PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The Dominican sugar industry is striking back
at two documentaries that depict Haitian cane-cutters working in
dangerous conditions for little pay in the Dominican Republic.
The two films — one narrated by actor Paul Newman, the other by Haitian novelist Edwidge Danticat — echo U.S. State Department and Amnesty International reports that criticize the general mistreatment of Haitians who migrate over their shared border to the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola.
The films have not been screened on the island, but Dominicans have lashed out at them nonetheless. When “The Price of Sugar,” narrated by Newman, was passed over for an Oscar nomination in January, Dominican newspapers widely quoted a sugar group celebrating that “justice has been done.” Industry insiders also were pleased when “Sugar Babies” was dropped from the program at the upcoming Miami International Film Festival.
Leading the effort to counter the movies’ impact are the Fanjul and Vicini families, who own the first and second-largest Dominican sugar companies, respectively. The Cuban American Fanjul family also owns vast sugar operations in Florida where Haitian workers on temporary U.S. visas harvest cane.
The Vicinis hired the Washington, D.C., lobbying and law firm of Patton Boggs to sue the makers of “The Price of Sugar” for defamation as part of their public relations campaign.
Dominican politicians are also getting involved. Foreign Minister Carlos Morales Troncoso, a former sugar magnate, called a Paris exhibition that displayed the two documentaries “a campaign of hate.”
“Their goal is to stop people in the world from seeing the movie, because it reveals conditions that viewers find deeply troubling,” said Bill Haney, who produced the Newman-narrated film, in a phone interview from Boston.
Patton Boggs attorney Benjamin Chew said the growers simply want to stop the spread of false allegations.
The Vicinis — heirs to a late Dominican president — say “The Price of Sugar” includes staged scenes, misrepresented photographs and footage of other companies’ workers.
“I tried really hard to tell the truth,” Haney countered. He said he met with the Vicinis for two days, offering to correct any major errors. He said they raised no major objections, and sent him a letter thanking him for being so open-minded.
Patton Boggs also wants to force “Sugar Babies” director Amy Serrano to turn over conversations with Haney, advocacy groups and workers. Serrano said last week that she was aware of an attempt to subpoena her, but had not been served.
She has faced difficulties airing her own film, which makes similar allegations of mistreatment at the Fanjuls’ companies in the Dominican Republic. On Jan. 25, the Miami festival told her it was removing the film from its program, without explanation. Festival organizers declined to comment to the AP.
The Rev. Christopher Hartley, a Catholic priest who worked with the cane-cutters for years and is featured in Haney’s film, told the AP in a phone interview from his new mission in Ethiopia that Haitian cane-cutters continue to live in “despotic misery” in the Dominican Republic.
But Chew said the criticism will only hurt the Haitian workers — a theme both sugar companies are focusing on.
A spokesman for the Fanjuls’ companies said they now provide free health care and schooling for the 35,000 workers and their families on company land. The Vicinis announced in 2006 they would build 500 homes with medical and other services, though construction appears to be in its early stages. And the Dominican Sugar Institute trade group posted photos online implying that life in the cane fields is better than in Haiti’s slums.
Thousands of Haitian cane-cutters live in state-run compounds known as “bateyes,” and while previous reporting trips to these places revealed poverty, overcrowding and numerous untreated field injuries, an Associated Press photographer visiting some Vicini bateyes last month found children had access to school and medical care.
“By urging Americans to ban Dominican sugar, the misguided filmmaker harms the very people whose cause he purports to advance,” Chew said about Haney’s film.
Gaston Cantens, spokesman for the Fanjuls’ Florida Crystals Corp., said Haitians would be harmed by “Sugar Babies” as well.
“The easy thing, perhaps, would be to go in there and kick everyone out and say, ‘We’re knocking this thing down, we’re going to mechanize,’” said Cantens. “That’s something that people like Amy Serrano don’t take into account.”
But Danticat — who recalls her family members returning sick and injured after years in the Dominican fields — said the companies should do much more.
“The only thing these children have to look forward to is death,” she said in a phone interview from Miami, where she lives. “That should make people angry. I don’t know why that doesn’t anger them more than the bad press they’re getting.”
Associated Press photographer Ramon Espinosa contributed to this report from San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic.