February 4, 2007 Reflections of Slavery

Photo Caption: Haitian workers cut kernels of corn in a sugar cane plantation batey in the province of El Seibo.

History: More than a century of intermixing between the people of Hispaniola’s two nations had made distinguishing them apart from each other highly problematic, especially on the border, which had been ill-defined until both countries made a treaty in 1930 at the behest of the United States, which was finally departing the island after decades of occupation. Seven years later, in supposed retaliation for the Haitian execution of Dominican spies and for civilian food raids on bordering Dominican farms, Trujillo sent the army into its western frontier to exterminate the Haitians, except those employed by American planters. During that deadly week starting October 2, 1937, soldiers butchered and bludgeoned to death twenty to thirty thousand Haitians, including children, using machetes and clubs in attempt to cover up the military’s involvement. As if they had cut down the Haitians like sugarcane, Dominicans referred to this bloody harvest as El Corte, or The Cutting.

As World War I doubled sugar prices, the United States, the largest importer of Dominican sugar since the 1880s, utilized its military control of the entire island to expand the cash crop. Prices fell as sugar beet crops recovered in Europe, bankrupting many Dominican sugar plantation owners. American capitalists pounced and by 1926, a dozen U.S. firms owned four-fifths of the cane fields. They needed workers and the U.S. Marines, still occupying Haiti, needed to quell resistance from idle locals. Since then, thousands of Haitians have been promised a better life in the “white gold mines” of Dominican sugarcane fields. After commandeering a dozen plantations and sugar mills in the 1950s, Trujillo also realized he could make more profit by importing cheap labor from Haiti. In the next decade, the Dominican government set up the State Sugar Council (C.E.A.) to manage Trujillo’s former estates. It paid seven to twenty dollars per head to recruiters, who enlisted Haitian workers by deception or intimidation. Treated like cattle, Haitians were herded onto overcrowded buses and transported non-stop for several hours to a batey, a camp housing sugar cane workers.

Journal Entry: With four children in the back of the SUV with me, Yuri drove to El Seibo to take us swimming in the Soco River and visit Winnie, a friend of Yuri and Farah. The relative calm of a crying brood and deafening music was broken as Farah jealously slung Yuri’s cell phone out of the passenger window. Yuri drove in reverse on the highway as Farah cursed and pitched his camera out as well. Afraid to move, I stayed with the kids in the vehicle, which Yuri had parked halfway in the road near a blind curve. After a brief half-hearted search for the phone among the weeds, Farah climbed into the driver’s seat and left Yuri in the middle of nowhere. A few miles down the road, she turned the car around. By now, Yuri was fuming and refused to get in. So she deserted him again. As Farah drove toward home she asked, “Do you want to return with us or go to El Seibo?” I voted for the least volatile host. Turning around once more, we passed Yuri walking along the shoulder. Without a word, I later joined Yuri and Winnie for lunch at a local club. Yuri persuaded me to show my photographs to Winnie and the club owner. Impressed, the owner escorted us to a planter’s mansion overlooking a batey cut out of a cane field. Wanting a closer look, I encountered Haitians manually grinding peanuts and baking bread in an outdoor oven. Not wanting to offend, I tasted their homemade peanut butter on a warm roll. I did not realize that these hundreds of poor people must share toilets and showers in one small outbuilding. My guides say, “The Haitians are much better off here than in their homeland.” Yuri and I knew we were better off away from home.

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