Bitter price for a sweeter life

Anyone concerned with fair trade must see The Price of Sugar, which exposes modern slavery in the Dominican Republic


The Price of Sugar
Bill Haney, narrated by Paul Newman
2007, Uncommon Productions
90 minutes (English and Spanish)

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

LATAMROB rating: ****

WHEN Christopher Hartley, the 15-year-old heir to an aristocratic English family that had made its fortune in the trade of preserves, decided to leave behind his former life and follow the call of the Lord, little did he imagine the cross he would have to bear.

In 1997, after working for 20 years with Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Latino communities in the Bronx, he was posted to bring hope to the diocese of San Pedro de Macorís in the Dominican Republic. His work began at a sugar plantation, or batey, in San José de Los Llanos.

Hartley found that Los Llanos provided a modern example of slavery: a fenced state within a state where people were born and worked from infancy, living under the surveillance of armed staff and being paid 90 cents a day in vouchers to be redeemed at the batey’s store. Families relied on chewing cane to survive, and disease was rife.

He also found that one million Haitians live in the Dominican Republic and, every harvest season, 30,000 undocumented migrants of all ages and sexes are lured eastwards by the promise of a better life and work, smuggled in by buscones.

As they have no papers, these Haitian migrant workers are subject to arrest anywhere in the country – and the only place where they are safe is on the plantations. There are five sugar companies in the Dominican Republic, which enjoy preferential trade with the US.

Medical supplies

The documentary was filmed over three years and Bill Haney, its director, who also chairs the Infante Sano foundation was taking medical supplies to poor rural clinics in the Dominican Republic with a colleague when they were introduced to Fr Hartley, who was building a hospital.

Determined to end a system of labour that was meant to have been abolished centuries ago, Hartley took them to see how people in his parish lived.

As the film progresses, the viewer gets the impression of a growing appreciation by the director of both the activist priest and the people he ministers to.

Having seen life at the plantation, Fr Hartley and Belgian-born Father Pedro Ruquoy taped an interview with Darío, a buscón who, ironically, volunteered his information to the priests because he himself was seeking help: he had not been paid by the family who owned the sugar plantation for the 200 slaves he had rounded up to work there.

Exposing interests beyond sugar, collusion between authorities and the media, and the deep post-colonial hatred of “blacker” people that prevails in the Dominican Republic, no sooner had the testimony been made public than the activist priests received death threats and were branded public enemies and “Haitian traffickers”.

Since the film’s screening, the director has also stated that he and his film have been the subject of a vicious smear campaign.

Fr Ruquoy left the country in 2005, and Fr Hartley was relieved of his pastoral duties in the Dominican Republic in October 2006.

But their efforts paid off, in part at least: by the end of the documentary there were no more armed guards at the doors for the Haitians in San José de Los Llanos.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer

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