Human Rights Watch World Report 1992 - Dominican Republic

Events of 1991

Human Rights Developments

In three months, from June through September 1991, thousands of Haitian citizens and Dominican citizens of Haitian origin (so-called Dominico-Haitians) were forcibly expelled from the Dominican Republic or fled in fear of summary expulsion. The expulsions were the Dominican government's latest response to mounting international pressure to end its dependence on forced labor in its state sugar industry – an undisguised lashing out at the victim. The expulsions began abruptly after the Dominican government's forced labor practices became the focus of a report by "Primetime Live," the U.S. television news program, and of congressional hearings in the United States.

The expulsions were deliberately cloaked in a humanitarian facade. Decree No. 233-91, issued by President Joaquín Balaguer, orders the repatriation of foreigners under age sixteen and over age sixty who are working and living on state-run and privately owned sugar-cane plantations. Those over sixty are said to be entitled to receive all benefits owed under Dominican law. The decree provides that the cost of repatriation will be borne by the Dominican government, and that those repatriated will be treated with the utmost respect. The Department of Labor, with the cooperation of the secretaries of the Armed Forces and Foreign Affairs, the National Police, and the Department of Immigration, is directed to ensure compliance with the decree.

In fact, the expulsions were plagued by abuse. Workers whose labor the Dominican Republic has accepted for years, or decades, were torn from their communities and families and sent across the Haitian border. Dominican soldiers, using force, arbitrarily and indiscriminately rounded up Haitians, Dominico-Haitians and anyone else deemed to "look" Haitian. Such legal niceties as Dominican citizenship were dismissed; identification documents were shredded or ignored. Despite the pledge to pay benefits due, wages were often left unpaid. The round-ups occurred not only on sugar plantations but throughout the country, including construction sites and other enterprises where Haitians live and work. The victims were not only the young and the old but "Haitians" of all ages. Life-long residents of the Dominican Republic were caught up in the dragnet without any opportunity to arrange their affairs or collect their belongings.

Most of those expelled were denied the fair immigration hearing that is due them under Dominican and international law. Rather, they were simply advised of their imminent deportation, without any attempt to determine their citizenship or immigrant status. They were then bused across the border to Haiti, a foreign country to many who speak Spanish as a first language or have few if any remaining relatives there.

Some six to seven thousand are believed to have been forcibly deported as a result of this campaign. In addition, the summary expulsions have engendered a climate of terror for Haitians and Dominico-Haitians residing in the Dominican Republic, leading thousands more – Haitian sources estimate up to forty to fifty thousand – to flee the country.

The expulsions took place against a background of continuing reliance on forced labor to complete the state's sugarcane harvest, at least through the end of the last harvest, which was concluded in June and July. Cane cutters on Dominican state-run sugar plantations are required to work extraordinarily long hours under the searing sun. Most have no choice but to share, with three to five others, small, dark rooms in barracks-style housing, with no electricity, running water, cooking facilities or latrines. For their arduous work, many cane cutters are paid so little that they barely have enough to provide one modest meal a day of rice and beans.

Few Dominicans are willing to cut sugarcane under such conditions. Instead, the Dominican plantations must rely on a foreign labor force, predominantly from neighboring Haiti, to cut cane each year. Although thousands of Haitians and Dominico-Haitians perform the work willingly, this voluntary workforce is insufficient to meet the Dominican government's labor needs. Unwilling to offer the living and working conditions necessary to attract a wholly voluntary workforce, the Dominican government has filled this labor gap by using deceptive and forced recruitment practices to bring Haitians to state-owned sugarcane plantations, and forced confinement to compel them to perform the difficult and dangerous work of cutting sugarcane.

Some recruits are falsely promised appealing work and good wages by buscones (recruiters) who are paid by the sugarcane plantations to lure Haitians to military posts in the Dominican Republic. Other Haitians who attempt to enter the Dominican Republic freely are stopped by border guards and taken into custody. Once entrapped, the Haitians are forcibly transported to the plantations where they are compelled to remain for the duration of the harvest up to six or seven months. Those who try to escape are often arrested and physically abused by guards.

After years of unconvincing attempts to deny and discredit reports of its use of forced labor, the Dominican government in October 1990 introduced a number of reforms that were welcomed by the international community. Decree No. 417-90, issued by President Balaguer, included instructions to regularize the immigration status of all Haitians in the Dominican Republic; to improve living conditions on the bateyes, where the cane cutters live; and to provide all sugar workers with individual work contracts specifying wages, hours and, notably, the right to break the contract and seek work at another plantation or to return to the worker's country of origin. Following the announcement of the decree, the Secretary of Labor prohibited the use of "intermediaries" to recruit workers and made recommendations for an orderly and fair recruitment process.

However, many of these announced reforms were not implemented, and conditions of coercion persisted during the 1990-91 harvest. Moreover, in light of the 1991 repatriation decree, it appears that the Dominican government has suspended any attempt to regularize the immigration status of Haitians in the Dominican Republic – one of the important promises of the October 1990 decree.

The Right to Monitor

Dominicans generally enjoy the right to monitor human rights in their country. For years, there has been great public attention in the Dominican Republic to the issue of forced labor, and in 1991, discussion about the deportations was widely aired. However, many domestic human rights advocates have traditionally proceeded with discretion, fearing reprisals from Dominican authorities.

