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Case Study:

the Dominican Republic

History of the Sugar Industry before the Abolition of Slavery

Prior to the days of the sugar industry, the island of Española (now known as the Dominican Republic and Haiti) was used as a stepping-stone in the takeover of the mainland by the Spanish colonizers (Rodriguez 86). Profits were accrued through the import and export of horses and this is how many colonists acquired the necessary capital to begin sugar plantations in later years (Rodriguez 86). In fact, Española was the first Latin American to which sugar cane was introduced; this occured in 1501 (Rodriguez 86-7).

 

The sugar economy in Española initially grew slowly due to lack of capital needed to buy the necessary tools and employ specialists (Rodriguez 87). However, in the 1520s, the state introduced measures to help foster the growth of the sugar industry by giving easy access to capital for the colonists, abolishing taxes on major imports, including those needed in sugar processing, and making credit available to promote the establishment of plantations (Rodriguez 89).

 

A major transformation of the sugar economy occurred with the introduction of African slaves. Jeronimo priests, who were cane planters, and other cultivators asked Spain for the right to import black slaves (Plant 5). Spain acquiesced, allowing a limited number of slaves to be brought over from Africa; the first slaves were brought to the island in 1518 (Plant 5). In general, an average of 100 slaves worked on each mill, but some ingenios (sugar mills) had upwards of 1000 slaves (Rodriguez 104)

 

Early in the 1600s the sugar economy was stagnating due to Spain’s protectionist policies, which did not allow colonies to access world market (Plant 6). Furthermore, in 1697, Spain ceded the western half of the island to France after the latter colonized it in 1659 (Plant 6). Thus the sugar industry didn't grow in the Dominican Republic (DR) for quite a long period of time.

 

Finally, at the end of 18th century, sugar saw a revival (Plant 9). As a result, the demand for slaves increased, and in 1785, a priest petitioned the Spanish monarchy for the right to import more slaves; in 1786, Spain granted the request, allowing for the importation of an unlimited number of slaves (Plant 9).

 

At the beginning of the 19th century, slaves in the French colony occupying the western half of Española revolted, forming what is now known as Haiti. The new country quickly formed designs on the eastern half of Española, and from 1822 to 1844, Haiti took control of the entire island, perpetuating the plantation system in the Dominican Republic (Plant 10). In 1844, the Dominican Republic managed to oust the Haitians (Plant 10). By 1856 small farmers in the DR began exporting sugar for the first time since its independence from Haiti (Plant 13). Shortly thereafter, slavery was abolished in the newly-independent country; this was inscribed in the new constitution, which stated that “all slaves who enter Dominican soil are free men” (Plant 10).

 

 

History of the Sugar Industry after the Abolition of Slavery

 

Late in the 19th century, several events helped the DR to build up its sugar exports (Plant 13). First, in 1868, the Cuban civil war drove about 3000 Cuban planters to the DR, bringing with them knowledge and technological innovations complementary to sugar production. Second, the 1870 French-German war was detrimental to the European sugar-beet industry, reducing an important source of competition. Third, the US civil war had negative effects on Louisiana sugar cane production, further harming economic competition. Finally, from 1874 to 1882, steam mills were constructed in the DR, causing production to increase substantially, as can be seen in Figure 1.

 

Figure 1: Source: Plant 14

 

Despite this boom in production, several negative consequences accompanied the expansion of the sugar industry (Plant 14). The monopolization of land and labour for sugar production lead to the inflation of food prices as well as food shortages in the DR. In addition, in the early 1880s, a crash in world sugar prices caused production to plummet, and the only surviving producers owned very large ingenios, leading to the concentration of land and capital in the hands of a few large owners (Plant 14). Then in 1905, the US and the DR signed a law prohibiting the DR from changing tariffs or port and customs duties without the approval of the US president until their large debt to US creditors was paid off (Plant 15-6).

 

In 1916, the United States invaded the DR and occupied it until 1924 (Plant xii). Not surprisingly, this conquest turned had very favourable outcomes for US sugar exporters and producers on the island. By 1925, 11 out of the 21 ingenios in the DR belonged to huge foreign companies, and 98% of Dominican sugar was sold on the US market (Plant 14). By this time almost all fertile land in the DR belonged to American companies (Plant 14).

 

A drastic and important turnaround in land monopoly occurred in 1952, when the Dominican Republic’s dictator, Trujillo, decided to take possession of almost all arable land in the country (Ferguson 56). This single-person monopoly ended only upon Trujillo’s assassination in 1961; after this, power over the sugar industries was transferred to the state (Ferguson 52). 1974 to 1978 were considered the “miracle years” in Dominican sugar processing, owing to the fact that a pound of sugar sold for a highly favourable price, reaching a high of US$0.76/lb (Ferguson 59).

 

In the 1980s, the Dominican sugar industry once more began to suffer setbacks. In 1982, the quota system established by the US restricted the DR’s sales to the US to less than half their 1975-level sales. On top of this, oil prices severely impaired the sugar industry, and a slump in sugar prices aggravated the situation. In 1986, the quota was softened, but not by much; in 1987, the president of the Dominican Republic, Belaguer, began to seek new sugar markets. These included Russia, Algeria and Morocco. A decade of unfavourable conditions for sugar exports prompted the diversification of agriculture to include non-traditional exports such as fruits (Ferguson 59-60).

