https://reveal-player.s3.us-west-1.amazonaws.com/809_Reveal_PC.mp3


Sugar is a big part of Americans’ daily diet. But who harvests some of that sweet cane? 

Reporters Sandy Tolan and Euclides Cordero Nuel visit Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic who do the backbreaking work of cutting sugarcane for little pay. They live in work camps, or “bateyes,” that are part of a vast sugar plantation owned by the Central Romana Corp. The company is the Dominican Republic’s largest private employer and has strong links to two powerful Florida businessmen, Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul. The reporters speak to workers who have no access to government pensions, so they’re forced to work in the fields into their 80s for as little as $3 a day. Through its sugar exports to the U.S. and other businesses, Central Romana generates an estimated $1.5 billion a year – but some workers are so poor they can’t afford doctors’ visits. 

In the 1990s, Tolan reported on human trafficking and child labor in the Dominican sugar industry. Conditions improved following pressure on the government from local activists, human rights groups and the U.S. Labor Department. But major problems persist. And cane cutters say they must go into deep debt just to survive, leaving them trapped.

After Reveal’s story aired in fall 2021, Congress took action. Fifteen members of the House Ways and Means Committee called on federal agencies to formulate a plan to address what they called the “slave-like conditions” in the Dominican cane fields. Central Romana also took action: It bulldozed one of the bateyes our reporters visited. The company contends it was part of an improvement program, but residents say that with very little warning, they were told to pack up their lives. They were loaded onto trucks and moved to other bateyes as their settlement was wiped off the map. 

This is an update of an episode that originally aired in September 2021.

Dig Deeper

Read: The High Human Cost of America’s Sugar Habit (Mother Jones)
Read: ‘They Just Came and Started Breaking Houses’ (Mother Jones)
Listen: Tolan’s original story from 1991 about sugarcane cutters in the Dominican Republic (Homelands Productions)

Credits

Reporters: Sandy Tolan and Euclides Cordero Nuel | Editors: Michael Montgomery and Taki Telonidis | Lead producer: Michael Montgomery | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, with help from Steven Rascón and Claire Mullen | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Photos: Pedro Farias-Nardi | Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan | Host: Al Letson 

