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 Sugar Cane’s Bitter Harvest in the Dominican Republic

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Localisation : Washington, DC
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Date d'inscription : 21/08/2006

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MessageSujet: Sugar Cane’s Bitter Harvest in the Dominican Republic   Dim 30 Sep 2007 - 21:26

Sugar Cane’s Bitter Harvest in the Dominican Republic
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Published: September 28, 2007
“The Price of Sugar,” Bill Haney’s muckraking documentary about Haitians lured into a form of indentured servitude on sugar plantations across the border in the Dominican Republic, focuses on the Rev. Christopher Hartley, a courageous and stubborn Spanish priest who devoted 10 years to bettering their desperate plight.

The movie visits the workers’ shantytowns, known as bateyes, which, according to the film, resembled forced labor camps patrolled by armed guards before Father Hartley’s reform movement. Through his organizing and relentless pressuring of the plantation owners in the face of death threats, some bateyes in his parish now have improved living and working conditions and have been visited by American doctors.

A robust, charismatic organizer, Father Hartley is a disciple of Mother Teresa. Born in 1959 to an aristrocratic Spanish-British family, he dropped out of an elite private school at 15, joined a seminary and for much of 20 years, beginning in 1977, worked with her in poor communities around the world. His sojourn in the Dominican Republic began in 1997 when he volunteered as a missionary in the diocese of San Pedro de Macoris, a 600-square-mile parish based in the town of San José de los Llanos. The conditions he found on the plantations, he says, were tantamount to slavery.

Each year, as the sugar harvest approaches, as many as 20,000 Haitian workers are recruited with the promise of steady work at higher pay than they can earn in Haiti, the poorer of the two countries. With the complicity of military and immigration authorities, the movie says, these destitute immigrants are loaded onto trucks, stripped of their identification papers and transported in the middle of the night to the bateyes, where many are housed in concentration-camp-like barracks. Estimates of the population of undocumented Haitians living in the camps range from 650,000 to one million.

Once harvesting begins, the film explains, they work 14 hours a day, seven days a week, earning less than $1 a day with minimal-to-nonexistent health care. Instead of cash, they are paid in vouchers that can be redeemed for overpriced food at company-owned stores. Since they can afford only one meal a day, most of the calories they consume come from chewing sugar cane. Since children born in the bateyee are not recognized as Dominican citizens, they grow up stateless.

Many of the plantations shown are owned by the Vicini family, a dynasty of sugar barons who refused to be interviewed for the film and sent the filmmakers a cease-and-desist letter in an attempt to block its release. The United States, which imports much of the Dominican sugar, is partly culpable, the movie says, because of political contributions from the barons that have helped maintain the price of imported Dominican sugar at close to double the world price.

“The Price of Sugar” is narrated in calm, gravelly tones by Paul Newman. Like most documentary polemics, it simplifies the issues it confronts and selects facts that bolster its black-and-white, heroes-and-villains view of raw economic power.

The film does show how Father Hartley’s efforts backfired in sad, unforeseen ways. Once the immigrant laborers were permitted to travel outside the bateyes, they flooded the town of San José de los Llanos, and simmering ethnic hatred of Haitians among Dominicans came to a boil, fanned by bribery and propaganda from the sugar barons.

Father Hartley was reassigned to Ethiopia in August. The future of the bateyes is unclear. He worries that once the pressure is off the Vicini Group (the country’s second-largest sugar producer), his reforms will be rescinded and the previous labor conditions will resume.

THE PRICE OF SUGAR

Opens today in Manhattan.

Directed by Bill Haney; written (in English and Spanish, with English subtitles) by Mr. Haney and Peter Rhodes; narrated by Paul Newman; directors of photography, Eric Cochran and Jerry Risius; edited by Mr. Rhodes; music by Claudio Ragazzi; produced by Eric Grunebaum and Mr. Haney; released by Mitropoulos Films. At the Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 90 minutes. This film is not rated.
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