The Plight of Haitian Workers in the Dominican Sugar Industry
Edwidge Danticat's The Farming of Bones - a novel which received excellent reviews after its 1998 publication - puts in human terms the horror endured by thousands of Haitians who, while working in the Dominican Republic, were killed in 1937 under the orders of the Dominican dictator, General Rafael Trujillo. In reading about the brutalities endured by these Haitian sugar workers, it is hard to picture a reader of Danticat's book not being emotionally touched. In fact, the 1937 slaughter is often cited as a clear example of the deeply rooted prejudice held by Dominicans towards Haitians. However, if one were to look at recent Dominican tourist advertisements one might optimistically conclude that sixty years had brought significant progress. Would one not expect that the barbarism portrayed by Danticat is buried in history by now?
Even today, Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic are inhumanely treated. As brutal dictators, corrupt governments and horrific social conditions have rocked their home nation, thousands of Haitians have sought alternatives to living in Haiti. Often, they have ended up in the Dominican Republic, with which Haiti shares the island Hispaniola, and where Haitian migrants form the backbone of the workforce that cuts the sugar cane during the zafra - the annual harvest. However, the dreams of a better life that lured these Haitians to the Dominican Republic rarely became reality, as instead they found that empty promises have led them to a nightmare - some of the poorest working and living conditions imaginable. In this situation they are accorded few human rights, and forced to live in a situation that has been concluded by many observers to be essentially a form of slavery.
A recurring theme in the history of Haitians working in the Dominican Republic is that antihaitianismo - a racist ideology held by many Dominicans that they are 'better' than Haitians - has been used as a tool to justify exploitation of Haitians. Antihaitianismo is vital to the sugar industry as a means of ensuring that profits are maximized regardless of the human costs. By looking at: first, the history of the sugar industry from the late nineteenth-century through to the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo and the conditions that developed during this time for its workers; second, the changes to the industry after the death of Trujillo and how they have affected the modern working and living conditions for the workers; and, finally, the ways in which modern Dominican governments and the sugar industry have continued to repress Haitians, one may see that the Dominican sugar industry has been characterized by its valuing of the economic 'bottom line' over its human consequences.
The History of the Dominican Sugar Industry
To begin, a discussion of the history of the industry is vital to understanding the issue that is discussed above. Prior to 1870, the Dominican Republic did not base its economy on sugar but rather on subsistence agriculture. Around 1870, though, when a series of wars affected world sugar production and when Dominican land and capital was available, the Dominican Republic suddenly entered the world sugar trade.
In the 1880's, when sugar prices began to fall, the soon-vital role played by the United States began to manifest itself. A deal was signed between the Dominican Republic and the U.S. that resulted in, as Cassa explains, " . . . eventual displacement of European economic, and later political, influence in the Dominican Republic, almost complete U.S. hegemony, a death blow to many nascent Dominican industries, and the emergence of the United States as the principal importer of Dominican sugar" (Cassa, quoted in Murphy, 15). Soon, American capitalists became the major actors in the Dominican sugar industry, and soon decisions made in Washington and on Wall Street began to dictate the quality of life and the very survival of the Dominican people.
At first, the labour force on the plantations was predominantly Dominican peasants who, because of the availability of alternatives, could expect fair wages. However, an 1884 slump in sugar prices resulted in a wage-freeze, and the resultant exit of workers from the industry left it with a critical labour shortage. Consequently, two trends emerged that have characterized the sugar industry since: first, immigrants replaced Dominican workers; second, the economic exploitation of the migrant labour force was essential for the success of the industry. The first immigrants were mainly Cocolos, (citizens of West Indies British colonies), preferred because they demanded less in working, housing and sanitary conditions than Dominicans. That the Cocolos were economically subservient to the industry was the key reason that the plantation owners wanted their labour, but other factors, such as the ability of the labourers to speak English and thus communicate with North American plantation mangers, and the fact that the labourers came from countries whose economies were based on plantation systems, made them an attractive labour option as well.