Special thanks to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:Hey, it’s Al, and last fall we brought you Mississippi Goddamn. It was named one of the best podcast series of 2021 by The Atlantic, CNN, Rolling Stone, and others. We told that story over the course of seven weeks, and now we’re making it available to you to binge. You can hear the whole series by subscribing to Reveal Presents Mississippi Goddamn wherever you get your podcast. Again, that’s Reveal Presents Mississippi Goddamn.
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Al Letson:From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. This past July in Baltimore, amid fireworks and patriotic music, workers relit the famous Domino Sugar sign, which was under repair. For decades, this icon has cast a red glow over the city’s inner harbor. You can see it from miles away. Each year, Domino produces millions of pounds of refined sugar for candy makers and supermarkets. But if you look at their packaging, it doesn’t say exactly where that processed sugar originates. Some of it comes from cane grown in the US. Brazil and Mexico are also big suppliers.
Al Letson:Then there’s the Dominican Republic where still today on vast plantations sugar cane is cut by men with machetes and hauled away by ox drawn carts. The work is grueling, the conditions harsh. Recently, hundreds of workers protested in the Dominican capital, Santo Domingo. They chanted, “Without cane cutters, there is no sugar.” These men are from Haiti, and are among the thousands of Haitians living across the islands border in the Dominican Republic. They’re demanding simple things like the pensions they were promised and better living conditions for their families.
Al Letson:Last fall, we brought you a story about the hardships these workers face in harvesting raw sugar that’s exported to the US. Since then, there’ve been some big developments. So we’re revisiting the investigation from reporter, Sandy Tolan. When Sandy first visited the Dominican Republic 30 years ago, things were even worse for the cane cutters and their families.
Sandy Tolan:Walking down this dirt street, and each house is surrounded by standing black water, which is just human waste and garbage. Kids playing around this water. It’s a breeding ground from mosquitoes. It’s a really poor place.
Al Letson:In the sugar plantations, Sandy met people living in work camps who’d been trafficked into the Dominican Republic and forced to cut cane.
Speaker 4:(singing)
Al Letson:He recorded this cane cutter singing in Haitian Creole, asking a spirit to lead him to a better life.
Al Letson:In the Dominican Republic, the biggest sugar company and largest exporter to the US is the Central Romana Corporation. Back in the 1980s, it was bought by a group of investors led by two Americans, Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul. The company supplies millions of pounds of raw sugar for the Fanjul’s empire. In addition to Domino Sugar, the Fanjuls also have major interests in C&H and Florida Crystals.
Al Letson:Over the years, the Fanjuls and the Dominican sugar industry have come under pressure to improve the situation for Haitian cane cutters from local activists, human rights groups, the United Nations, and the US department of labor, and they claim they’ve done just that. So Sandy decided to go back to the Dominican Republic to see for himself. His story was made possible with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Sandy Tolan:Locomotives roll past undulating waves of sugar cane, their green weedy tops blowing in the wind. We’re at the Eastern edge of the Dominican Republic where the train cars are piled high with cane stocks. We’re rolling into an empire, a plantation of sugar nearly the size of New York city, all the property of the Central Romana Corporation. Scattered across this territory, work camps owned by the company. They’re called bateyes.
Euclides Corder…:My name is Euclides, and we are in the Carretera.
Sandy Tolan:I’m driving with my reporting partner, Euclides Cordero Nuel. He’s a Haitian Dominican journalist who knows a lot about life here. Euclides grew up on a bateye alongside thousands of other workers in their families, part of a long history of migration of patients to the Dominican Republic.
Euclides Corder…:Growing up at the bateye is not easy because your parents are working in the sugar camp plantation, but the payment is very low. You just have food for very little.
Sandy Tolan:Euclides was just two years old the first time I came to report on life in the bateyes. Since then Central Romana says it’s poured millions of dollars into the bateyes to improve living and working conditions. We’re going to check that out.
Euclides Corder…:We’re heading towards a bateye named Las Kakata.
Sandy Tolan:Kakata is a place Central Romana calls a model bateye. We walk the quiet streets, laid out in a grid about a mile long in total. At first, we see small houses in tidy rows with dirt yards, families relaxing, the kinds of uplifting images promoted Central Romana’s website, a boy in his front yard singing to Jesus. But as we walk deeper into the bateye, we reach a grim looking line of concrete barracks.
Euclides Corder…:Here we go.
Sandy Tolan:And just beyond we find two cane cutters sitting on a pair of broken plastic chairs. Euclides greets them warmly in they’re native Creole, and they invite us to join them.
Sandy Tolan:I’m calling the men Julio and Cardenas. They don’t want us to use their real names out of fear of retaliation for talking with outsiders. And that’s the case with most of the workers we meet in the bateyes. Cardenas says on a good day, he can cut about a metric ton of cane. That’s 2200 pounds. And that one ton gets them a little over $3 from Central Romana. The company says it pays more than the national minimum wage, and younger men can cut more and make five, six, even eight bucks a day, but not Julio and Cardenas.
Euclides Corder…:If it’s good, you can cut one ton per day.
Sandy Tolan:A lot of the sugar Julio, Cardenas, and their fellow workers cut ends up in the US. The men say they’ve been doing this kind of work for the past 40 years. They’re way past retirement age. Cardenas is almost 80. But even though Central Romana deducts government pension funds from their paychecks, they say they’ve never seen one peso of it.
Euclides Corder…:It’s not my first time working because I make requests for my pension, and I don’t have it. They [crosstalk].
Sandy Tolan:And like so many of the caneros or cane workers we meet, they say they could never afford to get regular working papers. And that neither the government nor Central Romana is helping them get legal status or their pensions. And so they’ve been undocumented for decades.
Euclides Corder…:They have to stay in the bateye for their whole life until they die because they cannot have any other job.
Sandy Tolan:So every day they slash and slash under an unrelenting sun, sharp stalks cutting into their hands.
Sandy Tolan:Feel like they treat you well, the bosses?
Euclides Corder…:For me, I’m not good.
Sandy Tolan:Euclides repeats, “But do they treat you well here?” Cardenas stabs his machete into the ground. He’s choking back tears.
Euclides Corder…:And you can see how they treat us here as a Haitian. Now, if you have to go to the hospital, you have to find you own money to spend on your sickness.
Sandy Tolan:So if you get sick, what happens?
