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HAITI-DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: Film on Plantations Spurs Backlash

Michael Deibert

NEW YORK, Jun 4 2007 (IPS) - When a man stood up at the Paris screening of director Amy Serrano’s “The Sugar Babies”, demanding to know how one of the film’s subjects, the Belgian priest Pedro Ruquoy, could afford such a large car on his priestly salary, Ruquoy was nonplussed.

Armed sugar cane field guard in the Dominican Republic. Credit: Walter Astrada

Armed sugar cane field guard in the Dominican Republic. Credit: Walter Astrada

Ruquoy, who had ministered to Haitian workers in the sugarcane fields of the Dominican Republic for 30 years before being driven from the country amidst death threats in 2005, replied that, for the first several years of his time in the country, he rode a mule, and from then on, a motorcycle.

The mysterious protestor was apparently attempting to criticise another film, “The Price of Sugar” by Bill Haney, which traces the similar struggles of the Anglo-Spanish priest Father Christopher Hartley. In the film, Hartley is seen driving a 4×4 over the roads of the eastern Dominican Republic.

Due to technical problems at the Esclaves au Paradis (Slaves in Paradise) conference in Paris, which sought to explore what organisers say are the appalling conditions of Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic, the screening times of the two films had been reversed under short notice.

“It was strange that the questions were totally unrelated to film we had just screened,” says Anne Lescot, the coordinator of the colloquium and its film programmer. “They had obviously been prepared for the other film.”

However disjointed, the mysterious man’s interjections appeared of a piece with similar interruptions and protests that have greeted events attempting to discuss the ever-more contentious issue of the treatment of the estimated 650,000 to one million undocumented Haitians living in the Dominican Republic, fleeing the political violence and economic stagnation of their often-tumultuous homeland.

Though these immigrants have traditionally laboured in the sugarcane fields, known as bateys, controlled by individuals such as the Cuban-American sugar barons Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul, and the wealthy Dominican Vicini family (owners of the Grupo Vicini collection of companies and of the Diario Libre newspaper), recently Haitians have also taken jobs in such urban endeavors as construction, auto repair and working in the country’s booming resorts.

In a recent cease-and-desist order sent to the makers of “The Price of Sugar”, the Washington law firm Patton Boggs (which had previously represented the government of ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide), acting on behalf of the Grupo Vicini – subjects of scathing criticism in the film – outlined what it claimed were 45 defamatory statements against the corporation in the movie. The objections ranged from the Grupo Vicini’s contention that its workers were not under armed guard, to allegations that some of those depicted in the film as living in sub-standard conditions on the bateys were not in fact batey employees.

“I don’t know why these people are going after not only the sugar operations of the Vicini family but sugar operations in the Dominican Republic in general,” Read McCaffrey, the lead counsel at Paton Boggs representing the company, told IPS. “I’ve gone through the bateys and seen conditions that are significantly better than those in this documentary. It is unfortunate that the film is being shown as something accurate when it is propaganda.”

In response to some of the charges, Father Christopher Hartley, the priest portrayed in the film, produced to IPS over a dozen still photographs from 2003-2004 of armed men that he says were taken in and around Vicini-controlled sugar operations. In many of the photos, the men carrying pump-action shotguns are wearing baseball caps bearing the logo of the Ingenio Cristóbal Colón, a Grupo Vicini-controlled sugar complex on the outskirts of the Dominican city of San Pedro de Macorís.

“I believe that it is unworthy of the human person to exist in the living and working conditions that were present within the boundaries of my parish,” Hartley, who has been the object of great vilification in some quarters of the Dominican media, told IPS from his home in Spain, where he has lived since being forced out of his community deep in sugar territory on 2006. “It is an intrinsic aspect of my pastoral mission to do the utmost to help these people defend their dignity, and their human rights.”

Supporting Hartley’s position, a prize-winning reporter for a major South Florida daily newspaper, present during the filming of scenes in “The Price of Sugar” and speaking on the condition of anonymity, has confirmed the general conditions it depicts of life in the bateys as accurate. Though the reporter feels that certain elements of the film might have been exaggerated for dramatic effect, the reporter said that the abysmal living and working conditions of Haitians working in Grupo Vicini-controlled bateys are largely true.

“Everything (Hartley) said about those conditions, he didn’t need to say it,” the reporter told IPS. “When you walked around in the bateys, you could see that people were living in bad conditions, were defeated, it was a miserable life. You didn’t need words to explain it, it was there.”

“The Price of Sugar” is not the only target of controversy.

To help shape its public image, the Grupo Vicini has also retained the services of Newlink, a Miami-based public relations and consulting firm founded and run by former television journalist Sergio Roitberg. In addition to the Grupo Vicini, Newlink’s clients include the Policia National of the Dominican Republic and the Partido de la Liberación Dominicana, (PLD), the political party of Dominican president Leonel Fernández .

At the Paris symposium, several witnesses charge that Roitberg, in addition to vociferously interrupting a question-and-answer session following an address by Father Hartley, used strong language to threaten a French-Peruvian photographer, Céline Anaya Gautier, who spent two years documenting the lives of Haitians in the bateys and whose photographs form a large part of the exhibition.

“We know who you are, we know where you live,” Roitberg is alleged to have said to Gautier, an account that she confirms. “Be very careful.”

Newlink and Roitberg did not respond to IPS requests for comment.

The road for those agitating on behalf of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent has never been an easy one.

Sonia Pierre, a Dominican of Haitian descent who leads the Movimiento De Mujeres Dominico Haitiana (MUDHA), was part of a legal team that, in September 2005, successfully argued before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that the Dominican Republic was in violation of five articles of the American Convention on Human Rights Pact of San Jose, Costa Rica in denying citizenship to two young girls, Dilcia Yean and Violeta Bosico, born in the Dominican Republic.

That decision reinforced that, in its denial of citizenship to persons born within its borders, the Dominican Republic was in violation of Article 11 of its own constitution, which guarantees Dominican citizenship to the all those born within its territory save for those “in transit” and the children of foreign diplomats.

For her efforts, Pierre, a 2006 recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, has been the subject of attempts by members of the Dominican congress to revoke her citizenship, despite the fact that she was born and raised in the country.

Dominican Foreign Minister Carlos Morales Troncoso, one of the bitterest critics of the newly-assertive Haitian presence in the Dominican Republic and of Pierre in particular, has a long-standing relationship as an executive and major shareholder of the Central Romana sugar concern, along with the aforementioned Fanjuls.

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