My Dominican co-workers wore sweaters to work when temperature fell below 70 degrees in December. “Winter is cold here,” friends and employees told me. While I stuck to my t-shirts in the day, I did cut short my nightly unheated showers.
At Esperanza International, offices in El Seibo and Hato Mayor recently worked through a large number of loan cycle renewals. Many community banks successfully wrapped up their six-month payment plans in early December, and promptly transitioned to another round, taking advantage of the annual rise in consumer demand around Chritsmastime and New Years. Not only was it gift-giving season, December also marks the start of the zafra, the sugarcane cutting season. Notoriously brutal, sugarcane has a legacy and a reality that falls somewhere on the “excessively exploitative” industry spectrum. One colleague calls the trade “a 19th century system that has just stuck around.” Undocumented Haitian migrant workers both survive by and suffer under the sugarcane economy. Sugarcane plantation communities, bateys, are strikingly isolated, resource-poor, and under-served. Bateys are also home to many of Esperanza’s community banks.
During a December interview, Cloreta, a Kiva-funded entrepreneur explained her situation simply, “this loan lets me keep food on the table.” While most of my Kiva interviews touch on hopes to pay school fees, open full-service stores, or repair individual homes, this conversation centered on a battle for subsistence. Many of the challenges facing Cloreta relate to living on a batey.
Away from the plantations, it is easy to gather an optimistic impression of economic development in the Dominican. Bus companies, motos*, guaguas*, carros publicos* and decent road infrastructure allow access to many nooks and crannies of cities and countryside. Motorcycle and scooter businesses fill streets with thundering packs of personal transport. There are innumerable dance clubs. Free trade zones in several cities employ thousands of workers, and the government seems to enforce some basic employment rights. Semi-rural towns have restaurants and motels. A significant number of young adults attend a battery of urban universities; degrees in medicine, computer engineering, accounting, and tourism studies are popular. Cable television, DSL internet, and Playstations regularly
appear in middle-income homes. Entrepreneurs are able to access large inventory vendors to buy in bulk. Entrepreneurs in rural and semi-rural areas can access main roads, and streams (although sometimes small) of clients who both live and pass through their communities. A good number of Esperanza bank members from all of these areas show convincing progress over time: a small food stand advances into a variety-goods colmado, a clothing seller goes from selling out of a backpack to setting up her own home-side storefront. These same entrepreneurs also talk of changing their tactics and strategies and adjusting their inventories and in order to fit into the best local economic niche. There is both flexibility and possibility.
Entering a batey is a distinct experience. Generally, long tire-pounding dirt roads wind their way from main thoroughfares into seas of cane– tall, stiff, and green. Austere cookie-cutter housing (built by the government or
private companies), sits secluded on cleared-out land somewhere amidst the green. Plumbing is rare. Some bateys have schoolhouses, others have no sanitary water. Some cane companies have abandoned the bateys themselves, but the crop still grows and locals harvest and sell it on their own. Bateys still under commercial control may have company stores, chunks of wages paid in “store credit” rather than cash, and rules forbidding locals to vend similar goods in the batey. Much like undocumented immigrants in the United States, Haitians cross the Dominican border in great need of work, and form the backbone of the most physically demanding and poorly paid workforce in the country. Human rights groups narrate a story of slave-like conscription and labor conditions, (local Dominicans may agree or disagree with that characterization). Migrant workers’ vulnerability, however, goes undisputed. The communities generally speak any mix of Kreyol and Spanish. If families have come “illegally” from Haiti**, they lack legal status, along with their children.
Children of Haitians born in the Dominican stand in a citizenship void: unrecognized by either government. Dominican officials periodically round up illegal Haitains for mass deportations– another reason to remain isolated in the cane. Dominican radio talk show hosts may engage the topic of the “Haitian problem” from time to time. Rosy is not the word for the Haitian-Dominican relationship. The roster of issues is long.
Cloreta lives on a company-owned batey. She is a Haitian immigrant, as are the majority of her neighbors. She sells modest foodstuffs—crackers, sugar, and coffee, oil and flour. She explained that she’d like to sell more diverse products, but this would conflict with the rules of the company-owned store. At the time (early December) she pointed out that the first wages of the
season would arrive in about a week. When cane cutters get paid, the batey economy gains liquidity, and Cloreta can take in cash. As she said, right now her income really only allows her to subsist and pay back her loan. The Esperanza payments, however, include mandatory savings, so at the end of her loan she will end up with an additional cushion.
The cane season will continue until the summer. Perhaps the six-month period will allow Cloreta to add to her savings, and allow her to reach beyond the “food on the table” goal. Cloreta plans on continuing with her microloans, she sees this opportunity as completely worthwhile. Other community members clearly have taken notice: the bank was training at least ten new members that day. During our interview, one of Cloreta’s colleagues was busy at work translating the loan officer’s information into Kreyol, since several knew no Spanish.
I can’t decide if it’s fair to say that the cane season makes December and entirely “sweeter” month than others. Regardless, the batey clients certainly are skilled “lemonade” chefs, given all of the “lemons” they get.
Hasta la proxima,
Kalie, Kiva Fellow-Dominican Republic
(written from Los Alcarrizos)
*guaga: a van or truck, usually smaller than a 60 person bus. May also refer to buses. Motos: motorcycle taxi. Usually $1 or $2 a ride. Carros publicos: run down recycled cars that run designated routes in cities. About 50 cens a ride.
** Postcript on Haiti: Haiti today is considered a “failed state.” In the fall of 2008, hurricanes killed hundreds of Haitians, and completely destroyed entire communities. The latest of a series of UN peacekeeping forces has been stationed in the country since 2004 (UN-Haiti missions date back to 1993), in response to continued political violence between the Haitian government and other forces vyying for power. Many Haitians who attempt to leave the country cross over to the Dominican Republic (a rather pourous border). As undocumented workers, much like in the United States, they become the cheap-labor source for cane-cutting.
The racial and cultural divides between Dominicans and Haitians is palpable. A textbook might narrate the complexities of Haitian history from its birth via the famous country-wide slave uprising (Haiti is the world’s oldest black republic) to years of occupation, dictatorship, violent political instability, and today’s profound poverty. Meanwhile, day to day life in the Dominican reveals deeply seated ideas of race—the common phrase“black as a Haitian” is one way to call someone unattractive. As a Catholic-dominated country, many Dominicans also come up with wild stories of Haitian Voodoo practice: from baby-eating to witch-curses. Concurrently, many Dominicans emphatically reject the idea that racism partly defines Dominican-Haitian relationship.