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J.D. Long GarcíaFebruary 27, 2024

This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

Sugarcane is a tall crop. In some regions, it can grow as high as 20 feet. Stalks of cane have long leaves with sharp edges that will cut your skin. I learned these facts last year, when I saw the harvest of sugarcane in the Dominican Republic while on a trip with Cross Catholic Outreach.

A group of men swung their machetes, chopping the stalks down one by one at the base. The men trimmed the cut stalks efficiently before flinging them onto a large trailer. Three oxen stood by waiting to haul the harvest to a train. It was midday and, judging by the pile of sugarcane, these workers had been at it for hours.

Eske ou pale èspayòl?” I asked a group of three, using one of the few phrases I’d memorized in Haitian creole. In the Dominican Republic, those who work in the field are nearly all migrants from Haiti. They typically live on the sugarcane plantations they harvest. These workers did not speak Spanish, but they seemed amused by the attention our group gave them.

Sugarcane cutters in the area grapple with low pay, poor living conditions and inadequate health care.

They took a break from their work and we walked over to them. The ground was soft, covered with severed stalks and debris. It was hot and humid—a typical day in the province of La Romana. Sugarcane, a perennial crop, needs a lot of sun to grow. The men wore caps, rubber boots, long sleeves and long pants to protect themselves from the elements.

“No one who was born in the Dominican Republic would do this work,” one said, through the interpreter. All three workers had come to the Dominican Republic from the same part of Haiti two years ago. Undocumented Haitian workers fear leaving the plantations because they risk deportation. Sugarcane cutters in the area grapple with low pay, poor living conditions and inadequate health care. Even the local grocery stores—often owned by sugar companies—set high prices because they know workers cannot shop around for better deals.

Even worse practices are not uncommon. For example, government agencies and civil rights advocates have accused Central Romana Corporation, a leading sugar producer in the Dominican Republic, of using forced labor. In 2022, the Biden administration blocked shipments of sugar from the company to the United States.

Sugar is not the only industry that exploits Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic, but it offers a unique lens through which to understand racism and xenophobia. During my trip, I got a chance to hear about the lived experience of many Haitian families, much of which resonates with the conversations about immigration in the United States.

One Island, Two Nations

Quisqueya is one of the names the native peoples gave centuries ago to the island now shared by the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. At least that’s what it sounded like to Christopher Columbus and his crew when they arrived half a millennium ago, as the word is a Western rendition of an Indigenous word. Columbus is said to have renamed the island Hispaniola, claiming it for Spain. Not long after, colonists introduced sugarcane.

The native inhabitants, typically referred to collectively as the Taíno, had been on the island for centuries before Columbus. In the decades after his arrival, disease introduced by the colonists claimed the lives of countless Taínos. Many also died fighting the Spanish colonists.

“The relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and the French and Spanish colonies before their independence, is complex and often contradictory,” according to José Guerrero, a professor at the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo. “It was a necessary economic relationship, but they also fought.”

At one point in its history, the French colony of Saint-Dominigue produced 40 percent of the world’s sugar. Meanwhile, the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo maintained livestock. Both the French and the Spaniards brought enslaved Africans to the island.

“It’s God who opens the hearts of men.”

The Haitian Revolution, which began in 1793 and led to Haiti’s independence in 1804, destroyed the sugar industry, Mr. Guerrero said. The Dominican Republic did not declare its independence until 1821, after Spain had lost interest in the colony. But shortly after its initial independence, the country was subsumed into Haiti. This complex moment in history is particularly contentious, as some Dominicans to this day refer to the 22-year span under the Haitian government as an “invasion.”

“That was not an invasion,” Mr. Guerrero told me, explaining how Dominican history has been distorted over time. “The Haitian government was accepted…. They were two poor countries that were colonized, enslaved.”

Jean-Pierre Boyer was the president of Haiti when the island was united under the Haitian flag. Born of a French father and an African mother, Boyer was educated in France and fought in the French Revolution. He brought many of those ideals to his leadership, and the island united under Haiti embraced them, Mr. Guerrero said.

“They ended slavery, they distributed land, they allowed civil marriage [outside the church] and gave rights to women,” Mr. Guerrero said of the founders of Haiti. He described the Dominican Republic’s declaration of independence from Haiti in 1844 as a relatively peaceful event, having to do mostly with economic interests. People with Haitian roots who had migrated eastward under Boyer stayed there and became Dominicans.

As the production of sugar on the island diminished, it began to flourish in Cuba and in the American South. “It was still bigger in Cuba because they still had slavery,” Mr. Guerrero said. Slavery was not abolished in Cuba until 1886.