The destruction of the European beet-sugar industry by the First World War doubled world sugar prices, and because of its stake in the industry, the United States used military force to force the expansion of the Dominican sugar industry. The U.S. occupied the Dominican Republic from 1916-1924 under the pretext of securing the repayment of the Dominican debt to the United States. Writing in 1928, Melvin Knight was very critical of the American attitude. He wrote, ". . . the six-million dollar American cruiser Memphis was piled up on the reef at Santo Domingo City [the capital of the Dominican Republic] in a hurricane, with the loss of thirty lives and the ship. Her cost alone was more than the full amount at which the Dominican floating debt was finally bonded" (Knight, 78). The debt was not really an issue; the Americans had different reasons to invade the country than they gave.
Roger Plant explains:
The U.S. government was determined to consolidate its control over what had now become its mare nostrum [- its very important asset]. U.S. sugar companies evidently took full advantage in the next few years . . . [Elias Gambioso] described the strategy of the Barahona Sugar Company [in a pamphlet]: two U.S. citizens had been granted usafruct over a limited amount of land, but proceeded to fence off most of the Barahona province. The peasantry was enticed to the Barahona market to sell their produce, and arrived back home to find the same U.S. citizens denying them access to their own lands. Authorities were bribed and there was no lack of violence. The account may be exaggerated but probably is not. How else did the Barahona Sugar Company manage to accumulate over [4.7 million hectares] in a few brief years (Plant, 16)?
In the beginning of the twentieth-century, the deterioration of Haitian agricultural land and the availability of Dominican land had lured Haitians across the border. The Americans, who also occupied Haiti at the time, saw that Haitians would be a better labour source than Cocolos in Dominican sugar plantations, as at the time, "The use of Haitian laborers was not only easier - they were close at hand and already under United States control - but also gave the Americans a way to diffuse some of the tensions in the Haitian countryside which fed the campesino guerrilla efforts against the North American occupation" (NCHR, "Beyond the Bateyes"). With the rebirth of the plantation system in Haiti, (which had not existed since Haiti won its independence from France in the Haitian Revolution,) many Haitian peasants were forced to the Dominican sugar plantations for employment.
Workers in the plantations of the 1920's did not face an easy life. They found themselves living in cheap company houses that lacked electricity, running water, or plumbing. Conditions were unsanitary, and medical services were generally lacking. The workers suffered from serious health problems, and basic necessities, such as food and clothing, were extremely expensive. According to Bruce Calder, "A 1926 report by a U.S. consul in Santo Domingo provides rare documentation concerning the sugar workers. Their living conditions, the consul wrote, "were primitive in the extreme," (Calder, 95).
The American occupation of the Dominican Republic ended in 1924, largely under demands dictated by the U.S. State Department. The influence of the Americans resulted in major changes, such as a huge growth in the size and importance of the Dominican sugar industry and a return to plantation agriculture in Haiti - changes that continue to affect these nations today.
Rafael Trujillo, who came forcibly to power in 1930 by taking advantage of political divisions among the elite of the nation, also caused permanent changes to the Dominican Republic. He was a very different kind of leader in that although he reduced foreign influence in the Dominican Republic, he was not a nationalist. His concerns were for himself, and as leader of the nation he took whatever measures he deemed necessary to address his own interests.
As Trujillo came to power, the world was experiencing the Great Depression. The consequent depression in sugar prices led plantation owners to seek cheaper labour, and thus more and more Haitians were brought in to work on the plantations. The pinnacle in the size of the migrant force was reached in 1935, according to the NCHR, when the number of migrants was census-reported, (and probably under-estimated,) as 50,000 Haitians. The influx of Haitians during this period resulted in Haitians replacing Cocolos as the primary labour source on the plantations.
The biggest obstacle to the import of Haitian labourers was Trujillo, whose racist ideology of "whitening" the Dominican Republic, and concerns about the "Haitian invasion" led to conflict with the sugar growers. Murphy reports that, "Precisely at the moment [of falling sugar prices] when the sugar producers saw the need to maintain low labour costs, Trujillo was insisting on the reintegration of native labour - a labour force that the growers viewed as less reliable and more costly" (Murphy, 46). The Americans, who until 1934 occupied Haiti, subdued Trujillo at first. However, Trujillo's concerns about the number of Haitians working on the plantations and about the number of Haitians farming on the Dominican side of the border frontier continued to remain as an issue between himself and the Haitian government. In October 1937, Trujillo finally ordered a brutal rampage in which every Haitian found outside the sugar plantations was killed - the rampage described by novelist Edwidge Danticat. Estimates of the number of victims have ranged from 5,000 to 25,000 - the exact figure is unknown. However, that this brutal event was significant in the story of the Dominican sugar industry is undeniable.
