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Sugar is a big part of Americans’ daily diet, but we rarely ask where that sweet cane comes from.  

In November, the United States announced that it will block all imports of raw sugar from one of those sources: the cane fields owned by the Central Romana Corp. in the Dominican Republic. U.S. Customs and Border Protection cited labor abuses in its decision. Sugar from Central Romana feeds into the supply chains of major U.S. brands, including Domino and Hershey. 

The federal government’s action follows a two-year investigation by Reveal and Mother Jones. Reporters Sandy Tolan and Euclides Cordero Nuel visited Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic who do the backbreaking work of cutting sugarcane for little pay. Central Romana 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. 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 have persisted.  

After Reveal’s story first 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 worker camps our reporters visited, claiming it was part of an improvement program. Residents say that with very little warning, they were told to pack up their lives. Central Romana denies the U.S. government’s recent findings that its cane cutters are working under forced labor conditions. 

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

Dig Deeper

Explore: The Human Cost of America’s Sugar Habit (Reveal)

Read: US Bans Sugar Imports From Top Dominican Producer Over Forced Labor Allegations (Reveal) 

Read: Paramilitary-Style Guards Instill Fear in Workers in Dominican Cane Fields (The Intercept) 
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, Kathryn Styer Mártinez, and Claire Mullen | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Photos: Pedro Farias-Nardi | Interim executive producers: Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis | Host: Al Letson 

Special thanks to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.

It’s July, 2021 in Baltimore. And amid fireworks and patriotic music, workers have just re-lit 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. Then there’s the Dominican Republic, where still today on vast plantations, sugar cane is cut by men with machetes and hauled away by oxen drawn carts.

The work is grueling, the conditions harsh, and that sparked protests like this one from last year. Hundreds of workers marched in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo chanting, “Without cane cutters, there is no sugar.” These men are from Haiti and are among the thousands of Haitians who are living across the island’s border in Dominican Republic. They’re demanding simple things like pensions they were promised and better living conditions for their families.

Last year, we brought you a story about the hardships these workers faced in harvesting raw sugar that’s exported to the US. Since then, there have 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.
Euclides Corder…:[foreign language]
Al Letson:He recorded this cane cutter singing in Haitian Creole, asking the spirit to lead him to a better life. 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 Fanjul’s empire. In addition to Domino Sugar, the Fanjul’s also have major interest in C&H and Florida Crystals. Over the years, the Fanjul’s 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 stalks. 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 [foreign language].
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 bateyes alongside thousands of other workers and their families, part of the long history of migration of Haitians to the Dominican Republic.
Euclides Corder…:Growing up at the bateye is not easy because your parents are working in the sugar cane plantation, but the payment is very low. You just have food for like [foreign language] Very little, 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 batey named Cacata, Las Cacata.
Sandy Tolan:Cacata is a place Central Romana calls a model batey. 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 on Central Romana’s website, a boy in his front yard singing to Jesus. [foreign language]. But as we walk deeper into the batey, 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.
Speaker 4:[foreign language]
Sandy Tolan:Euclides greets them warmly in they’re native Creole and they invite us to join them. 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.
Cardenas:If is 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.
Cardenas:Is not my fault. I’m working because I make requests for my pension and I don’t have it.
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 batey 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.
Euclides Corder…:Feel like they treat you well, the bosses?
Cardenas: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.
Cardenas:And you can see how they treat us here as a Haitian. If you have to go to the hospital, you have to find your own money to spend on your sickness.
Sandy Tolan:So if you get sick, what happens?
Cardenas: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.
Speaker 6:You guys, you have to understand as we are protecting interest here.
Sandy Tolan:Okay, let’s go.

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.

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.

This is what we see. Flimsy wooden houses, cracked, crumbling walls, a mattress on a 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 you 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 won the tourist snow by a different name.
Speaker 7:Hello. Hello. How are you?
Sandy Tolan:Casa de Campo.
Speaker 7:Thank you. And which way do I go?
Speaker 8:Good morning. From Casa de Campo here in the Dominican Republic. Here’s our view this morning.
Sandy Tolan:When the Funjuls 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 live pigeons or skeet. 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 thinking about where he grew up on a batey 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 batey 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 to in the sugar cane because I need shoes to go to school at 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 [inaudible] in the full Renaissance church. If you counted every light you’d get into the tens of thousands I think.
Euclides Corder…: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 is the contrast. 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 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.
Speaker 10:[inaudible] Astoria Central Romana Corporation.
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.

