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Living in the Sweetest Fields

by Archives January 6, 2009

Over the last few decades, the promise of a better life harvesting in the Dominican Republic has lured thousands of Haitians to cross the border and work in the fields for humble amounts of money.
In the early 90s, human rights groups began raising their eyebrows in defence of sugar cane field workers, called braceros, because of the long hours and small remuneration they received while working in the Dominican Republic. It has even been said braceros are modern day slaves with little to no rights.
The hiring of Haitian braceros started in the 30s according to Perard Joseph, the president of the Comité Québécois pour la Reconnaissance des Droits des Travailleurs Ha’tiens en République Dominicaine.
In the early 50s, formal agreements were reached between the two governments to allow for the transfer of workers and the organization of a recruiting process to fall into the hands of the Haitian state. The agreements ended in 1986 with the departure of Haitian president Jean-Claude Duvalier.
Though some workers crossed the border of their own will, Joseph said labour was sold by the Haitian goverment while the agreement was enforced.
Braceros are legally “in transit.” Like diplomats, their children born on Dominican soil cannot acquire Dominican citizenship.
“Some of these people have been there for more than four generations,” said Joseph. “They do not have Dominican citizenship and they do not have Haitian citizenship. In the end, they are stateless. They are like slaves and the field owners can do whatever they want with them.”
Jean-Francois Leblanc, a freelance photographer, has visited the Dominican Republic on three occasions since 1989. Although he’s also been to Haiti, he describes his first visits to the Republic as his first encounters with extreme poverty.
“I went to several plantations, it was all the same. It looked like work camps turned into permanent villages,” he said. “People would live in rotten cabins with unsanitary conditions. There were no medical clinics. They started work early in the morning and went until sunset.”
The Comité Québécois requested Leblanc’s help in creating what it calls an information tool – a 2009 calendar. The calendar presents some of Leblanc’s most evocative pictures, and includes books, links to websites and movies about Haitian braceros working in the Republic.
“It’s a NFB movie that first got me interested,” Leblanc said. “At the time, people from Quebec were starting to discover the Dominican Republic and to really consider it as a travel destination.”
Samuel Martinez, an expert in Latin and Carribean affairs, published several papers on the relationship between the two neighbours of Hispaniola island. Martinez voiced his concerned over organizations such as the Comité, who are quick to react and accuse the Dominican Republic of harbouring slavery while failing to mention the plight of Haitians at home who suffered from successive greedy and disfunctional governments.
Martinez warns the situation is much more complicated than it appears. He points out possible solutions not only include raising the standards of living in Haiti, but also working in tandem with grassroots development organizations to improve conditions, an idea he finds has been brushed aside too quickly by human rights investigators.
“We could tell Haitians not to go, but we have to offer something in return,” agreed Joseph. “They ask for a land to work on. Working on land is all they know. As long as there’s no solution to keep Haitians home, it’ll be easier for them to go to Florida, the Bahamas or the Dominican Republic.”
Strong sentiments of disdain still fuel the two countries’ relationship. The demonization of ethnic groups serves as a scapegoat to explain the poor economic performances for each country.
Political groups on both sides have abandoned the idea of finding a middle ground. While the Dominican government is hesitant to do anything that could reduce its economic competitiveness, the Haitian government refuses to negotiate the matter, claiming it’s only a point of frustration.
Joseph had initially hoped the Dominican Republic’s current president, Leonel Fernandez, would be able to bring about change thanks to his western education. Those hopes were dashed in light of Fernandez’ hard policies towards Haitians, a move designed to appease his coalition’s right wing, according to Martinez.
The Comité believes activist groups are essential to reviving the issue, as long as the Haitian foreign affairs ministry does not begin a dialogue leading to a resolution before the time is right.

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