Trujillo's attitude to the Haitians over the next few years was hardly cordial. The NCHR explains, "Angered by the Haitian denunciations of the killings and the unfavourable international publicity, he launched a vicious racist propaganda campaign against both Haitian political leaders and the Haitian people in order to justify his actions to the Dominican public" (NCHR, "Beyond the Bateyes"). By the 1950's, though, as he took a personal interest in the sugar industry, Trujillo's attitude changed. Using his political clout, Trujillo had chased foreigners away and proceeded to take over the plantations. Eventually, by 1956, Trujillo would own 12 of the 16 sugar ingenios and while taking control of these plantations he discovered for himself why Haitians were so valuable. Relations with Port-au-Prince improved, and in 1952 Trujillo signed the first bilateral contract with Haiti, which saw the import of 16,500 labourers.
Despite the 1937 slaughter of Haitian's, the Americans encouraged the persistence of Trujillo's dictatorship because despite his shortcomings, Trujillo was not viewed by the Americans as a communist. However, in the late 1950's the Dominican Republic was ousted from the Organization of American States (OAS), after the Venezuelan president, following an assassination-attempt that had been sponsored by Trujillo, raised concerns about the poor human rights situation in the Dominican Republic. OAS expulsion prevented the Dominican Republic from benefiting from the change in American sugar quotas caused by its new economic embargo on Cuba, and the Americans began to wonder if a change in leadership would better benefit the Dominican people. Sponsored by the American Central Intelligence Agency, Trujillo was assassinated in May 1961, ushering in a new period of chaos and change in the Dominican Republic.
Conditions for Modern Canecutters in the Dominican Sugar Industry
To continue, then, the last forty years have been tumultuous in the Dominican Republic, and a time of great change in the sugar industry. Trujillo's death was seen by many as a cause for celebration. His tyranny had led to serious breaches of the civil rights not only of Haitian sugarcane workers but also of many Dominicans, and with his ousting the hopes brought by free elections made the future look bright for Dominicans. Since then, despite some trials, the situation for Dominicans has been better than it was in the Trujillo era. On the plantations, though, the plight of Haitian workers has not improved. As the industry has continued to value the importance of maximising profits, economic exploitation of Haitians has persisted.
With Trujillo gone, a problem that had to be resolved was what to do about his plantations. In the 1960's, the CEA (State Sugar Council) was formed by the Dominican government, charged with administering these plantations. The sugar industry became a predominantly public enterprise, which is ironic considering that foreigners had primarily controlled the industry in the past. In general, the C.E.A. has been quite inefficient over the years; Uwe Bott explains that, "Some of this inefficiency is caused by conflicting mandates. On the one hand, the C.E.A. is profit oriented; on the other, it is expected to keep prices low for domestic consumers" (Bott, "Dominican Sugar: How Sweet is it?"). Keeping the industry working cheaply is an important priority of the Dominican government.
Joaquin Balaguer has had a great influence over these past decades in Dominican politics, serving as president from 1961-1962, 1966-1978 and 1986-1996 - a significant number of years. His tenure had never been a cause for celebration by the Haitian workforce - he has published writings that showed what he thinks of Haitians. Balaguer considers the population growth of Haitians a cause for alarm, and attributes it to the "primitive nature of Negroes". He blames Haitians for being a pollutant of Dominican racial purity. He views Haitian voodoo as a threat to Christianity, and he views the Haitian as a threat to Dominican morality. He considers Negroes, and hence Haitians, as "undeniably lazy". Alarmingly, "Balaguer has stoked anti-Haitian sentiment for electoral purposes in Dominican presidential elections, particularly to discredit Jose Francisco Pena Gomez, a Dominican of Haitian descent who has been leader of the opposition to Balaguer since the early 1980s" ("Beyond the Bateyes"), NCHR explains. Cle arly, Balaguer's views, although, " . . . so ludicrous that one's first reaction is to ignore them as those of a crackpot" (Murphy, 135), must not be ignored because of the role that he has played in Dominican politics.
