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.

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)


Logo for Mother Jones

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 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.


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.

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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 U.S., Brazil and Mexico are also big suppliers.
Al Letson:Then, there’s the Dominican Republic where still today, on vast plantations, sugarcane is cut by men with machetes and hauled away by ox drawn carts. The work is grueling. This past month, hundreds of workers protested in the Dominican capital, Santo Domingo. They chanted, without cane cutters, there is no sugar [foreign language]. These men are from Haiti and are among the thousands of Haitians who are living across the Island’s border in the Dominican Republic. They’re demanding simple things like the pensions they were promised and better living conditions for their families. Conditions are harsh, but things were even worse 30 years ago when reporter Sandy Tolan first visited.
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 for 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. (singing). 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 U.S. 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 CNH and Florida Crystals. 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 U.S. 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. He brings us this story made possible with help from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Sandy Tolan:Locomotives roll past undulating waves of sugarcane, 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 batey 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 batey is not easy because your parents are working in the sugarcane plantation, but the payment is very low. You just have food for [foreign language]. Very little.
Sandy Tolan:Euclides was just two years old the first time I came to report on life on 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 [foreign language]. The kinds of uplifting images promoted on Central Romana’s website. A boy in his front yard, singing to Jesus. (singing). But as we walk deeper into the batey, we reach a grim looking line of concrete barracks-
Euclides Corder…:It’s okay. Here we go.
Sandy Tolan:And just beyond, we find two cane cutters sitting on a pair of broken plastic chairs [foreign language]. Euclides greets them warmly in their native Creole and they invite us to join them [foreign language]. 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 2,200 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 [foreign language].
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 U.S. 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 [foreign language].
Euclides Corder…:It’s not my fault I’m working because I make requests for my pension and I don’t have it-
Sandy Tolan:Unlike 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 jobs.
Sandy Tolan:So, every day they slash and slash under an unrelenting sun, sharp stocks, cutting into their hands.
Euclides Corder…:Do you feel like they treat you well, the bosses [foreign language]. For me, I’m not good [foreign language].
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…:[foreign language], And you can see how they treat us here as a Haitian [foreign language]. Now, 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?
Euclides Corder…:[foreign language]. 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 [foreign language], two armed men in uniform, pull up on a motorcycle [foreign language]. 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. 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 U.S. In this vast landscape of cane and company work camps, we’re learning something. Central Romana is a 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…:Batey [foreign language], batey [foreign language], batey [foreign language], batey-
Sandy Tolan: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 realized 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 that tourists know by a different name.
Euclides Corder…:Hello?
Speaker 2:Hello.
Euclides Corder…:How are you?
Sandy Tolan:Casa de Campo.
Euclides Corder…:Thank you. And which way do I go?
Speaker 3: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 builds 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, U.S. 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 [inaudible]. 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 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 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 in the sugarcane 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 the full Renaissance church.
Euclides Corder…:If you counted every light, you’d get into the tens of thousands but you go to 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 a contrast, it’s a 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 [foreign language]. No one came out to meet with us here, either [foreign language]. It’s a private company we’re told, but we’re invited to stay and read a glossy coffee table book about Central Romana.
Euclides Corder…:[inaudible], the story of 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.
Sandy Tolan: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, backaches, dizziness, nausea, double vision [foreign language]. 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.
Euclides Corder…:And they don’t care about it [foreign language], and they say, “Tomorrow, tomorrow we are going to bring you a new one.” And they turn up here with a 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 [foreign language]. And then we meet another worker who says he fell gravely ill after spraying herbicides. This man’s name is Raoul Jean Hervil. Raoul 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.
Sandy Tolan:Raoul says because of the chemical spraying, he also had trouble breathing [foreign language]. After a year of fumigating work, Raoul will tells us, he started getting the flu [foreign language], fever. Then came the rashes, burning skin. His respiratory problems grew worse. In November, 2018, Raoul tells us, he collapsed on the job [foreign language]. 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. Raoul believes the exposure to herbicides nearly killed him and that his bosses didn’t care [foreign language].
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…:[foreign language]. Never. They don’t give me anything.
Sandy Tolan:Raoul 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 Raoul, 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 [foreign language]. Then he orders us to leave [foreign language]. I walk toward our truck. Euclides goes to find Raoul. We meet up at the edge of the batey. Raoul dives into the backseat face down. He’s terrified that Central Romana security will spot them with outsiders [foreign language]. Okay. So, we’ve got Raoul. We’re taking Raoul to the doctor. So, now, Raoul is lying down in the back seat so, he’s not going to be noticed.
Sandy Tolan:We try to get Raoul to his doctor, but we can’t find her and by this point, Raoul’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. Raoul 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 seemed to go way beyond Raoul and the other men we’ve interviewed [foreign language]. 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 U.S.
Robert Vance:I’m Robert Vance. I’m one of the plaintiff’s lawyers in the case.
Sandy Tolan:One lawsuit on behalf of the Haitian fumigators sites 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 Raoul and the other fumigators [foreign language]. 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 [foreign language], 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 U.S. 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 state, or exactly who’s calling the shots. What’s more, according to documents filed in the U.S. 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. [foreign language]. This past June, Euclides and I returned to Batey 80 to see Raoul, but he wasn’t there. Raoul Jean Hervil had died alone of respiratory failure in his rickety shack [foreign language]. With some friends and neighbors, we went to the place where Raoul was buried.
Euclides Corder…:We just came here to pay our respect.
Sandy Tolan:We walked through a small graveyard, just outside the batey and stopped at a mound of dirt. Here, lay Raoul’s body [foreign language]. 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 Raoul, who worked many years in sugarcane just buried in the dark. There is no cross, make me very sad because this man worked hard and he doesn’t deserve this. He doesn’t deserve this.
Sandy Tolan:For generations, workers like Raoul Jean Hervil have toiled in the Dominican cane fields. Coming up, we meet a man who decided to speak out.
Father Christop…:These people live, are born and die in this same paradise that they live in it as slaves.
Al Letson:That’s next on Reveal.
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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. We’re following 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 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:[foreign language]. I still carry the memory of him. A child standing barefoot under a punishing sun in a place called Batey 8, all stick limbs and sunken eyes. He was 14. It was 1991 [foreign language]. 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 [foreign language].
Lulu Pierre:This army officer grabbed me. I studied to run, but he was armed. They put me into a red Daihatsu 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 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 Batey 8, 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.” [foreign language]. 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. So, I always have not to do it and see what God is going to do with me. I have to go home [foreign language].
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 [foreign language]. Working with reporter Euclides Cordero Nuel, I looked in the Dominican bateyes, went to the Haitian border [foreign language], and to Lulu’s hometown in Haiti.
Euclides Corder…:Is it possible they [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, are born and die in this same paradise that 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 expect it, he’s going to be found dead on a sugarcane 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 U.S. 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 U.S., Central America and the Dominican Republic known as CAFTA.
George W. Bush:CAFTA’s 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, U.S. 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. 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 in 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 U.S. 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 ’90s. Dominican sugar plantations criticized the report and especially Father Hartley. As a follow-up, Father Hartley asked 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? 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 Christop…:They have videos, photographs, interviews of 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. We sued the Labor Department to get those documents, but so far nothing. This leaves us to wonder whether offending companies that ship sugar to the U.S. are getting off the hook. For its part, Central Romana insists 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 U.S. are facing new scrutiny.
Speaker 4: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 U.S. to step up enforcement of a 1930s law that blocks the import of goods produced with forced labor.
Speaker 4: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 U.S. 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 Batey Cacata. 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 Tejate:The culture said that we are the children of Spain.
Sandy Tolan:Eddie Tejate is the Dominican migration expert. He says decades old racial violence and stereotypes create a racialized Dominican self-image that says.
 Eddie Tejate: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 Tejate says few Dominican officials are concerned about the conditions facing Haitian caneros.
 Eddie Tejate: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. 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, maybe 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. (singing).
Sandy Tolan: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 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 [foreign language]. 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 Romano’s promise to provide free health care to workers, he says he has to pay for much of it himself. All that has pushed him into spiraling debt.
Euclides Corder…:[foreign language]. 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. Lender is charging them 10% per week.
Euclides Corder…:[foreign language], 1,000 pesos. So, you have to give this person 100 pesos 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 [foreign language]. Noni says, “We have to pay people we took money from. It’s never enough.” [foreign language]. 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. Efrain 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 [foreign language]. She says, “Haitians make the sugar. Without Haitians, you don’t have sugar.” (singing).
Al Letson:As powerful as Central Romana is, there’re efforts to make it more accountable to the cane cutters and their families. That’s coming up next on Reveal. (singing).
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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 together with reporter, Euclides Cordero Nuel, he spent the last two years investigating the biggest sugar company in the Dominican Republic and the harsh conditions its workers face. And Sandy’s with me now. Hey Sandy.
Sandy Tolan:Hey Al. How you doing?
Al Letson:Good. It seems like this company you’ve been looking at, Central Romana has enormous control over its workers and their families. People like Efrain and his wife Noni. What makes this company so powerful?
Sandy Tolan:Well, I described it as a 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 he was the Dominican ambassador to the U.S. and looming over all of this is the Fanjul family, especially brothers, Alfonso and Pepe. They own a major stake of the company, according to court records. And as we’ve said, the ownership structure of Central Romana is unclear since they don’t release this information.
Al Letson:Right. I’ve seen these guys called the sugar barons of Florida.
Sandy Tolan:Yeah. But the origins of the Fanjul sugar empire actually are in Cuba. The family owned sugar plantations and fled in the late 1950s during the Cuban revolution. Alfonso and Pepe eventually settled in West Palm Beach. They bought 150,000 acres in Florida Cane and their properties stretch into the Everglades and they tangled in Florida with environmentalists and labor advocates. Then in 1980s, they expanded into the Dominican Republic. Then they bought the Domino Refinery in Baltimore, sugar interests on the West Coast, in Canada, the UK. So, now, it’s really a global empire. And along the way, they’ve become known for their lavish lifestyles. Mansions in West Palm Beach, 100 foot yacht, private planes, fancy holiday parties, both in West Palm and in the Dominican Republic.
Al Letson:In your story, you talked about how Central Romana and by extension the Fanjuls push back hard against the Labor Department and other organizations that were critical of the sugar industry. So, what gives them so much influence?
Sandy Tolan:Well, you might not be that surprised that a big part of it is money. In addition to controlling the world’s biggest sugar refiner, the Fanjuls also have other business interests and they make a lot of money from the U.S. Sugar Program. That guarantees all sugar producers in the U.S. a certain price. It fluctuates, but over the years, sugar in the U.S. has sold for about 10 cents a pound above the world market price and when you’re talking about millions of tons, that adds up pretty quickly. For the raw sugar coming from Central Romana, the Fanjuls as part owners of the company, also benefit from a preferential trade quota, meaning low tariffs on that imported sugar plus it’s sold in the U.S. at those inflated prices so, basically, they get two bites out of the apple.
Al Letson:So, wait, let me get this straight. Sugar producers are making tens of millions of extra profits simply because the government inflates the price?
Sandy Tolan:Actually, it’s a lot more than that. One economist, I spoke to, Vincent Smith estimates that the net gain for sugar producers in the U.S. is about $1.2 billion annually. For the companies the Fanjul family controls, he puts their share somewhere in the range of 150 to $200 million a year. As Smith says, “Nice work if you can get it.” The bottom line though, Al, is this has all earned the Fanjuls the nickname, the first family of corporate welfare. That’s what John McCain called them from the floor of the Senate.
Al Letson:I gather they put some of that money into the political system.
Sandy Tolan:Yeah. Over the last 20 years, so-called Big Sugar has spent about $220 million in federal campaign contributions and lobbying and the Fanjuls and their affiliated companies and trade alliances are a big part of that. And they divvy it up. On an individual level, Pepe Fanjul contributes to Republican coffers. For example, he’s a big supporter of Florida senator Marco Rubio, and Rubio is a huge supporter of that higher U.S. price on sugar. Then Alfonso Fanjul gives to the Democrats. Of course, we can’t determine exactly a quid pro quo, but clearly the Fanjuls have access. Al, there’s this wild story that comes out of the Starr Report investigation into Bill Clinton, Alfie Fanjul was able to get through to President Clinton in the oval office reportedly while he was breaking up with Monica Lewinsky. Alfie wanted the president’s ear about a proposed new sugar tax, which of course he didn’t like and later that tax proposal went down.
