The Price of Sugar

I recently saw the 2007 documentary, The Price of Sugar, which was directed by Bill Haney. It depicts the plight of Haitian farm workers on sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic. These workers have no legal status, and they live in appalling conditions in small villages called baretes, which are guarded by goons hired by the plantation owners. These Haitians are regarded with suspicion and sometimes hostility by many Dominicans, even though they perform work that the Dominicans refuse to do. Does this sound familiar? This is similar to the situation of Mexican and Central American farm workers in the U.S. It seems that the practice of demonizing the lowest paid workers in order to more thoroughly exploit them and other workers is not confined to the U.S. Indeed, I would not be surprised if this is a common practice in the capitalist world.

The film focuses on a Catholic priest, Christopher Hartley, who brought volunteer doctors from the U.S. to treat the Haitians, and who urged the Haitians to organize to make demands for better working and living conditions. This brought him into conflict with the Vicini family, who own many of the sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic, and who are a powerful political force in that country. The Vicinis organized demonstrations in which people accused Hartley of bringing Haitians into the country and of trying to “Haitianize” the Dominican Republic. (Again, doesn’t this sound familiar?) I have learned that after this film was made, Hartley was relieved of his position by the Catholic Church. I suspect this was in response to political pressure.

At one point in this film, we are told by the narrator, Paul Newman, that the U.S. has a trade agreement with the Dominican Republic, which stipulates that U.S. will buy sugar from that country at twice the world market price. I saw this film with a law professor who specializes in trade issues. I asked him why the U.S. would want to buy sugar at twice the market price. He told me that by making sugar prices artificially high, the U.S. government creates a demand for corn syrup. In effect, this is a subsidy for U.S. agribusiness, one that is carried out on the backs of Haitian workers.

I highly recommend seeing this film.

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