After being elected president in 1966, one of Balaguer's first actions was to renew the bilateral contracts with Haiti for the formal importation of sugar workers. These contracts, started in 1952 by Trujillo, had been cancelled by Juan Bosch in 1963, leading to major problems for the sugar industry as it ran out of workers. After a military coup, a civil war, and an American invasion, new elections brought a change in government and a change in policy. The contracts were renewed until 1986, (with the exception of the 1977-78 harvest,) when Jean-Claude Duvalier was chased out of Haiti, ending the 29-year Duvalier-family dictatorial regime. At the time, Haitians were quite opposed to signing any new contracts, angry about how the Duvalier's had personally benefited from them.
By 1991, things had apparently changed. Amy Wilentz wrote that, "When Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, the new Haitian President, announced that one of her first priorities would be to enter into a new braceros [cane worker] contract with the Dominican Republic, her words were greeted with a long and relieved round of applause. Haitian lawyers and human rights advocates believe that this will be a first small step toward ending the brutal situation on the bateyes [the cane worker communities]" (Wilentz, "A Bitter Harvest for Haitians").
In truth, it has not mattered whether there has been a contract or no contract - the situation has still been just as bad for the Haitians. Without contracts, a shortage of labour means that the industry must gets its workers by clandestine means. How the labour is secured is absolutely horrifying:
Fifteen to twenty dollars a head is the maximum price the C.E.A. now pays its recruiters for each Haitian worker brought into the country for the zafra. Often recruiters sell Haitians for $7 to $10. Recruiters - known as buscones, or searchers - many of them of Haitian extraction, go into Haiti in the months before the harvest begins and round up as many Haitians as they can, sometimes by force, sometimes under false pretences and sometimes just by telling them there is work in the Dominican Republic (there is none in Haiti). The buscones bring the Haitians across the border, where they are held for transport to the plantations. At the border . . . either a Dominican army officer or a C.E.A. official pays the recruiter for his braceros, or cane cutters. The recruiter then returns to Haiti to find more. In the trade, Haitians are called the cargo, the delivery, the material. This is a traffic in human beings (Wilentz, "A Bitter Harvest for Haitians").
Importation of Haitians under bilateral contracts offers the hope that enforceable agreements may be prepared that require the sugar industry to uphold the rights of the Haitian workers. In the past, although such agreements have been written, the contents of these agreements have been kept secret, meaning that the workers had no way of knowing what their rights actually were. Thus, in practice the agreements were meaningless, and the workers were treated very poorly. As an illustration, Martin Murphy, who observed the repatriation process during the early 1980's, writes:
The only way to describe the repatriation process at the end of the harvest . . . is chaotic and violent. In one case I observed as many as three thousand braceros gathered outside Batey Las Pajas, Ingenio Consuelo, awaiting transportation to the border. Hundreds of workers spent more than one week waiting for their exit documents and the buses, with no shelter or latrines and no water source within two kilometers . . . When a worker received his documents and boarded the bus - often after paying a bribe (usually US$10) to one of the officials - he faced a ride of as long as eleven hours to the border. He was loaded into a bus, which legally can carry only forty-eight passengers, with his personal belongings and eighty-nine other workers and their effects. No provisions were made for water, food, or restroom stops during the ride to the border (Murphy, 85).
When arriving on the plantations, Haitian workers find conditions in the bateyes - the cane communities - that are so deplorable they are almost unbelievable. A basic summary of some batey conditions, made by the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, is as follows:
Latrines are usually not available. Potable water is rare. Electricity, a luxury. Dirt roads become muddy lakes when it rains and entire bateyes are often cut off from the outside world - and food and water - for days at a time. Where sanitary services are available, they generally have been built by non-governmental organizations, not the government . . . Inside the bateyes, health care is almost non-existent. In some bateyes non-governmental organizations have set up rustic medical clinics, but a physician is usually available only one day per week . . . Access to education is also hard. Where state primary schools exist, Dominican-Haitian children with proper documentation attend. Children of Haitian parents who have not been registered as Dominican citizens are denied access . . . (National Coalition for Haitian Rights, "Beyond the Bateyes").
These conditions are horrible, but their horror is multiplied by looking at the history behind them. Such conditions are, in fact, quite similar to those previously reported by Bruce Calder as the conditions in 1926. In fact, the plantation conditions have hardly changed at all during the past decades.
The same can be said about the job that the workers have. Cutting sugar cane is hard work: the workers are forced to stretch and bend for about twelve hours per day in the tropical sun, cutting the cane into small pieces with a machete. Cutting sugar cane is very dangerous work too, as many workers have the misfortune of accidentally slashing their bodies with the machetes. The workers are not given protective clothing, and the consequences are significant. During 1963-77, Uwe Bott shows that 80 percent of Dominican labour accidents happened in the sugar sector, and 70 percent of these on the sugar fields.
Pay for workers is atrocious. Officially, according to the C.E.A., the current wages of a sugar cane worker are about RD$3000 per month, which is about CAN$10 per day. This figure is probably a very optimistic estimate. According to the NCHR, "A veteran cutter can cut a maximum of 1.5 tons per day, working 12 hours to earn 45 pesos [CAN$4.50]. Working a six-day week, the veteran can earn 1,080 pesos [CAN$108] per month" (NCHR, "Beyond the Bateyes"). However, this is not the workers take-home pay, for the worker must pay to have the cane picked up by a truck driver, and to have it weighed at the weighing station. The worker loses control over the timing of these events, and as the cane sits around it dries out and loses weight. In addition, the workers are often cheated at the weighing station. The NCHR discovered, "In the end, then, even a skilled cutter earns significantly less than 1,000 pesos per month. This amount is less than the minimum wage of 1,200 pesos, which each cutter is guaranteed . . . under Dominican labour law. It is also far less than the estimated 7,500 pesos needed to provide adequate food for a family of four for one month in the Dominican Republic" (NCHR, "Beyond the Bateyes"). Disease and malnutrition are consequently serious problems: "A report submitted to the United Nations in the 1970s stated that a large proportion of the then 250,000 Haitian immigrant workers in the Dominican Republic died from malnutrition and disease" (Bott, "Sugar in the Dominican Republic: How Sweet is It?").
The Repression of Haitian Sugar Workers
Finally, in order to maximise profits, it has always been very important to the sugar industry that the rights of workers are repressed. One such way is by instilling a threat of deportation into the Haitian worker population. In February 1997, the Dominican Republic carried out the "repatriations" of 20,000 Haitians, under the pretext of breaking down a network of Haitian beggars that had developed in the country. These actions were condemned by the Haitian government, "who claimed that the deportees had been treated like 'animals'"(Lewis, ed., 41490). Dominican President Leonel Fernandez counters in an interview that, "Every country resists the idea that its own people are being returned to it, and because of that, there was a reaction on the part of the Haitian parliament against it. But nobody can deny the Dominican government's right to return undocumented workers to their country" (Wucker , "An Exclusive Interview with Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez"). What Fernandez says is t rue, and this is why deportation has become a useful tool for the sugar industry. Murphy explains:
Haitian undocumented workers, even Dominicans of Haitian ancestry, are safe in Dominican territory as long as they "stay where they belong and when they 'should' be there" - on the sugar cane, coffee, and rice plantations. On their way to the plantations, when they represent temporary or seasonal excess labour in one particular sector, when they go to nearby population centres to make purchases or contract services, or if they attempt upward mobility by leaving the plantations and looking for employment in non-agricultural sectors, they are liable to be . . . shipped to other plantations or deported (Murphy, 91).
Deportations - such as the one in February 1997 - show that deportation is not a benign threat to Haitians. In fact, as Murphy shows, deportation is used as a tool to maintain control. The Dominican sugar industry needs the Haitians, for although the Dominican Republic suffers from high unemployment, Dominicans will not cut sugar cane, as "to take such a job is tantamount to admitting one is a Haitian, which for any Dominican however poor is an unacceptable social slur . . . [and because] canecutting is arduous, seasonal labour for low wages" (Bell 128).
One of the key advantages of Haitian workers is their inability to organize. In an anthropological study, Roger Plant found that the contract labourers tend to be a constantly changing migrant population, and as they are only in the Dominican Republic for a few months, only return for an average of three harvests, and are not tied economically or socially to a particular batey or plantation, they hardly have a chance to organise. Anba fil, (the undocumented workers,) show different characteristics than the contract labourers, in that they live permanently in the Dominican Republic, tend to work an average of fourteen harvests, and tend to stay in one place. However, the threat of deportation is even more important to these workers, and keeps these workers from organising.