 

Migrant Workers in the Dominican Republic: Has Slavery Really Been Abolished?

 

Plantation work requires a large number of seasonal workers, therefore plantations seek people who are unemployed and can be recruited annually and then be let go (Martinez 33).

 

Two important factors prompted the sugar industry to scramble for cheap labour. First, between 1875 and 1930, sugar production in the DR increased significantly due to intense competition at the international level. Second, low international sugar prices contributed to the drive to reduce production costs (Martinez 33).

 

Late in the 19th century, workers started coming over from neighbouring islands, occasionally having their transport paid for by the sugar companies (Plant 16-7). This was not a new phenomenon; “The migratory labour system set up by the Dominican sugar planters in the last quarter of the 19th century was a new version of an old Caribbean theme” (Martinez 51). Then, from 1902-3, about 3000 workers were brought in from English-speaking islands; they became referred to as Cocolos (Plant 17). In 1915 the recruitment of Haitian workers for Dominican plantations began (Martinez). Despite the irreplaceable contributions that Haitian workers made to the DR sugar industry, the country regarded these migrant workers negatively, primarily because of their skin colour. In October 1937, Trujillo ordered the massacre of all Haitians in the DR; between 10 000 and 20 000 people were brutally killed (Plant 23-4). Despite this racist attempt to purge the country of Haitians, Trujillo realized that the sugar industry would collapse without Haitian manpower, and in 1954 he signed “the first of the contracts authorizing the Dominican government to buy Haitians from the neighbouring country” (Plant 25). It was called the Acuerdo, and it guaranteed payment to the Haitian government and supposedly rights for the Haitian workers (Plant 25). However, the workers were flagrantly denied their rights and were transported and worked in inhumane conditions (Plant 74).

 

The abuse of Haitian workers’ rights reached a fever pitch in the 1980s. Because conditions were so poor on state-owned plantations, the state sugar industry was experiencing an excess demand for workers. As a result, in 1980 and 1981, the Dominican state sponsored the forcible relocation of Haitians already living and working in the western part of the DR, near the Haitian border. They were brought to work on distant eastern state-owned sugar cane fields. Following domestic and international media outcry, a complaint was filed by the ILO’s International Labour Conference in Geneva in June of 1981, which set up an official enquiry into the situation. Nonetheless, relocation of Haitians is reported to have happened again in the 1985-6 season and is suspected to have happened in other years as well (Plant 74).

 

Until 1986, bilateral agreements similar to the type set up by Trujillo existed between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, assuring the “shipping” of thousands of workers to harvest sugar cane in the DR each year. The workers were transported under inhumane conditions and essentially held captive (Ferguson 58). In 1986, Haitian ruler Jean-Claude Duvalier was ousted, and political unrest blocked the usual migration of Haitian braceros (workers) into the DR (Plant xiv). In 1991, the US threatened to deny the DR privileged access to its market because of its treatment of Haitian workers, leading to the deportation of illegal Haitians from the DR (Ferguson 57). Nonetheless, reports indicate that the tradition continues even today. “Haitian immigrants, seasonal and permanent, occupy the lowest-paid, most physically punishing, and least-secure jobs as agricultural piece workers and day labourers” (Martinez 71). Indeed, it is widely accepted that Haitian labourers live in abominable conditions in the Dominican Republic.

 

Roger Plant, the author of Sugar and Modern Slavery, conducted an investigation at the behest of the Anti Slavery society in 1982 and reported on the living conditions in the bateyes (Plant 101-3). Here are some of his observations:

 

-         Twenty-four hours a day, an armed guard watches workers.

-         Despite free lodging, workers are housed in over-crowded rooms with no available drinking water, and lacking sanitation facilities. Very sparse health care is provided, despite the dangers inherent to the job.

-         Workers have to walk up to two hours every day to get to their assigned fields, where they work at least twelve hours per day. Additionally, regulations dictate that workers are entitled to Sundays off and an hour and a half rest at noon, but these are rarely granted.

-         Workers are paid by the ton of cane cut, but are often not given the correct amount; the cane may subsequently be sold at a higher cost, and the profit pocketed by the employee responsible for weighing the cane and handing out the pay vouchers.

-         Workers are generally paid in vouchers, receiving cash infrequently, therefore being forced to resort to borrowing at high interest rates from moneylenders just to survive. Food is not provided, and is sold by the plantation owner at marked-up prices. Food prices also have the possibility of increasing while wages necessarily remain constant Due to this, most workers are not able to save very much, if anything at all.

 

It is clear that the living and working conditions of the mostly-Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic are close to that of slavery. Sugar therefore remains but one of the many industries driven by developing-world production which is tainted by human rights abuses.

 

Below are some images showing the barrack-like living structures on the plantations, as well as some young residents.

 

Caitlin Myles

 

Caitlin Myles

 

Caitlin Myles

 

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