Sweet And Lowdown
Mother Jones|November/December 2021
The hidden suffering behind America’s sugar habit
Sandy Tolan with Euclides Cordero Nuel

IT WAS 5 A.M. and still dark as we rolled west out of Santo Domingo, on a cool morning in May 2019. We rode through the tourist zone, past whitewashed Spanish colonial buildings, pointing our truck toward the Haitian border. A sliver of waning moon hung in the eastern sky.

After three decades, I’d returned to the Dominican Republic, pulled back by the haunting memory of a Haitian child. All stick legs and sunken eyes, he stood barefoot and shirtless under a fierce and pounding sun, surrounded by endless fields of Dominican sugarcane. His name was Lulu Pierre; he was 14 years old. I’d met him in March 1991, when I went to a Dominican state-run sugar work camp, known as a batey, to investigate widespread human trafficking and forced labor in the harvest. I’d visited a transit camp where Haitians were secretly processed. I’d read the human rights reports documenting the Dominican military’s role in transporting Haitian men, and sometimes children, to the harvest. But now I was seeing it for myself.

Just days before, soldiers had abducted Lulu at a market on the Dominican– Haitian border, thrown him into a pickup, and dumped him at the camp in the middle of the night. “If you want to eat,” the bosses told him, “you have to cut the cane.”

But Lulu couldn’t do it. He’d given up and turned to fishing in pesticide-ridden ditches beside the fields. “My mother and father don’t know where I am,” the child told us. “I want to go home.” Alan Weisman, then my reporting partner, and I gave a Catholic relief worker the equivalent of about $80 to try to get him back to his family.

We never learned what happened. But I’d thought about Lulu Pierre ever since, determined one day to return and find out if he ever made it.

“I think we will find Lulu,” declared Euclides Cordero Nuel from the passenger seat. It was growing light as I eased our truck onto a two-lane blacktop, moving past lush stands of mango, tamarind, and pineapple, the flatlands turning to rolling hills as we neared the border. The island of Hispaniola, where Christopher Columbus first planted sugarcane in the New World, is divided into two nations: the Dominican Republic to the east, and Haiti to the west. Euclides, a Haitian Dominican journalist who agreed to help me look for Lulu, was 2 years old when I was last here. He grew up on a batey and cut cane at age 14 so he could buy shoes for high school. “I shared them with my brother,” he told me as we rolled along.

To see more photos and hear a podcast version of this story produced for public radio by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, visit motherjones.com/sugar.

Over the last two years, Euclides and I mounted a broad search. We traveled to the market where Lulu had been snatched away from his family. We’d visited his Haitian hometown, stopping in at United Nations offices, city hall, the birth registry, and radio stations that agreed to broadcast live appeals. We zigzagged between the two countries on a road so broken that in long stretches it would have been faster to walk. And we made repeated trips to the old state-run bateyes, many now sold off and privatized, that had held Haitians like Lulu against their will. We never abandoned our mission, but we came to realize the story wasn’t just about Lulu. It was about the 68,000-some Haitian cañeros still in the fields, and their living and working conditions, especially under the island’s biggest plantation holder: Central Romana. Owned in part by brothers Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul, Cuban exiles who are now billionaire Florida sugar barons, Central Romana sugarcane is cut by Haitians, crushed and poured as raw sugar into the holds of vessels, and shipped to the Fanjuls’ asr Domino refinery in Baltimore harbor. Then it’s packaged into 4-pound Domino bags, sent in bulk to industrial bakeries, and shipped by rail to be made into Hershey bars and other chocolates, cookies, and Halloween candies.

There’s no doubt the Dominican sugar industry has improved since I met Lulu. But according to government sources and human rights and labor advocates, Central Romana is most resistant to changing the deplorable conditions that have long plagued the industry. The company ships more than 200 million pounds of sugar to the US every year—far more than any other Dominican producer—and insists it treats its workers “with respect.” Public relations director Jorge Sturla says the company provides laborers opportunities to “improve their lives through secure, honest work.” The Florida-based Fanjul Corporation offered a statement claiming that “Central Romana is a highly respected corporate citizen in the Dominican Republic, and takes pride in its reputation for civic activities and ethical business practices.”