Inevitably, some workers do organize, but their concerns are rarely met. This is a country, it might be added, where "Unions have always been weak . . . and have never represented more than 10 to 15% of the labour force" (Safa, "Where the Big Fish Eat the Little Fish"). For Haitians, who are subjected to antihaitianismo, the situation is even direr. In 1998, when visiting bateyes near Ingenio Consuelo, I was told the story of the experiences of some workers and their attempts to fight back. They had a water tank, and wanted potable water, rather than the rainfall that served as the only source of filling the tank. The C.E.A. was more than happy to bring water for the sugar cane, but was hardly willing to give it to the workers. The workers went on strike, but the CEA's response was simple: take away the tank. This ended the strike very quickly.
The inability to organize, and the ease with which Haitians can be exploited allows conditions that are subhuman for the Haitian workers. Murphy explains, "Total labour cost [of Haitians] to the sugar growers may be even lower than those of African and Creole slaves in the Caribbean of centuries past. The slave owner had a substantial investment in labour, so he had to ensure that his workers were adequately cared for in terms of basic necessities: food, clothing, housing, and medical services. Today's Dominican sugar producers are free of these concerns" (Murphy, 96). These conditions are integral to keeping the costs of production down, but without a source of cheap labour, the sugar industry would be immediately doomed to failure. That is why Haitians are so important for the Dominican sugar industry.
Martin Murphy explains that when discussing the role of Haitian's in Dominican society, "[This] group is socially and politically marginalized from the larger society; at the same time, the larger society is at least partly organized around the surplus value extracted from the exploitation of this group. A Dominican society cannot survive under its present organization without the exploitation of this marginal, but then again integrated group" (Murphy, 141). Dominican society is indeed dependent upon exploitation of Haitian's, for it is dependent upon the sugar industry, which Murphy notes directly reflects in the economic health of the country. This industry is the Dominican Republic's largest industry, its largest employer, and its largest generator of foreign capital. Since the inception of the industry around 1870, dramatic shifts in the price of sugar on world markets have forced the industry to take every step necessary to maximize profits, and, consequently, the industry has taken every ste p necessary to ensure that the costs of production are minimized.
The Dominican Republic and Haiti are two dramatically different nations, each with its own unique culture, sharing one island. Sadly, a very deeply-rooted prejudice towards Haitians has developed in Dominican society, and this prejudice has been used by many Dominicans to justify the exploitation of Haitians on sugar cane plantations. Murphy concludes that, ". . . the Dominican national identity has partially been defined, both traditionally and today, on the basis of anti-Haitian sentiment" (Murphy, 143). He notes that this antihaitianismo is neither a product of the sugar industry nor necessary for the exploitation of Haitian workers. However, that this antihaitianismo exists has certainly been of significant advantage to the sugar industry.
The human rights abuses endured by Haitian workers are not unexplainable, but are simply methods utilised to keep Haitian society marginalized. The debt crisis faced by the Dominican Republic has led to an ever-increasing dependence on the sugar industry - an industry that has remained troubled, and that has faced a shrinking market. Recently, in January 1999, it was announced that the mismanagement of the C.E.A. (state-owned plantations) has led consequently to the Dominican Republic foreseeing the import of huge amounts of sugar as a consequence of the corporation not being able to produce enough sugar this year.
The Dominican Republic is a case that clearly shows a lot of what is wrong in today's world. It is an example that shows why monocrop economies, which are encouraged by the International Monetary Fund, are not reasonable options, and it shows the huge problems caused by capitalist policy in the past and in the present. In recent years, as in years to come, technological improvements have reduced the costs of sugar on world markets. As the International Labour Organization (I.L.O.) foresaw in 1983, "The future prosperity of the Dominican sugar industry, and the pace at which the conditions of the workers employed in that industry can be improved, will to a large extent be determined by its ability to sell its product at adequate prices on world markets" (I.L.O., quoted on Plant, 139). As these conditions are not met, the reality that there is no pot of gold awaiting the Dominican Republic becomes increasingly apparent.
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