The Bitterness of Sugar

Activist Inoelia Remy came to Miami to tell the harrowing story of working in the Dominican Republic's cane fields

This past week Inoelia Remy Yautiel, an unassuming woman with implacable resolve, visited Miami to speak about things unheard of by most Americans. Remy periodically travels from her native Dominican Republic to address radio and television audiences, academic workshops, and anyone else who'll listen.

Remy's life is her story. It's the life of thousands of Haitians born and raised in the sugar cane fields of the Dominican Republic. "I just tell [audiences] about how we live," she says. (Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the Caribbean island of Hispanola.)

Since the turn of the century, generations of Haitian cane-cutters and their families have lived in concrete block housing without electricity or water and worked twelve-hour days. Present pay is around $25 per week. The fieldworkers are exclusively Haitian. Cutting the stiff, sharp stalks beneath unrelenting sun is a hazardous occupation. There's a high risk of being pierced or slashed, losing an eye, or cutting off fingers. Deportations, even of Haitians born in the Dominican Republic, are frequent; many cane-field workers have no birth certificate or passport. "We are very marginalized," Remy says.

The passage of Hurricane Georges this past September was particularly devastating to the region in the southeast Dominican Republic. The storm wiped out most cane-field settlements, or bateyes, for hundreds of miles around this area, including the batey where Remy was born and raised.

The damage has made living conditions even more wretched for the cane-field hands: the approximately 12,000 who recently crossed the border to work in this season's Dominican sugar harvest; and the roughly 100,000 more who, like Remy, have spent most or all their lives on the bateyes. (These statistics come from New York journalist Michele Wucker, author of Why the Cocks Fight, a just-published book about Haitian-Dominican relations.)

Unlike most of her peers, the 48-year-old Remy has expanded her vision and presence beyond the bateyes. She has held leadership positions in several human rights organizations and works in the Santo Domingo office of the Cultural Association of Haitian Workers (MOSCTHA), an advocacy group that provides aid to batey workers.

"How can I tell you what it's like there?" Remy asked at a March 6 banquet held by the nonprofit Haitian Women of Miami, Inc. Remy was one of three invited speakers at the annual fundraising event. "Women don't get paid for their work in the fields, and men make practically nothing. A lot of the time they are paid late. Medical care and school for our children is practically nonexistent." Remy, clad in a flowing blue dress, her hair pulled back into a bun, spoke Creole (translated into English by an interpreter) to her mostly Haitian and Haitian-American audience. She apologized for her "poor" Creole; her first language is Spanish.

Haitian-Dominican relations have a long and tortuous history shaped by periodic U.S. interventions and continuing U.S economic and political interests in Hispanola. One constant has been the Dominican Republic's need for cheap labor in its cane fields and the ready supply of Haitians to fill that demand. "There's really no choice for the Haitians," Remy said after the banquet. "Everyone knows there's no point in looking for work in Haiti. Even when they're deported they return [to the Dominican Republic] because Haiti offers nothing."

Remy grew up on a batey in the Sabana Grande de Boya, about an hour's bus ride from Santo Domingo, the capital. Like most women on the bateyes, she didn't do the dangerous work of cutting cane. "I started out as a little girl helping my mother and father," she recalls. "I learned to make bundles of cane, so they could be transported more easily. I also did things like bake bread and other foods to sell to the workers."

Remy attended the only school available on the batey -- up to fifth grade. At age sixteen she immigrated to Santo Domingo in search of different work. She stayed first at the house of a friend whose father had been the foreman on her batey. She and her friend did chipas (odd jobs, such as washing and ironing clothes, selling hair products, fruit, and vegetables), "anything we could get a little money for." If they worked long enough in the right places they could make maybe seven dollars per day. "It was really bad," Remy remembers, "but it was better than the batey."

She married at age nineteen and soon thereafter had the first of her six children. Her ex-husband, about whom she is not anxious to talk, was abusive. And when she began to think about furthering her education, he became angry. "Everyone always told me I belonged in school. I always loved to study," Remy says. She enrolled in a public school and studied at night, eventually earning a high school diploma in 1985, when she was 35 years old. Then she wanted to attend university. "My husband disapproved completely," she says. "He considered it a waste of time and also for economic reasons, he didn't want to pay for it. I understood, but I thought it was too important not to pursue; it was what I was meant for." Her husband left her. But MOSCTHA, which often provides financial assistance to individual or group projects, paid her tuition at Eugenio Maria de Hostos University. She worked during the day and went to school at night. In 1997 she graduated with a law degree. Her thesis on international human rights, submitted in 1996, attracted attention from rights organizations in the United States, and she was invited that year (and in subsequent years) to speak in U.S. cities and at the State Department, and to meet with some members of Congress.

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