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 healthcare 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. In Batey 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. 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.
Speaker 11:And they don’t care about it. They say tomorrow, tomorrow we can bring you new one. And they turn up here 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. And then we meet another worker who says he fell gravely ill after spraying herbicides. This man’s name is Raul [foreign language]. 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. [foreign language]

During that time, he was diagnosed with HIV. Raul says because of the chemical spraying, he also had trouble breathing. After a year of fuming 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.
Raul:If you die your problem, they don’t say anything.
Sandy Tolan:Are they compensating you at all for your disability?
Raul:Never. They don’t give me anything.
Sandy Tolan:Raul tells us he needs a ride to the medical clinic. We tell them, 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 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.
Speaker 6:[foreign language]
Sandy Tolan:I walk toward our truck, Euclides goes to find Raul. We meet up at the edge of the batey. Raul dives into the backseat face down. He’s terrified that Central Romana security will spot him with outsiders.

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.

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 batey. 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. We soon discovered that the health problems reported by the fumigators seem to go way beyond Raul and the other men we’ve interviewed.
Speaker 14:[foreign language]
Sandy Tolan:Euclides and I are in the town of Guaymate. 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 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 asked them a series of questions. Have you had any of the following symptoms? Eye irritation, skin irritation, vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, stomach ache, headache.
Sandy Tolan:The health problems echo what we’ve been hearing from Raul and the other fumigators. 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 the 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.”

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 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.

Robert Vance’s lawsuits are facing potential setbacks, and even if they’re successful, it’ll be too late for some fumigators.
Raul:[foreign language]
Sandy Tolan:A few months after our visit with Raul, Euclides and I returned to Batey 80 to see how he was doing, but he wasn’t there. Raul Jean [foreign language] 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 batey and stopped at a mound of dirt. Here lay Raul’s body.

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 work hard and he doesn’t deserve this. He doesn’t deserve this.
Al Letson:For generations, workers like Raul Jean [foreign language] have toiled in the Dominican cane fields. Coming up we meet a man who decided to speak out.
Father Hartley:These people live, born and die in this same paradise, yet they live in it as slaves.
Al Letson:That’s next on Reveal.

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 work camps or bateyes. 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 son in a place called Batey 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 Diatsu truck. There were 25 of us in the truck. I was the youngest. They sold us to this place here. My mother and father and three brothers, they don’t know where I am now.
Sandy Tolan:This is just terrible. The man 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 Batey Eight part of a government owned plantation. The bosses gave him 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. I resolve 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.
Euclides Corder…:Lulu-
Sandy Tolan:And to Lulu’s hometown in Haiti. Is it possible that he went-

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 Hartley: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 Hartley: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 Hartley: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 long time 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 and Central America and the Dominican Republic known as CAFTA.
President Bush: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 codery 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. With CAFTA in place and with Ponticelli providing advice, Father Hartley walked the halls of Congress.
Father Hartley:Me in Capitol Hill, it was like, 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 Hartley:The US Labor Department published its report, which was tremendous.
Sandy Tolan:The report was released in 2013 and cited evidence of forced labor and child labor. Many of the same problems I had reported on in the nineties. 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. 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 Hartley:They have videos, photographs, interviews. If the members of the Department of Labor who have regularly gone down to the plantations or 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 sugar cane 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. 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 21: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 of the US to step up enforcement of a 1930s law that blocks the import of goods produced with forced labor.
Speaker 21:Customs agents will be turning away products from China that they say are sourced from forced labor in China’s-
Duncan Jepson:This is the first time we’ve seen this and it’s pretty amazing that 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 publicly 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 Batey Catata. They had no papers, no access to the pensions they paid into, no savings. Their future, work in the cane fields into their eighties.
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 Tejeda:The culture say that we are the [children] of Spain.
Sandy Tolan:Eddie Tejeda is a Dominican migration expert. He says decades old racial violence and stereotypes create a racialized Dominican self-image that says-
Eddie Tejeda:We are white and we are Catholic. We are not black, we are not poor. We don’t practice voodoo.
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 Tejeda says few Dominican officials are concerned about the conditions facing Haitian caneros.
Eddie Tejeda:It’s very, very shocking, but I don’t think this is a kind of 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. 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. One Sunday morning, Euclides and I go to a batey for an evangelical church service under a patchwork of red and blue tarps fitted to wooden poles.

