Harvard International Review (HIR), November 27, 2020
Hidden behind years of societal and governmental oppression, the current humanitarian crisis in the Dominican Republic combines racism, US imperialism, and the demands of the global sugar market. While the world grapples with a racial reckoning and a historic pandemic, the violent history of the bateyes remains absent from discourse. A deeper look into the crisis that binds the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and the United States together provides the key to awareness and a first step towards reconciliation.
The Batey System
A batey is a community built around the sprawling green stalks of a sugar mill. Although located in rural settings, they resemble what many know as a shanty town, a slum, or a ghetto—in stark contrast to the greenery and bright beaches associated with the Dominican Republic. In effect, these settlements around the Dominican Republic (DR) house between 200,000 to 1 million people who have little to no access to water, electricity, education, or legal counsel, especially pertaining to their labor rights. This juxtaposition of extreme poverty and Caribbean paradise traces back to the nation’s authoritarianism in the twentieth century. During his 30 years of rule from 1931 to 1961, dictator Rafael Trujillo created the batey system, in which workers from Haiti would be brought to work during the seasonal sugar-cane cutting harvest, minimizing the cost of labor. The system was intended to satisfy the growing need for quick and cheap sugar to export through what the Latin American Research Review describes as “a government-managed system of semi coerced exploitation.”
Sources and Causes of Emigration from Haiti
While Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic, Haiti suffered from instability and an economic crisis. The country gained its independence from France in 1824, but at a large price: Haiti had to pay its former colonizer an indemnity, which left the new nation indebted and vulnerable to foreign influence. The effects of this vulnerability worsened in the early years of the 20th century as Germany heightened its activity and economic influence in Haiti. Instability increased between 1911 and 1915 when seven presidents were assassinated, prompting the United States to take action. The United States occupied Haiti from 1915-1934, an interventionist move geared towards preserving a diplomatic and military stronghold in the region. Racial segregation, peasant uprisings, strikes, press censorship, and labor abuses followed US intervention until American withdrawal in 1934 in accordance with Woodrow Wilson’s Good Neighbor Policy. During this complex geopolitical and economic crisis, thousands of Haitian migrants left to work in the Dominican sugar industry, prompted by promises of work, Trujillo’s increase of labor demand, and Haiti’s capitalization on emigration. During joint American-Haitian rule, recruiting permits and emigration fees for workers sent to the DR made up the Haitian government’s largest internal source of revenue. Haitians looking to improve their conditions were funneled into the sugar plantation labor system at the benefit of both countries’ economies, or seemingly so on the macroeconomic level. Back in the DR, Trujillo’s economic policies eventually led to him possessing 60 percent of the DR’s sugar, tobacco, and other assets, heightening economic inequality and plunging many Dominicans into poverty.
The economic history of Haiti and the DR is crucial in understanding the racism, animosity, and poverty that the,,,