This documentary by Bill Haney was the one that shook me up the most at the Guelph Festival of Moving Media and so is what I would consider the best of those I had the privilege to watch this year. As you probably realize from reading my blog, if you read it at all, I do love to be knocked out of complacency every now and again. I’m not a masochist but I think our modern lives grow too comfortable for our own good. There’s still evil in the world and this film is a testimony to that fact as it attempts to show the true price of sugar.
The Dominican Republic has had an incredibly tumultuous and violent history especially where the western third of the island, its neighbour (Haiti) is concerned. The capital, Santo Domingo de Guzmán, is the site of the earliest permanent European settlement in the Americas. It hasn’t had a dictatorship since Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina’s death in 1961 and boasts the region’s most flourishing economy. Haiti, on the other hand, is one of the poorest countries in the region and therein lies the problem and the opportunity for the unscrupulous.
This remarkable film shows clear evidence for the exploitation of Haitian people who are regularly and illegally brought into the Dominican Republic by the bus load. They are enticed with the offer of steady work and money, stripped of their documents and imprisoned in ‘bateyes’ on sugar plantations. These are poorly constructed enclosures surrounded by barbed wire (ostensibly for their own protection but even the ceilings of their ‘homes’ are strung with it) and patrolled by armed guards. All this only kilometres from posh vacation spots for wealthy American and European tourists. You have to see the film to witness the shockingly squalid conditions these people are living and working in.
Enter Father Christopher Hartley in 1997 who, against the advice of many, begins to minister to Haitian cane workers, the poorest in his flock. The film concentrates on this courageous Catholic priest’s efforts to win basic human rights for Haitians in bateyes from the powerful Vicini family. To call this ‘family’ modern slavers would, in my opinion, be apt. Hartley won several concessions from them by convincing the cane workers to strike. And what were they striking for? Not for higher pay but to know how much and whether they would be paid. Using donations the priest set up locations where the children of the workers could get a nutritional meal (often their only one of the day). He also brought in American doctors and Bill Haney, a co-founder of Infante Sano (a nonprofit dedicated to improving maternal and child health in Latin America) to try to make a difference.
The Vicini fought back used their money and influence to try to get the priest ousted. Their efforts finally bore fruit when Hartley, after nine years, was removed by the Church in October of 2006. He is now once again working with Mother Teresa’s missionaries of Charity somewhere in Africa. Father Hartley tries to keep in touch with what he started by phone. He is a very impressive person, an outstanding ambassador for the Church and worthy of anyone’s admiration. Well, perhaps members of the Vicini family differ with me there.
Two of the Vicini men have filed a libel suit in the States against the film and Bill Haney. Obviously they don’t like all the negative publicity it has brought them especially with politicians in the United States, a country with which they have a very favourable sugar trade treaty. As for the cane workers, their lot has supposedly improved. I, for one, will be buying only Fair Trade Certified sugar and sweets made with Fair Trade sugar if I can get them.
This is a link to an interview with Bill Haney and Christopher Hartley on NPR. It is worth a listen if you want another source for this story.
Very, very highly recommended!
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