José Luis (far right) has been cutting sugarcane for decades. He wears metal shin guards to protect himself during the harvest. There is no workers’ compensation program for Haitian workers in the field. (J.D. Long García)

In 1861, the American Civil War limited production of sugar in the South, while the Ten Years’ War in Cuba, which began in 1868, led planters there to flee to the Dominican Republic. In 1879, Cuban entrepreneurs established the first steam-powered sugar mill in the Dominican Republic. The sugar industry began to thrive, but it always had some connection with Cuba, Mr. Guerrero said. For example, after the war and then the abolition of slavery in Cuba, Haitian workers traveled to that island to harvest sugarcane. But then, once Cuban owners began favoring local workers in the 20th century, Haitian workers returned to their home country.

In a sense, the Dominican Republic was a late arrival to the production of sugar in the Caribbean. After a couple of decades of relying on local labor, sugar plantation owners in the Dominican Republic grew tired of harvesters who organized for higher wages. The industry began turning to immigrants from other islands in the Caribbean to fill their labor needs. After the immigrants from other islands also began organizing, the sugar companies turned to immigrants from Haiti.

That trend continued and expanded after the United States began occupying Haiti in 1914 and the Dominican Republic in 1915. It established a program that sent Haitian workers to sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic that were owned by North American interests.


Our group visited a number of small communities in the Dominican Republic built by sugarcane companies for workers and their families. One of these communities, known as bateyes, consisted of rows of cinder-block dwellings that reminded me of single-story army barracks. Cross Catholic Outreach funds a medical clinic there and helps provide eyeglasses to those who need them. Outside the clinic, schoolchildren kicked a soccer ball around during recess. Similar communities in the country now have running water and electricity, but certainly not all of them.

I met a woman who gave her name simply as Gesenia. She was born in the Dominican Republic, so she grew up speaking Spanish. Six of her children—four boys and two girls—attend the school. She said her husband wasn’t working because cutting sugarcane doesn’t pay enough, but she recently lost her own job. Her parents came from Haiti to the Dominican Republic years ago to cut sugar cane.

Increasing mechanization could also result in increased unemployment.

A spokesperson from one of the three major sugar companies I interviewed estimated that 70 percent of its sugar is now harvested with machines. He expects that share to grow, but for now various topographical factors require the rest to be cut by hand, he said. Increasing mechanization could also result in increased unemployment.

“Everything is expensive,” she told me. “I have faith that the Lord will help us. It’s God who opens the hearts of men.”

But many Dominicans, she said, don’t have their hearts open to Haitians. Her sentiments have deep historical roots.

By 1930, when Raphael Trujillo came into power in the Dominican Republic, Haitian immigrants made up the majority of sugar cutters. In 1937, Trijillo ordered the Dominican National Guard to execute as many as 25,000 Haitians living in the country, though the exact number is difficult to estimate. Trujillo’s soldiers would hold up a piece of parsley and ask a person suspected of being Haitian to name it. Perejil, the Spanish word for parsley, was difficult for non-native speakers to pronounce. If those being questioned could not pronounce the word correctly, they were killed.

The state-controlled press at the time claimed it was rural Dominicans who, in an uprising, killed Haitians who were stealing cattle in the border region. After Trujillo’s assassination in 1961, researchers discovered that Trujillo had ordered the massacre. During Trujillo’s reign, Dominican historians wrote inaccurate accounts painting the Haitians in a negative light, according to Mr. Guerrero. That included blaming Haitians not only for a poor economy during the Depression, but also as a threat to a Dominican identity that Trujillo defined as white. As historians have noted, the 1937 massacre targeted Haitians living near the border, not on sugar plantations.

The government-controlled Dominican press named Trujillo the defender of Dominican national identity. Haitians, according to Trujillo’s narrative, threatened that identity.

Trujillo institutionalized anti-Haitian sentiments. One clear example, according to an essay by Loria García Peña in The New York Times in October 2023, was La Sentencia (“The Sentence”), by which the Dominican Constitutional Court retroactively stripped Dominican nationality from anyone born after 1929 who did not have at least one parent of Dominican ancestry. The 2013 ruling affected as many as 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian ancestry.

“There’s racism here, a xenophobia,” Jhak Valcourt, a Haitian author and artist who lives in the Dominican Republic, told me. “It could be called a hatred from the Dominican government toward the Haitian people.”

According to Mr. Valcourt, political candidates in the Dominican Republic continue to rely on the narrative Trujillo instituted. He claimed that deportations go up in election years and that the Dominican government has begun construction of a border wall.

"That’s strategic. It gets votes.”

“The president knows full well that the nationalists like that,” he said. “They see him as the president who is saving the Dominican Republic from the Haitian people. That’s strategic. It gets votes.”

In some families in the Dominican Republic, parents and caregivers tell children that if they misbehave, they’ll be taken away by el Kuko, which is a sort of boogeyman. The custom is over 100 years old, and some depict el Kuko as Haitian.

“When you have a child that grows up with the mentality that if they do something wrong then a Haitian is going to take him away, the child grows up with a hatred of the Haitian person,” Mr. Valcourt said. “How do you take that hatred away?”

Yet the ongoing political and economic crises in Haiti have led to a steady flow of migration out of the country, Mr. Valcourt said. Political pundits describe migration from Haiti as an invasion, he said, and Haitians are described as taking jobs away from Dominicans.

“Those [Haitians] who go to the Dominican Republic tend to be the working poor,” he said, “those who cannot afford a passport or a plane ticket elsewhere. Those people who don’t have any other options come here.”

Families Share the Burden

Our group made a short, unscheduled stop at another batey. I saw a man cleaning his harvesting tools in a bucket. When I approached, I learned he spoke Spanish. Cutting sugarcane is hard work, José Luis told me, but he’s been doing it for decades. I asked him about the metal shin guards he was wearing.

"Some of us are trapped in this situation."

“That’s in case I swing too hard,” he explained, making the gesture with his arm. He’s hurt himself more than once over the years, but there’s no workers’ comp. If he doesn’t work, he doesn’t get paid.

Three others approached, though not all of them spoke Spanish. One wore a Chicago Bulls jersey and another an Air Jordan knit cap. They were all from Jacmel, which is on the southern coast of Haiti.

“They pay too little,” José Luis told me. “Some of us are trapped in this situation.”

Another sugar harvesting community we visited boasts a vibrant youth group, which began after the batey was wired for electricity 10 years ago. Fundación Nueva Alegría, a Cross Catholic Outreach partner, supports families there. I met a number of young people there, including 7-year-old Joel, who said he wants to “change his life” and help his family. He wants to have his own house when he grows up. Antonio, 12, told me he wants to work in a hotel when he gets older. Tourism is a leading industry in the country.

Ismael, also 12, loves math. He told me he is one of five children. In my reporter’s notebook the translator jotted down a problem for him to solve: 48,456 + 75,417. Ismael carried the one and got it right. The community is hoping to get land to build a high school.

None of the children I spoke with wanted to cut sugarcane.

Daniel Tiot lives in a community for sugarcane workers but makes a living in masonry. He first came to the Dominican Republic 20 years ago and returns to Haiti sporadically to bring money to his family. (J.D. Long García)

Daniel Tiot, who is 36, doesn’t want to cut sugarcane either. “When I came here, I learned how to work,” he said. Mr. Tiot makes his living in masonry.

“It’s a business. That’s what’s happening here,” he said of the batey and the sugarcane fields. “Day and night, cutting sugar cane. It’s only God in heaven who is taking care of us. It’s only our heavenly Father who can change our situation, because everything here is backwards.”

Dominican sugarcane plantations produce, on average, more than 600,000 metric tons of sugar annually. A number of factors—including the increased use of high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener in the United States—have led to decreasing sugar production in the Dominican Republic, once a global leader in sugar production, since the 1980s.

Mr. Tiot came to the Dominican Republic from Haiti when he was 16. He returns home now and then to bring money to his family. It’s a challenge for him to do so, however, given his legal status. “I cannot go out into the street because I’m illegal, even though I have my documents,” he said, explaining that he has a passport but no visa. On the main highways from Haiti into the Dominican Republic, law enforcement sets up checkpoints to discourage illegal immigration.

“What are they going to do?” he said. “Deport all the Haitians?”

An older man wearing a sleeveless undershirt stood outside the community area. The shirt was loose on his muscular frame. His denim cap, with a large number 37 on it, was worn nearly white from use, and the cardboard from the brim stuck out.

I introduced myself and he shook my hand firmly. Wilhelm Pier is 80 years old and came to the Dominican Republic from the border town of Fonds-Verretes during the Duvalier regime in Haiti.

Wilhem Pier, now retired, worked in the sugarcane fields for decades after migrating from Haiti. He is retired and the proud grandfather of 22. (J.D. Long García)

“They drove me here,” he said, referring to a 1952 agreement between the Dominican and Haitian governments, during Trujillo’s time. In the 1950s, Trujillo acquired the major sugarcane plantations in the country and changed his tune on Haitian workers, bringing them in to work his fields.

Mr. Pier used to cut sugarcane, he said, but he is retired now. He and his wife live with his daughter, who works in the city nearby.

I told Mr. Pier that I was slowly learning Haitian krèyol, and tried a little out on him. He laughed and told me that if I lived at the batey, he would teach me.

“It’s easy,” he said in Spanish. “The word for plantain? Bannann. Sweet potato?

Patat dos. Rice? Diri. You see? It’s easy.”

He told me he had 22 grandchildren.

“Wow,” I said. “How many children do you have?”

“Two daughters,” he said. One has 10 kids, and the other has six. But he also has six great grandchildren, so he was counting those as part of the 22.

“If you have a lot of people, it makes the burden weigh less. Children are a great blessing, a way to move ahead,” Mr. Pier said. “God is good so we trust in him. But life is very hard right now. Before you could live with a little bit of money. But now everything is expensive. Before you can even stop to think about it, everything is gone.”

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