Euclides Corder…:If you don’t have money, you’re going to die.
Sandy Tolan:There’s so much more we want to ask them, like what were your dreams when you first came from Haiti decades ago? But we never get that chance because just as we’re about to ask another question, two armed men in uniform pull up on a motorcycle. They want to know what authorization do we have to talk to the workers.
Euclides Corder…:You guys, you have to understand us. We are protecting interests here.
Sandy Tolan:Okay, let’s go.
Sandy Tolan:Protecting interests here is paramount. By one estimate, Central Romana generates nearly a billion and a half dollars in revenue every year, a lot of it from raw sugar exported to the US.
Sandy Tolan:In this vast landscape of cane and company work camps, we’re learning something. Central Romana is a kind of state within a state with a large private security force that doesn’t like outsiders poking around. Still, in six separate reporting trips spread out over two years, Euclides and I managed to visit about two dozen bateyes where the workers and their families welcomed us.
Euclides Corder…:[foreign language].
Sandy Tolan:This is what we see. Flimsy wooden houses, cracked, crumbling walls, a mattress on the bare floor, a few clothes drooping from a piece of rope, darkness, in an estimated 90% of bateyes, no electricity, and so many holes in the roof it rains on you when you’re sleeping. Seeing all this, it really hits you when realize that fabulous, modern luxury is 10 minutes away. We drive past the international airport toward the turquoise Caribbean to another property of Central Romana, one the tourists know by a different name.
Euclides Corder…:Hello?
Speaker 6:Hello.
Euclides Corder…:How are you?
Sandy Tolan:Casa de Campo.
Euclides Corder…:Thank you. And which way do I go?
Speaker 7:Good morning from Casa de Campo here in the Dominican Republic. Here’s our view this morning.
Sandy Tolan:When the Fanjuls bought the sugar operation nearly 40 years ago, Casa de Campo came with it. The luxury resort bills itself as the best in the Caribbean. Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul, when they’re not at their West Palm Beach mansions, enjoy a huge house here called Casa Grande. And the resort is a popular destination for A-list celebrities, European royalty, US presidents. On Casa de Campo’s 7,000 acres, you can play polo, hit the spa, rent a villa, pilot a yacht, shoot life pigeons, or skeet.
Sandy Tolan:At the shooting range, a young American fires her rifle into the clear blue sky. Her name is Elise Mordos. She’s from New York, and won a free trip for two to Casa de Campo. “The resort,” she says, “Is very nice,” but she knows poverty lies just outside the well secured gates.
Elise Mordos:I think it’s pretty bifurcated because you come to the resorts and it’s safe, and the minute you step outside is when you really see how people live. When you are trying to appeal to wealthy individuals, you have to kind of isolate them somewhat.
Sandy Tolan:At dusk, Euclides and I are sitting on a patio at the resort at the edge of the golf course. He can’t stop up thinking about where he grew up, a bateye just like the ones a few miles from here.
Euclides Corder…:Really, really, really not too comfortable. I’m in the university. If I would not have the chance to have education, I could be there cutting cane. I could. Why not?
Sandy Tolan:It turns out Euclides didn’t just live in the bateye with his family. When he was 14, he picked up a machete. He was starting high school and needed money for some basics.
Euclides Corder…:I went to work in the sugar cane because I needed shoes to go to school in that time. My mom doesn’t have the money. I use the shoes of my brother.
Sandy Tolan:You guys shared the shoes?
Euclides Corder…:We share it.
Sandy Tolan:That evening, in another part of Casa de Campo, we visit a replica of a 16th century Mediterranean village, thousands of lights festoon in the full Renaissance church.
Sandy Tolan:If you counted every light, you’d get into the tens of thousands.
Euclides Corder…:I know. But you go to the bateyes, there’s no light, no electricity. And the people doesn’t have food to eat, doesn’t have money, broken housing. And look here, it’s the contrast. It’s the contrast.
Sandy Tolan:The contrast here is stark and powerful, but it’s something Central Romana executives won’t talk to us about. For months, the company’s top PR guy repeatedly denied my requests for interviews, though they did provide written responses to some of my questions. But we still wanted a tour, so one day you Euclides and I drive to company headquarters to try to talk to someone. No-one came out to meet with us here either. “It’s a private company,” we’re told, but we’re invited to stay and read a glossy coffee table book about Central Romana.
Sandy Tolan:We read about the company’s 25,000 employees. It’s cattle, real estate, and tourist businesses, and how Central Romana treats its workers with, “respect,” and provides healthcare for all cane cutters and their families.
Sandy Tolan:When it comes to healthcare in the bateyes, we get a very different picture. A study by the Dominican Ministry of Health shows child malnutrition rates are sharply higher than the national average. We spoke with dozens of Central Romana workers, and with doctors who said many cane cutters and their families have limited access to company health care, and almost never see the inside of Central Romana’s state-of-the-art hospital. Guests of Casa de Campo on the other hand, get priority attention at the hospital, according to the resort’s website. As for the medical vans Central Romana sends into the bateyes, workers say they’re hard to access and aren’t nearly enough to treat their many ailments.
Sandy Tolan:In Bateye 80, Euclides and I arrive as an after work baseball game is in full swing in the dirt streets. The workers we meet here say they’ve gotten repeatedly sick from spraying herbicides, severe headaches, back aches, dizziness, nausea, double vision. More than 30 workers in multiple Central Romana bateyes described a range of these symptoms.
Sandy Tolan:More than half of those cited insufficient protective equipment, like ripped aprons, loose fitting boots, and faulty masks. This man says he sometimes sprays herbicides for a week without a working mask.
Euclides Corder…:And they don’t care about it. And they say, “Tomorrow, tomorrow we back and bring you new one,” and they don’t appear with the new one.
Sandy Tolan:He’s not the only one complaining of lax safety protocols. One fumigator we interviewed showed us how he mixes big vats of chemicals in an open barrel with a stick.
Sandy Tolan:And then we meet another worker who says he fell gravely ill after spraying herbicides. This man’s name is Raul [Jean Erville]. Raul is 49. He migrated from the eroded lands of Haiti’s northern coast about 20 years ago, and has worked the cane ever since. For the last two years, he says he’s sprayed chemicals for Central Romana. During that time, he was diagnosed with HIV. Raul says because of the chemical spraying, he also had trouble breathing. After a year of fumigating work, Raul tells us, he started getting the flu. Fever. Then came the rashes, burning skin. His respiratory problems grew worse. In November 2018, Raul tells us, he collapsed on the job. His fellow fumigators took him to the hospital, the public hospital, not Central Romana’s, where he was diagnosed not only as HIV positive, but with tuberculosis. Raul believes the exposure to herbicides nearly killed him, and that his bosses didn’t care.