We came to see for ourselves.

WE RATTLED DOWN a long gravel road, straight as a string. On either side stood 8-foot-high stands of undulating cane, their weedy tops blowing in the wind. A train whistle signaled cars hauling stalks to the mill at company headquarters near the port at La Romana. Our destination: Cacata, or what Central Romana calls its “model” batey.

Cacata is one of about 100, according to a local missionary organization’s estimate, isolated work camps scattered among Central Romana’s 166,000 acres of sugarcane—a tract almost as big as New York City. Most of the workers and their families live in these bateyes, rising in the morning to work the cane in the punishing heat, clearing weeds, slashing and spraying the stalks. Nearly all are men of Haitian descent. Some were trafficked back in the day of Lulu Pierre; others were born here and live stateless; and others came from Haiti more recently, paying buscones to sneak them across the border. For years, the government has resisted providing legal status to people of Haitian heritage in the country, even those born there. An estimated 200,000 people, who for generations have been demeaned by race and class, are stateless.

For the men in their camps, Central Romana is the state. Their bateyes are patrolled by armed company police, empowered to evict. Central Romana owns the land where the Haitians work, the railcars where they weigh and load the cane stalks, and the dwellings where they sleep. They are miles from the nearest Dominican town not controlled by the company. Central Romana repeatedly refused requests for an interview or a tour to help me understand how it operates today. But two workers at a local charity founded by Alfy and Pepe Fanjul’s sister, Lian, spoke glowingly of Cacata, urging us to visit.

In Cacata we walk the quiet streets, laid out in a grid about only a mile long. At first we see modest well-kept houses, kids playing stickball, a child singing to Jesus, families relaxing—the kinds of uplifting images promoted on Central Romana’s website. Many homes have electricity, and new potable water taps are accessible to all.

But as we walk deeper into Batey Cacata, we reach a grim-looking line of concrete barracks and, behind that, rows of dilapidated housing. Nearby, the Dominican supervisor lives in a large, solidly built house with a front yard big enough to fit several cane workers’ homes. “You can see, in Cacata, there’s a segmentation of the people,” Euclides says.

We keep walking. Soon we meet two old men sitting on broken plastic chairs in front of a slumping tin-roof shack. Euclides greets them warmly. In their native Creole, Julio and Cardenas (they asked us not to use their real names, for fear of retaliation) tell us they remember the horrible days of massive human trafficking and child labor: By the time I was last here, in 1991, they’d already been on Central Romana’s plantation for a decade.

Much of that chaos is in the past, they tell us. Because of international pressure, few if any children still work the fields. The brutal trafficking rings, run in large part by the Dominican military, have been disbanded. But for Julio and Cardenas, not much has changed. They are paid a little more than $3 for each metric ton, or 2,200 pounds, they harvest. “On a good day, I can cut a ton,” maybe a little more, Cardenas tells us. He’s almost 80, and Julio isn’t much younger. Yet even though Central Romana deducts government pension funds from their paychecks, they say they’ve never seen one peso.

“It’s not my fault I’m working,” Cardenas says. “I made requests for my pension, but I don’t have it.” Without proper working papers, they are trapped in the batey and too vulnerable to seek other work.

We ask the men if their bosses treat them well. Cardenas chokes back tears and stabs the hard ground with the point of his machete. “I’m not good,” he finally tells us. “You can see how they treat us here as a Haitian. Now if you have to go to the hospital, you have to have your own money to spend on your sickness...If you don’t have money, you’re going to die.”

Just then two armed men pull up on a motorcycle. They’re from Central Romana’s private security force. “Señor, what authorization do you have to be asking questions?” the lead officer asks us. “You are not allowed to be here without the authorization of the company. This is a private batey.”

“You guys have to understand,” the second guard adds. “We’re protecting interests here.”

CENTRAL ROMANA HAS plenty of interests to protect.

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