(singing)

We’re with a couple, I’m going to call them Ifran 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. Unlike his wife, Ifran 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.
Ifran:Yes, I borrow money. I borrow money from people. Yes, a lot.
Sandy Tolan:And so Ifran now owes 30,000 pesos, about $600 or nearly three months pay. The lender is charging them 10% per week.
Ifran:If you borrow 1000 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. Noni says we have to pay people we took money from. It’s never enough. We spoke with more than two dozen cane workers who told us their low salaries forced them into the hands of money lenders who operate in nearby towns. Ifran told us it’s a brutal cycle, the cane cutters are in debt until they die. 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.” 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.”
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.

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From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. This week show is from Sandy Tolan and Euclides Cordero Nuel. They spent more than two years investigating one of the biggest exporters of sugar to the US, the Central Romana Corporation, a company with close ties to the powerful Fanjul family of West Palm Beach, Florida. Sandy’s with me now because there’s been a breakthrough in the story. Hey, Sandy.
Sandy Tolan:Hey, Al. How you doing?
Al Letson:Good. So your story originally came out in September 2021 and not long after, things started to happen in Washington.
Sandy Tolan:Yeah, Al, it’s been a wild ride. In addition to the Reveal story, we also had a big piece in Mother Jones and then later a story in The Intercept, and there was other media coverage as well. By October 2021, democratic lawmakers were calling for action from the Biden administration. Human rights groups and labor groups joined the chorus. Then delegations from Congress, the State Department and various federal agencies visited the Dominican Republic to see for themselves what was going on. And that wasn’t all. We now know that US Customs agents were also on the case. They wanted to know whether all that sugar coming into the US was being produced with forced labor. That was really our focus too.
Al Letson:And so what did they find out?
Sandy Tolan:Well, according to a statement released in November, US Customs and Border Protection found five key indicators of forced labor at Central Romana’s plantation, what’s called abuse of vulnerability, isolation, withholding of wages, abusive working and living conditions, and excessive overtime. And here’s the big news. On the basis of those findings, the United States imposed a ban on all imports of raw sugar from Central Romana. They made that announcement on the day before Thanksgiving.
Al Letson:Wow, that is huge. Remind me, how much sugar are we talking about here?
Sandy Tolan:Well, Central Romana shipped nearly 300 million pounds of raw sugar to the US last year, and we know it flowed into the supply chains of major brands like Domino and Hershey. Now, that’s about 7% of total raw sugar imports. So this probably won’t have a huge impact on consumers in the US, but it is a huge deal for the Dominican sugar industry. And Al, I just wanted to say that we’re also seeing a lot of these actions from the US government. In recent years, US Customs has blocked imports of palm oil and seafood from Malaysia and cotton from China based on evidence that these products were also produced with forced labor.
Al Letson:So what has been Central Romana’s response to this ban on its sugar?
Sandy Tolan:The company released a statement saying it disagreed vehemently with the decision and challenged US customs pretty much point by point. Central Romana says it’s committed to providing safe employment and talked about the need to continuously evolve our work environment and the living conditions of our employees.
Al Letson:You mentioned that Central Romana had been under a lot of scrutiny. You’d think that the company would’ve seen all of this coming and done something about it.
Sandy Tolan:Well, there are really two parts to that answer, Al. As we mentioned, the Fanjul family of Florida are part owners of Central Romana. Now the Fanjuls are big political donors to Republicans and Democrats, and they have a lot of political influence. So it’s possible that Central Romana thought they had a little extra protection from regulators. But the company wasn’t sitting on its hands either, let me tell you about what happened at one of the bateyes where cane cutters and their families lived. Officially its name was 82 A, but it was known by most people as Hoyo de Puerco, literally pig hole.