Euclides Corder…:If you die, it’s your problem. They don’t say anything.
Sandy Tolan:Are they compensating you at all for your disability?
Euclides Corder…:Never. They don’t give me anything.
Sandy Tolan:Raul tells us he needs a ride to the medical clinic. We tell him, “Sure. We can go on Tuesday.” We return. But before we can get to Raul, we’re spotted by another security guard.
Euclides Corder…:He’s a Central Romana police. He have a gun. He showed the gun.
Sandy Tolan:The guard starts following us. He doesn’t want us talking to people. Then he orders us to leave. I walk toward our truck. Euclides goes to find Raul. We meet up at the edge of the bateye. Raul dives into the backseat face down. He’s terrified that Central Romana security will spot him with outsiders.
Sandy Tolan:Okay. So we’ve got Raul. We’re taking Raul to the doctor. So now Raul is lying down in the backseat, so he’s not going to be noticed.
Sandy Tolan:We try to get Raul to his doctor, but we can’t find her. And by this point, Raul’s exhausted. He says he just wants to go back to the bateye. Euclides and I say goodbye. We make plans to meet up on our next visit. Raul walks off. His shoulders slump as he raises a bony arm to flag a scooter.
Sandy Tolan:We soon discovered that the health problems reported by the fumigators seem to go way beyond Raul and the other men we’ve interviewed.
Sandy Tolan:Euclides and I are in the town of [inaudible]. Several dozen men are giving statements to an American attorney and his legal team for a series of lawsuits back in the US.
Robert Vance:I’m Robert Vance. I’m on the one of the plaintiff’s lawyers in the case.
Sandy Tolan:One lawsuit on behalf of the Haitian fumigators cites chronic health problems due to pesticide and herbicide exposure. So far, nearly 400 fumigators have given statements to Vance’s team for a lawsuit involving a company that sells the chemicals to Central Romana.
Robert Vance:We ask them a series of questions. Have you had any the following symptoms, eye irritation, skin irritation, vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, stomach, headache?
Sandy Tolan:The health problems echo what we’ve been hearing from Raul and the other fumigators.
Sandy Tolan:Robert Vance’s lawsuit targets the chemical manufacturer, Drexel. But in another suit, he takes on Central Romana and the Fanjul family corporation.
Robert Vance:Fanjul Corporation is directly responsible for the conditions of the bateyes where the caneros and fumigators live, to the use of the pesticides. They have never really been required to do what is ethically and morally right by their employees, because no-one has forced them to.
Sandy Tolan:The Fanjul Corporation did not comment on the suits. A Central Romana spokesman wrote, “We are very surprised to hear the workers’ claims,” and that, “All workers have the required protective equipment.”
Sandy Tolan:It won’t be easy to hold either company legally responsible in the US for chemical contamination problems in the Dominican Republic. There’s the question of jurisdiction, and Central Romana won’t divulge its corporate structure, or the size of the Fanjul family’s stake, or exactly who’s calling the shots. What’s more, according to documents filed in US Federal Court, Central Romana is incorporated in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven that helps keep company assets and ownership secret.
Sandy Tolan:Robert Vance’s lawsuits are facing potential setbacks. And even if they’re successful, it’ll be too late for some fumigators.
Euclides Corder…:Was this-
Sandy Tolan:This past June, Euclides and I returned to Bateye 80 to see Raul, but he wasn’t there. Raul Jean Erville had died alone of respiratory failure in his rickety shack. With some friends and neighbors, we went to the place where Raul was buried.
Euclides Corder…:We just came here to pay respect.
Sandy Tolan:We walked through a small graveyard just outside the bateye, and stopped at a mound of dirt. Here lay Raul’s body.
Sandy Tolan:There’s just a stick in the ground painted white. Doesn’t have a name. Nothing written there.
Euclides Corder…:It’s a shame. A man like Raul who worked many years in sugar cane just buried in the dirt. There is no cross. Make me very sad, because this man worked hard and he doesn’t deserve this. He doesn’t deserve this.
Al Letson:For generations, workers like Raul Jean Erville have toiled in the Dominican cane fields. Coming up, we meet a man who decided to speak out.
Father Christop…:These people live, born, and die in this same paradise, but they live in it as slaves.
Al Letson:That’s next on Reveal.
Al Letson:There’s a new podcast out I think Reveal listeners would like. It’s called The Heist, and it comes from our friends at The Center for Public Integrity and Transmitter Media. The new season looks at the racial wealth gap. The reality that the median wealth of a white family is eight times that of a black family, and how banks have fueled this disparity. The Heist follows one woman who’s determined to bridge that gap. If Rashonda Young succeeds, she could open the first black owned bank in the US in the last two decades. Check out season two of The Heist wherever you listen to podcasts.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Today, we’re revisiting our story that follows a supply chain of sugar, millions of pounds from the cane fields of the Dominican Republic to our breakfast table. We’re also looking at the toll this is taking on the people who harvest some of that sugar. They’re Haitian migrants living in ramshackle war camps or bateyes.
Al Letson:When Sandy Tolan started reporting on the Dominican sugar industry, the situation was a nightmare. He met people forced to work on sugar plantations guarded by men with shotguns like prisoners. He also found a spark for change. Here’s Sandy.
Sandy Tolan:I still carry the memory of him, a child standing barefoot under a punishing sun in a place called Bateye Eight, all stick limbs and sunken eyes. He was 14. It was 1991. And his name was Lulu Pierre. With my cassette recorder rolling, Lulu told us he’d been kidnapped at a market on the Haitian border in broad daylight.
Lulu Pierre:This army officer grabbed me. I started to run, but he was armed. They put me in a red Diahutsu truck. They were 25 of us in the truck. I was the youngest. They sold us to this place here. My mother and father and three borders didn’t know where I am now.
Sandy Tolan:This is just terrible.
Sandy Tolan:The men who grabbed Lulu as we reported at the time were part of a massive human trafficking ring aided by the Dominican military that had been going on for decades. Haitian and Dominican officials signed off on the selling of Haitian workers to cut cane in the Dominican sugar industry. The traffickers dumped Lulu in Bateye Eight, part of a government owned plantation. The bosses gave them a machete and said, “If you want to eat, you’ve got to cut the cane.” But Lulu told me he couldn’t do it. When we met him, he’d been fishing in the pesticide ditches beside the cane fields to try to get some food to survive.
Lulu Pierre:Today is Sunday. I haven’t had anything to eat since Friday. I can’t do this work. That’s why I resolved not to do it and see what God is going to do with me. I have to go home.
