February 4, 2007 Laundry Day

Photo Caption: A little Haitian girl stands close to her mother on a laundry day in a sugar cane plantation batey in El Seibo Province.

History: Fleeing the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, where less than a quarter of the people live above the poverty line and nearly half are illiterate, Haitians are bused to a batey, one of over four hundred around the nation. Resembling slave quarters, most bateyes do not have electricity, sewage systems, potable water, kitchens or access to proper medical care. Haitian children born in the Dominican Republic are also denied birth certificates, citizenship, and access to schools.

Each year, a typical American swallows 100 pounds of sugar, which is produced from half a ton of cane. Paid thirty pesos per ton, an experienced cane cutter may harvest one and a half tons in a twelve-hour work day. Swinging a sharp machete six days a week under a blistering sun, he will earn one-seventh of what it takes to properly feed a family of four. Most cutters are Haitians since Dominicans, no matter how destitute, refuse to work in the cane fields because it would mean lowering their social status to that of a Haitian. Trying to break the glass ceiling, a Haitian worker risks deportation if he escapes the plantation in search of a better life in the cities.

Threatened with deportation, Haitian construction workers in the cities are consistently harassed by uniformed officials who conveniently arrest them on paydays. If the police officer or soldier is in a good mood bribes can buy freedom. If they’re in a bad mood they take every peso or anything of value before shipping the blacks across the border. When cheap labor was needed in the state-run cane fields, Haitians were “recruited” by force. Eleven years ago, government troops shanghaied five hundred, mostly from work sites in the capital, and distributed them among state-operated plantations.

Afraid of being deported or shot by guards patrolling batey perimeters, Haitians could not travel into cities without special permission. With only one option, they became indebted to the company store. After the harvest, the government may deport Haitians before they can collect their salaries. After Americans started to use other sweeteners at the end of the 20th century, the State Sugar Council sold or shut down the state’s sugarcane holdings. No longer having a financial interest in the bateyes, the government puts Haitian migrants at the bottom of the list to receive aid in times of hurricanes or tropical storms, such as the one that flooded the island in October of 2007.

Journal Entry: Waking up the following morning with chills and a cold sweat, I wasn’t sure which was spinning, the ceiling fan or the room. It didn’t take long to recognize that I had taken a closer look than planned at the unsanitary conditions of a batey. Farah’s mother brought a colossal bowl of chicken noodle soup and a glass of lemonade upstairs to my room, but I barely touched it. Next time I will be a rude American and refuse to eat a homemade peanut butter sandwich if offered to me by anyone grinding fresh peanuts in a dirty plantation village.

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