Al Letson:And so, what are the Fanjuls say about all this?
Sandy Tolan:Well, as we mentioned earlier, they wouldn’t talk to us for this story. In fact, they don’t talk to the media much at all, but in a short statement, a Fanjul spokesperson pointed to a family foundation that’s poured millions of dollars to support education and healthcare for the cane workers and the families and Central Romana says pretty much the same thing.
Al Letson:So, has there been any success in making the company pay attention to the problems you found in your reporting?
Sandy Tolan:Yes. And I want to go back to Father Christopher Hartley, the Spanish priest. He was frustrated that the U.S. didn’t take more aggressive action. Then together with other activists, he 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, General Mills, Mars, and Hershey. Father Hartley and the others raised an uproar over working conditions and also evictions and Al, that’s something I saw for myself, widows whose husbands worked for Central Romana for 20 or 30 years, after their husbands die, they’re evicted. Central Romana confirmed that’s what they do. And these old women are left to fend for themselves. In any case, Bonsucro rejected Central Romana’s application. Now, a lot of people have never heard of Bonsucro, but the companies that are members have invested a lot of time and money showing their commitment to fair and ethical trade. If nothing else, the optics are pretty important.
Al Letson:So, what are the companies who buy sugar from Central Romana telling you?
Sandy Tolan:Well, our reporting shows that Hershey does source sugar from Domino’s Baltimore refinery, which does get millions of pounds of raw sugar every year from Central Romana. Now, like all the Bonsucro members we contacted, Hershey wouldn’t agree to an interview or answer a lot of questions, but in a short email they said they don’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. And it gets a little complicated actually, because Central Romana was recently certified by a different industry group, ProTerra but there are questions about the quality of that certification, how many workers the auditor has actually spoke with. And the bottom line is that Central Romana is still excluded from Bonsucro and that’s a pretty big deal.
Al Letson:Okay. So, let’s say U.S. companies decide to stop buying Domino sugar, because some of it originates at this plantation in the Dominican Republic. How could this impact the cane cutters and their families?
Sandy Tolan:Well, there are a couple of ways it could go. After the Fanjuls 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’s some concern this could happen in the Dominican Republic with Haitian cane cutters. Parts of Central Ramona’s plantation are already mechanized, 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 three, three and a half dollars 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:Hey, thanks for having me Al. I appreciate it.
Al Letson:Sandy Tolan is a journalist and author based in Los Angeles. Sandy’s also written a story for Mother Jones about the cane cutters in the Dominican Republic. It includes some amazing photos of workers and their families. You’ll find a link to it on our website, 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’s, Amy the great Mostafa, original score and sound designed by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando my man Arruda [inaudible], this week from Steven Rascon and Claire C-note Mullen.
Al Letson:Our digital producer is Sarah Mirk. Our interim CEO is Annie Chabel. Sumi Agarwall is our interim editor in chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado Lightning. 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, the Democracy Fund and the Inasmuch 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).
Speaker 1:I’m about to play you a preview of 9/12. While you’re listening, be sure to follow 9/12 wherever you get your podcasts or you can binge all seven episodes right now on Amazon music or with Wondery Plus.
Dan Teberski:I’m Dan Teberski. Do you want to hear my 9/11 story? Yeah, me neither, because what I want to talk about is what happened on 9/12 and every day after that.
Speaker 5:This morning, less than 24 hours later, the signature of the New York skyline is no more.
Dan Teberski:9/12 is a documentary podcast about how we turned to 9/11, the day into 9/11, the idea and how that idea was used to shape the next 20 years.
Speaker 6:One year ago today, we remember what the terrorist [inaudible].
Dan Teberski:9/11 became a call to arms.
Speaker 7:Plane crushes. I say I’m going to join the military, another plane crashes.
Speaker 8:Five years ago, America was a nation of peace.
Dan Teberski:9/11 became a dangerous joke to tell.
Speaker 9:I eventually came up with a headline of, Nation Vows to Defeat Whoever It Is We’re at War With.
Dan Teberski:It’s one conspiracy sprouted. The original super sprinter before all that came since.
Speaker 10:Everything that’s happening now is bananas like Sandy Hook is bananas, flat Earth is bananas [inaudible], is bananas. Oh yeah, how convenient that you think all those other conspiracy theories are bananas but you don’t think your own pet theory is bananas. First of all, I don’t (beep), know what happened on 9/11.
Dan Teberski:How much of who we are now is because of what happened then on that day, 20 years ago and do we finally have enough distance to see it clearly. Follow 9/12 wherever you get your podcasts, or you can binge all seven episodes right now on Amazon Music or with Wondery Plus.
Speaker 11:From PRX.

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.

Kevin Sullivan is a former 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.

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.

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.

Amy Mostafa (she/they) was 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.

Steven Rascón (he/they) is the production manager 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.

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.