Sandy Tolan:My reporting partner, Alan Wiseman and I worked with a Catholic aid worker to try to get Lulu home. For decades, I’d think about Lulu Pierre, and wonder if he ever got back to his mother. So when I returned to the island three decades later, I tried to find him. Working with reporter, Euclides Cordero Nuel, I looked in the Dominican bateyes, went to the Haitian border, and to Lulu’s hometown in Haiti.
Euclides Corder…:Is it possible they were [inaudible]?
Sandy Tolan:We heard he’d made it home, but we never found him. Turns out the story we found wasn’t about Lulu. It was about all the other people still living in the bateyes. As Euclides and I started traveling the country, we learned of efforts in recent years to break up the trafficking rings, ban child labor, and hold sugar plantations accountable. Who ignited that push for change? As much as any one person, the answer is Father Christopher Hartley.
Father Christop…:When I arrived in the Dominican Republic, I had no idea whatsoever what I was going to confront.
Sandy Tolan:Father Hartley’s a Catholic priest from Spain. He arrived six years after my first visit. And after 20 years working alongside Mother Teresa, he was so shocked by the conditions facing the Haitians in his parish, that he began to speak out.
Father Christop…:These people live, born, and die in this same paradise, but they live in it as slaves.
Sandy Tolan:That’s Father Hartley from a documentary about the industry’s human costs. But criticizing the sugar industry carried its own price, multiple death threats,
Father Christop…:Very explicit. One of them was tell the Reverend that the day he least expected, he’s going to be found dead on a sugar cane field track with his mouth full of flies.
Sandy Tolan:In 2006, Hartley says, he was forced to leave the Dominican Republic. As for his fight, he just changed battlefields. In Washington, he met a longtime official with the state department and the US Department of Labor.
Charlotte Ponti…:I’m Charlotte Ponticelli, frequently known as Charlie.
Sandy Tolan:Charlie Ponticelli headed up the Labor Department’s International Bureau. One day she saw a documentary about Hartley, and was so moved by his struggle that on her last day at work…
Charlotte Ponti…:I sent him an email before I walked out the door. And I said, “Father Hartley, I’ve admired your work so much. And if ever I can be of help to you, please let me know.” Well, he took me up on that.
Sandy Tolan:Father Hartley and Charlie Ponticelli decided to challenge the sugar industry together. They found leverage in a trade agreement between the US, Central America, and the Dominican Republic, known as CAFTA.
President Georg…:CAFTA is more than a trade bill. It is a commitment among freedom loving nations to advance peace and prosperity throughout the region.
Sandy Tolan:President George W. Bush backed the agreement. It had bipartisan support among lawmakers. But not everyone was on board. According to State Department cables published by WikiLeaks, US diplomats reported the treaty infuriated a coterie of sugar barons in the Dominican Republic. One cable said Pepe Fanjul was trying to sabotage the treaty to protect his family’s sugar empire. It was ratified anyway, binding countries to the widely accepted standards of the UN’s international labor organization.
Sandy Tolan:With CAFTA in place, and with Ponticelli providing advice, Father Hartley walked the halls of Congress.
Father Christop…:Me in Capitol Hill, it was like Mickey Mouse running the Vatican. She would be the one to tell me, “Write to this Senator, or write to this Congressman.”
Sandy Tolan:And he did something else. He filed a formal petition with the Department of Labor, and to his astonishment, and Ponticelli’s, the department agreed to take action. They sent teams to the Dominican Republic to report back on the conditions in the sugar industry.
Father Christop…:The US Labor Department published its report, which was tremendous.
Sandy Tolan:The report of was released in 2013, and cited evidence of forced labor and child labor, many of the same problems I had reported on in the ’90s. Dominican sugar plantations criticized the report, and especially Father Hartley. As a follow-up, Father Hartley asks Charlie Ponticelli to travel to the Dominican Republic where she saw the bateyes for herself.
Charlotte Ponti…:It was like a nightmare. Workers are walking around with rags that are falling off of them. And when you think of the money that’s made off the backs of these workers, the injustice and the stupidity of it, you just want to say to somebody, “Why don’t you clean this up? What… This is crazy.”
Sandy Tolan:The Dominican government was under growing pressure to clean things up. Some big sugar companies did just that. In fact, one company Father Hartley had tangled with, the Vicini Group, reportedly made the most progress. I saw it for myself when I toured the Vicini operation, new housing with electricity and running water, buses to ferry kids to school, soccer fields, medical clinics in the bateyes.
Sandy Tolan:Still, the labor department encountered resistance within the Dominican sugar industry. In follow up reports, it said some companies weren’t fully on board with the reforms. I wanted to know which ones, so I reached out to the Labor Department’s International Affairs Bureau. They wouldn’t give me an interview or release internal documents about this, but other government sources told me the biggest obstacle was Central Romana. Father Hartley was hearing the same thing.
Father Christop…:They have videos, photographs, interviews. If the members of the Department of Labor who have regularly gone down to the plantations of the Fanjul family had the freedom to speak out and say what their eyes have seen, you would not need to interview Father Hartley.
Sandy Tolan:The department contends that forced labor is still an ongoing problem in the Dominican sugarcane fields, but officials won’t name names or share details. They say that’s not in their mandate. So we sued the Department of Labor. And late last year it released a batch of internal documents, field reports that lay out some of the same problems we were finding at Central Romana’s plantation, grueling work hours, low pay, and squalid living conditions. This leaves us to wonder whether offending companies that ship sugar to the US are getting off the hook. For its part, Central Romana says there’s no forced labor in its operations.
Sandy Tolan:The issue of forced labor has been getting renewed attention in recent years. And some companies that export goods to the US are facing new scrutiny.
Speaker 14:A disturbing new report is exposing evidence of widespread labor abuse in the lucrative palm oil industry.
Sandy Tolan:Reports from the associated press and human rights groups prodded the US to step up enforcement of a 1930s law that blocks the import of goods produced with forced labor.
Speaker 15:Customs agents will be turning away products from China that they say are sourced from forced to labor in China’s [inaudible]-
Duncan Jepson:This is the first time we’ve seen this. And it’s pretty amazing that’s happening.
Sandy Tolan:Duncan Jepson directs the anti-trafficking group, Liberty Shared. For two years, he investigated labor abuses at one of the world’s biggest palm oil producers. Finally, he convinced US customs officials to block imports from the company.
Duncan Jepson:This isn’t like sex trafficking, for instance, where the business is completely criminal and illicit. These are businesses that are public listed perhaps, listed perhaps in multiple stock exchanges.
