Exhibit Reveals a Bitter Harvest
By Michael Deibert
PARIS, Mar 13, 2007 (IPS) - A month-long programme in France this spring hopes to shine a spotlight on the working conditions of Haitians labouring in the sugarcane fields of the Dominican Republic, a state of affairs which human rights groups have charged in recent years is little better than slavery.
"Esclaves au Paradis: L'esclavage contemporain en République Dominicaine" (Slaves in Paradise: Contemporary Slavery in the Dominican Republic) will take place this May under the sponsorship of a host of local and international institutions, including Amnesty International, the office of Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe and the artistic group Collectif 2004 Images.
The event comes at a time when the Dominican Republic is under growing criticism for its treatment of the estimated one million Haitians living within its borders, as well as Dominican citizens of Haitian descent. In addition to criticisms of labour practices and working conditions, local and international human rights groups have charged that the Dominican government has sought to deprive such individuals of due process under Dominican and international law, and conducted sweeps and expulsions of suspected illegals with unnecessary brutality and means of questionable legality.
For its part, the Dominican government has said that its country cannot handle the waves of immigrants continually arriving within its borders from neighbouring Haiti, a country that has been beset by decades of often-bloody political unrest and economic stagnation.
In making its point, Esclaves au Paradis will include among its offerings an exhibit of photos taken in the bateys, as the camps where sugarcane workers are known, by the French-Peruvian photographer Céline Anaya Gautier, as well as screenings of films tackling the subject of the Dominican sugar industry and the workers toiling away in it.
A historical colloquium including such noted international and local commentators as Camille Chalmers (director of Haiti's Plateforme haitienne de Plaidoyer pour un Développement Alternatif or PAPDA), the Groupe d'Appui aux Rapatries et Refugies (GARR) director Colette Lespinasse, Amnesty International's Geneviève Sevrin and Dominican anthropologist Soraya Aracena will also be held.
"Wherever there are people being exploited, who have no rights, it is important to speak out when we have the opportunity," says Anne Lescot, the coordinator of the cinema portion of the agenda. "We're very aware that this question is subtle and complex and that only showing the pictures could lead to some misunderstanding, so we also wanted to explain what's behind the pictures, and that's why we organised this colloquium, as an occasion to truly understand the whole process of how, for 200 years now, Haiti and the Dominican Republic have been in a relationship of love and hate."
Haitian-Dominican relations have often been tense because of economic and cultural differences between the two countries, which share the island of Hispaniola. Although they are close in population, with 8.1 million Haitians and nine million Dominicans, Haiti is 95 percent black, and 80 percent of the population lives in poverty. The Dominican population is 89 percent white or mixed, with 25 percent impoverished.
In the fall of 1937, the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, motivated by factors that have never been fully explained, instigated a pogrom in which Dominican soldiers and police massacred 15,000 to 20,000 Haitians throughout the country.
At a recent press conference announcing the Esclaves au Paradis colloquium at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, one of the subjects of a film to be screened seemed to agree about the pressing need to inform the public about conditions in the bateys.
"When I arrived (in the Dominican Republic), I knew absolutely nothing about nationality or race problems, about the sugarcane fields or the sugar industry," says Father Christopher Hartley, a Catholic priest and the main protagonist of the film "The Price of Sugar".
Hartley, born of a Spanish mother and a British father, arrived in the Dominican Republic parish of San Jose de Los Lanos in September 1997 after spending a decade ministering to congregations in the South Bronx and Soho areas of New York City. The parish encompasses the Batey dos Hermanos sugar-growing territory controlled by the wealthy Vicini family.
"I was absolutely ignorant of everything I was going to confront, and I was not sent to try to help or solve or denounce these issues, but just to be a regular parish priest," Hartley says. "It was a gradual realisation of the living and working conditions of my parishioners, going about my regular pastoral duties, that made me aware."
Hartley was forced to leave the Dominican Republic under what he says was pressure from the Dominican government and the politically powerful Vicinis in late 2006. Another priest who had advocated on behalf of Haitian workers in the country, the Belgian Father Pedro Ruquoy, fled after death threats were leveled against him in November 2005.
Hartley and Ruquoy have not been alone in their critiques. Human rights groups say that the situation in the Dominican Republic has grown more dire since the May 2005 expulsion of an estimated 3,500 people at the border towns of Dajabon-Ounaminthe along the northern frontier, an episode which resulted in a formal protest to the Dominican government by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
In a May 2006 open letter to Dominian President Leonel Fernandez, Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan wrote that "since May 2005 Haitian and Dominicans of Haitian descent have been subjected to collective and arbitrary expulsions by the Dominican authorities in violation of the Dominican Republic's obligations under international standards including the American Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights."
Amnesty's statement was echoed in an October 2006 release by the British-based charity Christian Aid, which wrote of Dominican deportation practices that "numerous cases have been documented in which immigration officials have broken into homes and forced people at gunpoint onto buses giving them no chance to collect documents or inform relatives. When they reach the Haitian side of the border, many have been able to prove that they were in the Dominican Republic legally."
Previously, a September 2005 decision by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organisation of American States (OAS) found that, in denying Dominican citizenship to two girls, Dilcia Yean and Violeta Bosico Cofi, born within the territory of the Dominican Republic, the Dominican state had violated the right to nationality and the right to equality before the law, as well as articles 3, 5, 19, 20 and 24 of the American Convention on Human Right Pact of San Jose.
The Fernandez government has repeatedly denied that any policy of human rights abuses exists with regards to Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian-descent within the country.
Recently, the Dominican Republic's foreign minister, Carlos Morales Troncoso, bitterly lashed out at the U.S.-based Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Centre for Human Rights for recognising Dominican-Haitian activist Sonia Pierre for her work with Haitian migrants in the country, saying that those bestowing the prize were "divorced from the realities on the island of Hispaniola." Pierre, who grew up in a migrant worker camp much like those depicted in the exhibition, has fought on behalf of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian decent for three decades.
As if to underline the importance of the sugar industry in Dominican politics, Foreign Minister Morales Troncoso himself has a long-standing relationship as an executive and major shareholder of the Central Romana sugar concern, along with Cuban-American sugar barons Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul.
Three-quarters of the Dominican Republic's agricultural exports go to the United States, and the country has a U.S. sugar quota of 180,000 tonnes, the largest of any U.S. trading partner.
*Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press). His blog of journalism and opinion can be read at www.michaeldeibert.blogspot.com. (END/2007)
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