish it in Poland. On the island of Hispaniola, this spirit is creating a new people of vision, determination and hope.

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