Sandy Tolan:Jepson says companies can use all sorts of social controls to keep workers trapped.
Duncan Jepson:We’re talking about coercive forces that are psychological, coercive forces that are driven by debt. And that’s slightly more subtle than methods of violence.
Sandy Tolan:It reminds me of the two old Haitian caneros I met at Bateye Kakata. They had no papers, no access to the pensions they paid into, no savings. Their future? Work in the cane fields into their 80s.
Duncan Jepson:We’re talking about people who have very little financial resources, and therefore they are very, very vulnerable and fragile to any kind of financial shock.
Sandy Tolan:For Haitian cane cutters, that vulnerability is amplified by deep racism they face living and working in the Dominican Republic. And these tensions go back many generations.
Eddie Taheta:The culture say that we are the children of Spain.
Sandy Tolan:Eddie [Taheta] is a Dominican migration expert. He’s says decades old racial violence and stereotypes create a racialized Dominican self image that says…
Eddie Taheta:We are white, and we are Catholic. We are not black. We are not poor. We don’t practice [inaudible].
Sandy Tolan:These attitudes help shape policy. For years, the government has resisted providing legal status for tens of thousands of Haitians and their children. Many of them were born in the Dominican Republic, and are stateless. In this context. Eddie Taheta says few Dominican officials are concerned about the conditions facing Haitian caneros.
Eddie Taheta:It’s very, very shocking. But I don’t think this is a priority for the authorities.
Sandy Tolan:Dominican officials say this is a priority. In a short statement, the Dominican embassy in Washington claimed broadly that the government is making great strides in tackling poverty, but provided no details about what they’re doing in the bateyes.
Sandy Tolan:The Dominican government’s failure to address many of the problems facing Haitian migrants means that some end up trapped. The human trafficking and child labor that I saw 30 years ago may be just about gone, but as Duncan Jepson said, there’s more to forced labor than physical restraint. It can be coercive, like very low wages that amount to involuntary work. Another area of forced labor is debt from which workers cannot escape.
Congregation:(singing)
Sandy Tolan:One Sunday morning, Euclides and I go to a bateye for an evangelical church service under a patchwork of red and blue tarps fitted to wooden poles.
Congregation:(singing)
Sandy Tolan:We’re with a couple. I’m going to call them [Efrain and Noni] because they’re also worried about the risk of talking to reporters. Noni’s feeling the Holy Spirit in the church they built for the community. She paces back and forth in front of the congregation, microphone in her hand, leaning back, giving it everything. The entire congregation is calling out, clapping, laughing, crying, giving praise.
Congregation:[foreign language].
Sandy Tolan:Unlike his wife, Efrain sits quietly in a folding chair. He’s a fumigator, and says exposure to all those chemicals has made him sick. And in spite of Central Romana’s promise to provide free healthcare to workers, he says he has to pay for much of it himself. All that has pushed him into spiraling debt.
Euclides Corder…:Yes, I borrow money. I borrow money from people. Yes, a lot.
Sandy Tolan:And so Efrain now owes 30,000 pesos, about $600, or nearly three months pay. The lender is charging them 10% per week.
Euclides Corder…:If you borrow 1,000 pesos, so you have to give this person 100 peso every week interest, yes.
Sandy Tolan:Over a year that works out to 520% interest. It’s all connected. Substandard medical care requires borrowing more money. And that pushes families more deeply into debt. And with no legal papers, there’s really nowhere else to find work.
Sandy Tolan:Noni says, “We have to pay people we took money from. It’s never enough.”
Sandy Tolan:We spoke with more than two dozen cane workers who told us their low salaries force them into the hands of money lenders who operate in nearby towns. Efrain told us it’s a brutal cycle. The cane cutters are in debt until they die.
Sandy Tolan:I asked Central Romana about this. A spokesman said in an email that like other companies, Central Romana has no control over the borrowing habits of its workers.
Sandy Tolan:Noni finds all this bitterly ironic, given who is supplying the sugar that feeds our habit. She says, “Haitians make the sugar. Without Haitians, you don’t have sugar.”
Congregation:(singing)
Al Letson:As powerful as Central Romana is, there are efforts to make it more accountable to the cane cutters and their families. That’s coming up next on Reveal.
Congregation:(singing)
Al Letson:I know it’s hard. You wait all week for this podcast, and then it’s over, and you find yourself wanting more. Let me make a recommendation, the Reveal newsletter. It goes behind the scenes into how we make and report these stories. Subscribe now at revealnews.org/newsletter.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. This week’s show is from Sandy Tolan. He spent two years investigating one of the biggest exporters of sugar to the US, the Central Romana corporation and the harsh conditions its workers face. Sandy’s with me now. Hey, Sandy.
Sandy Tolan:Hey, Al. How are you doing?
Al Letson:Good. So it seems like Central Romana has enormous control over its workers and their families, people like Efrain and his wife, Noni. What makes a company so powerful?
Sandy Tolan:Well, I described it as a sort of state within a state, so of course it’s got big political connections. For example, the company’s former chief executive was the foreign minister, he was the country’s vice president, and the ambassador to the US. And looming over all of this is the Fanjul family, especially brothers, Alfonso and Pepe. They own a major stake in Central Romana. And back in the US, they control directly and through subsidiaries, the world’s largest sugar refiner. Their empire includes the Domino factory in Baltimore, C&H Sugar, many others. That’s why they’re called the sugar barons of Florida.
Al Letson:Okay. So your investigation looked into some pretty powerful interests in the US and the Dominican Republic. What happened after your story came out last fall?
Sandy Tolan:Well, quite a lot actually. Almost immediately, there was action in Congress. 15 members of the House Ways and Means Committee released a statement. They called on the Biden administration to stop these, “outrageous and abusive practices.” The letter cited the investigation we did with Mother Jones magazine, and also coverage in the Washington Post.
Sandy Tolan:And then, Al, just in January, those same lawmakers took things up a notch. They called on three federal agencies to launch an action plan to address what they called the slave light conditions in the cane fields. Now it’s a long process, but if there was a determination that there’s forced labor in the Dominican sugar industry, US customs could move to block imports on some Dominican companies.
Al Letson:Those are some pretty strong words from Congress. What was the response from Central Romana?