We went there a few times, and this is the sound from one of those visits. It looks 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’s bateyes, Hoyo de Puerco had no electricity.
Al Letson:That just sounds inhumane.
Sandy Tolan:Yes. And then in November of last year, we got word that something was going down. Central Romana had sent workers with bulldozers and armed guards into that batey. We got some cell phone video that shows how they razed the settlement to the ground. And as for the residents, they were loaded onto trucks and moved to other bateyes.
Al Letson:Wow. So instead of making improvements, the company just wiped the place out.
Sandy Tolan:Al, we have satellite images that showed how it was erased from the map.
Al Letson:Why would Central Romana do something like that? I mean, people were actually living here, right? They just wiped out their homes.
Sandy Tolan:Well, a company spokesman said in an email, 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 batey in terrible condition. Now at Hoyo de Puerco, the timing of the destruction was curious to say the least. It happened just before US diplomats were due to visit Central Romana’s plantation and that particular batey. And if they were trying to improve the company’s image, it doesn’t seem to have gotten them very far, at least in the eyes of the US government.
Al Letson:Okay, so Central Romana’s raw sugar is banned from the US. What’s next?
Sandy Tolan:Now, the Dominican government has said they plan to get involved and Central Romana has talked about working with the US to resolve the issue. Interestingly though, the company has also released a much more defiant statement in Spanish saying nothing about cooperation and denying allegations of forced labor. Now, there is a process under which the company can ask to have the sugar ban lifted, but that could take months, if not longer.
Al Letson:What about the cane cutters and their families? What’ll happen to them?
Sandy Tolan:That’s a really important question. As we mentioned in the story, Al, some Haitian cane cutters in the Dominican Republic are basically stateless. They have no documents, no work permits and so on. They’re extremely vulnerable. In recent months, Dominican authorities have stepped up deportations of Haitians. There’s a growing climate of fear, and frankly, long running racism towards Haitians. So we don’t know where this will lead. Another thing to keep in mind, after the Fanjuls were sued for their treatment of Jamaican cane cutters in their home base of Florida, the entire Florida cane industry mechanized and that effectively sent the Jamaicans back home.

There’s some concern that this could happen in the Dominican Republic with the Haitian cane cutters, 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, help them get their long overdue social security payments, provide more buses to send children to school, help them get electricity into the bateyes. And instead of charitable handouts of handy wipes and blankets, as we saw recently, real wages and benefits to the cane cutters to live a more dignified life. 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:Thanks for having me, Al.
Al Letson:Sandy Tolan is a journalist and author based in Los Angeles and a professor of journalism at USC, Annenburg. Sandy’s work on the Dominican cane cutters also appeared in Mother Jones Magazine. His stories include some amazing photos of workers and their families. You’ll find a link on our website at revealnews.org.

This week’s show was edited and co-produced by Michael Montgomery. Additional editing by Taki Telonidis. 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 Mostafa. Original score in sound design by the dynamic duo, J Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, My Man, Yo, Arruda. They had help from Claire C-Note Mullen, Katherine Steyer Martinez, Stephen Rascon and Jess Alvarenga. Our digital producer is Sarah Merck. Our COO is Maria Feldman. Our CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our interim executive producers are Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis.

Our theme music is by Camerado Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D and Katherine T MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the In As Much Foundation. 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.

(singing)

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.

Kathryn Styer Martínez

Kathryn Styer Martínez (she/ella) is a production assistant for Reveal. She studies audio and photojournalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is also a Greater Good Science Center reporting fellow, focusing on Latino well-being.

Martínez was the 2020-21 Toni Randolph reporting fellow at Minnesota Public Radio, the 2019-20 New Economy Reporting Project fellow and the former director of KGPC-LP FM, Peralta Community Radio. Her work has appeared in El Tecolote, The Oaklandside, MPR News, National Public Radio, Outside Online, Talk Poverty, New Life Quarterly and Making Contact.

She earned bachelor’s degrees in Raza studies and political science from San Francisco State University.

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.

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.