Haitians Toil as Near-Slaves in Dominican Fields


From dawn to dusk under a fierce tropical sun, imported Haitian workers hack sugar cane with machetes and load it into wagons pulled by gaunt oxen leaning into wooden yokes.

Horsemen with shotguns and pistols patrol the dusty lanes. Soldiers guard bridges and crossroads, watching for runaways.

The braceros, or laborers, and their families live in tiny shacks in the bateys, the squalid compounds on the government-run plantations, most without running water or electricity. They have little to eat.


A report by three human rights groups in October compared the plight of the Haitian braceros to slavery, saying they are being held on the Dominican plantations at gunpoint.

“Like their ancestors brought from Africa, they are forced to labor against their will, cutting sugar cane for armed Dominican masters,” said the report commissioned by Americas Watch, Caribbean Rights and the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees.

Manuel de Jesus Vinas Caceres, director of the State Sugar Council, which administers the government-run plantations, rejects comparisons of the cane cutters to slaves. He contends that they are no worse off than farm laborers elsewhere in Latin America.

“It is a drama of poverty present in all the rural zones of Latin America,” he said.

“We have to improve things, I agree.”

An independent study commissioned by the State Sugar Council, published in 1986 as a 636-page book titled “El Batey,” said the cane cutters live in “absolute poverty under one of the most oppressive systems one can imagine. . . . Many of the workers don’t even eat once a day.”

The State Sugar Council is an autonomous government bureaucracy that administers 279,000 acres yielding 60% of the country’s sugar.

One-quarter of Dominican workers are unemployed, but they shun the back-breaking labor of cutting cane, which pays only an average of $2.35 a day for harvesting 1.5 tons.

So sugar plantations recruit about 40,000 workers each year from Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic and is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.


Many of the workers are brought across the border by recruiters who are paid $2.50 a head. Since many of the Haitians are in the country illegally, they have few rights.

Recruits, known as “congos,” live in tiny huts or in rooms 12 feet square in long concrete barracks resembling stables, with no kitchens, stoves, bathrooms or running water. As many as 10 to 14 men sleep in each room.

Veteran Haitian workers, called viejos , are crammed with their families into one-room shacks or huts.

Haitian workers may leave the plantations at the end of the harvest season, which runs from November to May.

Conditions are better at Central Romana, a private U.S.-owned operation of 140,845 acres that is the world’s largest sugar plantation.

Housing is about the same, but Central Romana provides its workers with schools, medical care, running water and subsidized beef, chicken and vegetables.

For decades, the Dominican Republic contracted for 15,000 workers a year by paying $2 million to the Haitian government. The arrangement began in 1952 and ended with the fall of the Jean-Claude Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti in 1986.


“If you are going to blame anyone, you have to blame both sides for the quasi-slave trade,” said Anglican Bishop Telesforo A. Isaac, who grew up on a sugar plantation. He said payments are made on both sides of the border to smooth the way for importation of the Haitians.

The contract signed by the Sugar Council and the Haitian government theoretically provided for the welfare of the workers: adequate housing, electricity, running water, sanitary facilities, dining areas, eight-hour workdays.

“Unfortunately, most terms of the contract were never enforced,” said the October human rights report.

Since the fall of the Duvalier regime, Haitians who are recruited to the plantations lack even the hypothetical protection of a contract.

“Haitians in the Dominican Republic are compelled to work on sugar plantations by physical force and by threats of deportation,” the October human rights report said. It said workers were often locked in their barracks at night, braceros who refused to cut cane were sometimes beaten or jailed, and undocumented Haitians living elsewhere in the Dominican Republic were rounded up by the Army and forced to work on the plantations.

Dominican historian Frank Moya Pons, director of the study commissioned by the Sugar Council, said recommendations on how conditions could be improved were first presented to the council in 1984.


“It is my impression that conditions have worsened in the years since the report was presented,” said Moya Pons, who now teaches at the University of Florida.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic are negotiating a new contract calling for 28,000 braceros who would be given individual work contracts providing for decent living and working conditions.

Vinas Caceres of the State Sugar Council said he wants a contract with Haiti that would guarantee “humane, just treatment.”

“I’m taking action against anyone who mistreats the workers,” he said, slapping his desk for emphasis.

As an example, Vinas Caceres said he ordered the dismissal of a supervisor at the Haina plantation who was accused of forcing Haitians to leave church on Sunday to cut cane.

A reporter who visited the plantation, however, found that the supervisor, Fernando Sanchez, was still on the job and had locked up five Haitians.


Interviewed through the bars of a window, the men said they had eaten only bread and sugar for three days. They said they lived in the town of Boca Chica and were returning from a visit to Haiti when a Haina Plantation bus picked them up and delivered them to Sanchez.

Mercedes Reyes, the plantation superintendent, said the Haitians might be thieves or drug runners and would be turned over to the police. He said Sanchez was an exemplary employee and there was no reason to transfer him for forcing people to work on Sunday.

“The harvest comes first,” Reyes declares. “Here, everyone works seven days a week, including me.”

Dominican churches try to assist Haitians with windmills, water pumps, latrines and vegetable gardens. A group called Pastoral Haitiana provides medical and legal aid.

“We have repatriated 31 juveniles and 41 men and women so far this season who were either underage, sick or had been tricked or forced to work against their will,” said the Rev. Edwin Paraison, an Anglican priest who runs Pastoral Haitiana with three other priests.

Driving down a dusty trail deep in the Consuelo plantation on the southwest coast, Paraison braked to pick up a boy who appeared to be an underage worker. He gave his name as Arnold Petion, and said he was 16 and had been in the Dominican Republic only seven days.


Later, seated in a church office in the same school uniform he wore when he left Haiti, the boy said a recruiter promised a soft job with good pay.

“When I arrived,” he said, “the old-timers told me I had been sold, along with everyone else here.”