Sandy Tolan:Well, Central Romana hasn’t responded directly to lawmakers, but all along, the company’s insisted there’s no forced labor, that it treats its workers with respect, the conditions, while not perfect, are improving steadily. But that’s not what we found in our two year investigation. And this is where things get a little interesting.
Sandy Tolan:Al, I want to take you to another bateye we visited. Officially, it’s name is 82A, but it’s known by most people as Ojo de Puerco, literally Pig Hole. We went there a few times, and this is sound from one of those visits. Ojo de Puerco looked really bad, dank, crumbling dwellings with bare mattresses, or even just single sheets on the concrete floors. And like an estimated 90% of Central Romana bateyes, Ojo de Puerco had no electricity.
Al Letson:That sounds awful.
Sandy Tolan:Yes. And then in November we got word that something was going down. Central Romana had sent workers with bulldozers and armed guards into the bateye. We got some cellphone video that shows how they erased the settlement to the ground. As for the residents, they were loaded onto trucks and moved to other bateyes.
Al Letson:Wow. So the place was just wiped out.
Sandy Tolan:Al, they pretty much erased it from the map.
Al Letson:Why would Central Romana do something like this?
Sandy Tolan:Well, a company spokesperson said it was all part of an improvement plan that they say started in 2010. But the thing is people had known about this place for years. It was cited in a scathing human rights report back in 2015, and it’s hardly the only Central Romana bateye in terrible condition. Now at Ojo de Puerco, the timing of the destruction was curious to say the least. It happened right before US diplomats were due to visit Central Romana’s plantation, including some of the bateyes. And that visit came under provisions of an international trade agreement, so the stakes were pretty high.
Al Letson:So did they eliminate the settlement to try and improve Central Romana’s image?
Sandy Tolan:We don’t actually know that for sure. The company said in an email that the bateye didn’t meet their standards, and that the whole operation went smoothly. But again, they could have fixed many of those problems years ago. They did all this after our story came out, and with a lot of pressure coming down from Washington.
Al Letson:Did you talk to any of the residents?
Sandy Tolan:Yes. I reached a number of people by cell phone, and they told me that they got no warning and were basically ordered to pack up and get into the trucks. Some workers also told me the families were separated in the process.
Al Letson:So what did Central Romana and the Fanjul Corporation say about all this?
Sandy Tolan:As we mentioned earlier, neither company would talk to us. But in a short statement, a Fanjul spokesperson said Central Romana is a highly respected corporate citizen. Central Romana says it’s also invested millions to improve the bateyes. Now all this sugar is worth a lot of money. And when it’s imported into the US, the Fanjul’s profit in other ways. They benefit from low tariffs. And like other sugar producers, they get an inflated price guaranteed by the US Congress. It’s something the Fanjul’s have lobbied hard for, spending tens of millions of dollars to keep it in place. It all adds up. One economist said the US sugar program earns the family an extra $150 million in annual profits.
Al Letson:Wow. So has there been any other success in making the company pay attention to the problems you found?
Sandy Tolan:Well, last year activists in and outside of the Dominican Republic learned that Central Romana was seeking membership in a pretty respected industry group called Bonsucro. It promotes sustainable sugar, and its members include some very familiar names like Coke, Pepsi, Mars, and Hershey. Critics raised an uproar. And in the end, Bonsucro rejected Central Romana’s application.
Sandy Tolan:Now, a lot of people have never heard of Bonsucro, but its members include companies that have invested a lot of time and money showing their commitment to ethical and fair trade. If nothing else, the optics are pretty important.
Al Letson:What are companies who buy sugar from Central Romana telling you?
Sandy Tolan:Our reporting shows that Hershey, like other US companies, does source sugar from Domino’s Baltimore refinery, which gets millions of pounds of raw sugar every year from Central Romana. In a short email, a spokesperson said the company doesn’t tolerate forced labor or unsafe working environments. Mars told us basically the same thing, but they wouldn’t say whether they use Central Romana sugar.
Al Letson:Let’s say US companies decide to stop buying Domino Sugar because some of it originates from this plantation in the Dominican Republic. How could all of this impact the cane cutters and their families?
Sandy Tolan:Well, there are a couple of ways it could go, Al. After the Fanjul’s were sued for their treatment of Jamaican cane cutters in Florida, the entire Florida cane industry mechanized, and that effectively sent the Jamaicans back home. There is some concern this could happen in the Dominican Republic with Haitian cane cutters. Parts of Central Romana’s plantation are already mechanized.
Sandy Tolan:But there’s another thing that could be done. The company could improve the conditions now, help the workers get the proper papers, improve their access to medical care, provide more buses to send children to school, help them get electricity in the bateyes, pay their workers more than $3.50 a ton, plus a holiday bonus. Some of this is happening at other sugar companies, so we know it can be done.
Al Letson:Sandy, thanks so much for bringing us this story.
Sandy Tolan:Thank you for having me, Al.
Al Letson:Sandy Tolan is a journalist and author based in Los Angeles. Sandy’s work on the Dominican cane cutters has also appeared in Mother Jones magazine. His stories include some amazing photos of the workers and their families. You’ll find a link on our website, revealnews.org.
Speaker 19:(singing)
Al Letson:This week’s show was edited and co-produced by Michael Montgomery. Additional editing by [Taki Telanides]. Special thanks to reporter, Euclides Cordero Nuel, and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy Mustafa. Original score and sound design by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando “My Man, Yo” Arruda. They had help from Claire “C Note” Mullin, Kathryn Steyer Martinez, Steven Rascon, and Jess Alvarenga. Our digital producer is Sarah Merck. Our CEO is Kaizar Campwala. Sumi Aggarwal is our editor-in-chief, and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [carmerado], Light.
Speaker 19:(singing)
Al Letson:Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva & David Logan Foundation, the John D & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch foundation.
Al Letson:Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember there is always more to the story.
Speaker 19:(singing)
Al Letson:If you like what we do and you want to help, well, it’s pretty simple. Just write us a review on Apple Podcast. It’s easy and only takes a few seconds. Just open the Apple Podcast app on your phone, search for Reveal, then scroll down to where you see Write a Review. And there, tell them how much you love the host. Your review makes it easier for listeners to find us, and well, it really does make a difference. And if you do it, you will get a personal thank you from me right now. Like thank not him, not… No. You. Yes, you. Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Bye.
Automated voice:From PRX.

Sandy Tolan

Sandy Tolan, author of The Lemon Tree and Children of the Stone, is a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He is a co-founder of Homelands Productions and writes frequently on the intersection of land, indigenous rights, energy and the environment.

Michael Montgomery

Michael Montgomery is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. He has led collaborations with the Associated Press, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Frontline, KQED and others.

Previously, Montgomery was a senior reporter at American Public Media, a special correspondent for the BBC and an associate producer with CBS News. He began his career in eastern Europe, covering the fall of communism and wars in former Yugoslavia for the Daily Telegraph and Los Angeles Times. His investigations into human rights abuses in the Balkans led to the arrest and conviction of Serbian and Albanian paramilitaries and creation of a new war crimes court based in The Hague. Montgomery’s honors include Murrow, Peabody, IRE, duPont, Third Coast and Overseas Press Club awards. He is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Taki Telonidis is an interim executive producer for Reveal. Previously, he was the media producer for the Western Folklife Center, where he created more than 100 radio features for NPR’s "All Things Considered," "Weekend Edition" and other news magazines. He has produced and directed three public television specials, including "Healing the Warrior’s Heart," a one-hour documentary that explores how the ancient spiritual traditions of our nation’s first warriors, Native Americans, are helping today’s veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Telonidis also was senior content editor for NPR’s "State of the Re:Union." Before moving to the West, he worked for NPR in Washington, where he was senior producer of "Weekend All Things Considered" between 1994 and 1998. His television and radio work has garnered a George Foster Peabody Award, three Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards and the Overseas Press Club Award for breaking news. Telonidis is based in Salt Lake City.

Amy Mostafa (she/they) is the production manager for Reveal. She is a UC Berkeley School of Journalism alum, where she focused on audio and data journalism as a Dean's Merit Fellow and an ISF Scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on NPR, KALW and KALX. Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She has most recently reported on housing and aging in the Bay Area. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda

Fernando Arruda is a sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. As a multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the original music, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. He has held four O-1 visas for individuals with extraordinary abilities. His work has been recognized with Peabody, duPont-Columbia, Edward R. Murrow, Gerald Loeb, Third Coast and Association of Music Producers awards, as well as Emmy and Pulitzer nominations. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio for media and TV ads, and co-founded a film-scoring boutique called the Manhattan Composers Collective. He worked with clients such as Marvel, MasterClass and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck+Company, BUCK and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles, such as SFJAZZ Monday Night Band, Art&Sax quartet, Krychek, Dark Inc. and the New York Arabic Orchestra. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 Percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker,” Wondery’s “Detective Trapp,” MSNBC’s “Why Is This Happening?” and NBC’s “Born to Rule,” to name a few. Arruda also has a wide catalog of composed music for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which has premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. The original music he makes with Jim Briggs for Reveal can be found on Bandcamp.

Steven Rascón (he/they) is a production assistant for Reveal. He is pursuing a master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism with a Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Policy Fellowship. His focus is investigative reporting and audio documentary. He has written for online, magazines and radio. His reporting on underreported fentanyl overdoses in Los Angeles' LGBTQ community aired on KCRW and KQED. Rascón is passionate about telling diverse stories for radio through community engagement. He holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater arts and creative writing.

Claire Mullen worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until September 2017. is an associate sound designer and audio engineer for Reveal. Before joining Reveal, she was an assistant producer at Radio Ambulante and worked with KALW, KQED, the Association of Independents in Radio and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She studied humanities and media studies at Scripps College.

Kevin Sullivan is the executive producer of Reveal’s public radio show and podcast. He joined Reveal from the daily news magazine show “Here & Now,” where he was senior managing editor. There, he helped lead the expansion of the show as part of a unique partnership between NPR and WBUR. Prior to radio, Sullivan worked as a documentary film producer. That work took him around the world, with stories ranging from reconciliation in Northern Ireland to the refugee crisis during the war in Kosovo.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sullivan launched an investigative unit for CBS in Baltimore, where he spearheaded investigations on bioterrorism and the U.S. government’s ability to respond to future threats. He also dug into local issues. His exposé of local judges found widespread lax sentencing of repeat-offender drunken drivers. Other investigations included sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, and doctors who sold OxyContin for cash. Sullivan has won multiple journalism awards, including several Edward R. Murrow awards, a Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition award and an Emmy. He has an MBA from Boston University.

Sullivan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.