An example of the need for caution can be found in the case of Father Edwin Paraison of the Episcopal Anglican Church, a leading advocate of the rights of Haitian and Dominico-Haitian sugarcane cutters in the Dominican Republic. Father Paraison was featured prominently in the report on child labor in the Dominican sugar industry broadcast in May by the ABC-TV news program "Primetime Live," and testified before the U.S. House of Representatives in June. Thereafter he was the subject of harsh criticism by the Dominican state-run television station, and reportedly came under heavy surveillance by Dominican state security forces.

Previously, in 1988, Father Paraison had been summoned and interrogated by the G-2 intelligence service of the Dominican armed forces after complaining to the authorities that soldiers were arresting Haitian cane-cutters and extorting money for their release. Before that, in 1987, two Haitians who were active in organizing Haitian workers, and with whom Father Paraison worked closely, were killed. One was reportedly shot by Dominican soldiers when the two activists were on their way to a meeting of Haitian workers. The other, who fled but was being sought and eventually presented himself before the Santo Domingo police accompanied by a human rights lawyer – to whom assurances of the activist's safety were given – was detained and found hanged in his cell the following day. At that time, Father Paraison received phone threats saying that he "would be next."

The 1991 mass deportation of Haitians and Dominico-Haitians is avowedly President Balaguer's reaction to public criticism by domestic and international human rights organizations of the use of forced labor on Dominican state sugarcane plantations. "In light of the ominous campaign that has been unleashed against the [Dominican Republic] from outside," President Balaguer stated in June, "we had to make a decisive change, adopt the patriotic and irreversible determination to allow in our territory only those foreigners whom we would be able to maintain on Dominican soil.... The rest will necessarily have to be repatriated." Although international human rights organizations have had unimpeded access to the Dominican Republic, such retaliation against the victims of abuse shows a contempt for international human rights reporting.

U.S. Policy

On April 25, after a two-year review of Dominican labor practices, the Bush Administration determined that the Dominican government "[has] taken or [is] taking steps to afford internationally recognized worker rights." As a result, the Administration decided to maintain trade benefits to the Dominican Republic under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), despite a U.S. law that prohibits the granting of such benefits to countries that violate labor rights. That determination was made on the basis of a report, issued in April, by the GSP Subcommittee of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR). The decision put an end to the review of Dominican labor rights practices by the USTR, Carla Hills.

The GSP Subcommittee's findings on the treatment of Haitian cane cutters were based at least in part on reports by the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo which purported to analyze labor practices on Dominican sugarcane plantations. The Bush Administration has yet to make these reports public. The failure to disclose the Embassy's reports raises questions about their quality and suggests that the Administration based its determination not on actual human rights conditions, as required by U.S. law, but on extraneous political considerations.

The GSP Subcommittee report covered a range of labor rights concerns in the Dominican Republic. In its section on "Allegations of Worker Rights Violations of Haitian Sugar Cane Cutters," it included a number of statements that tried to put the best face on what remains a deplorable human rights situation, particularly by overstating the effects of the October 1990 presidential decree.

For instance, in discussing the portion of the October 1990 decree that required written contracts to be given to all Haitian sugarcane workers, the subcommittee stated that "the act of registering Haitian workers and providing them written work contracts, when fully implemented, would remove a large measure of the social and legal uncertainty which can make them vulnerable to forced recruitment." While formally notifying Haitians of their rights is certainly to be encouraged, the fact remains that forced labor has long been formally illegal under both Dominican and international law, but that has not stopped the Dominican government from forcibly conscripting Haitians to work on sugarcane plantations. It is not legal or social uncertainty that has allowed the use of forced labor to flourish – Haitians undoubtedly know that it is unlawful to force them to work in the sugarcane fields – but the Dominican government's failure to enforce its own laws banning the use of forced labor.

Furthermore, it is meaningless to provide contractual guarantees of voluntary labor to Haitian recruits while they are being held against their will in Dominican military posts waiting to be taken forcibly to state sugarcane plantations. The armed guards holding them speak far more forcefully than the written prohibition of forced labor. Only after the government's systematic use of forced recruitment is ended does the written contract become a meaningful guardian of the Haitians' rights.

In another statement, the GSP Subcommittee cited the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo to report:

There has been a marked reduction in the number and level of both private and public complaints of abuse in this area for the last two seasons.... [I]ndividual complaints about small numbers of people forcibly recruited or deceived by private agents [continue to be reported], but in general ... the problem [appears] significantly smaller.

By referring in vague terms to a "small number" of people forcibly recruited or to a problem that appears "significantly smaller," the Embassy's statement gives the impression of progress without any concrete substantiation. How many people were forcibly recruited, according to the Embassy? How much of an improvement does this represent over the prior year? The statement does not answer these questions, nor has the Bush Administration clarified these issues subsequently despite explicit requests from Congress. The assertions are particularly surprising since they follow excerpts of reports by Americas Watch and other human rights organizations which suggest that forced labor continues to be a serious problem on Dominican sugarcane plantations.

In its report, the GSP Subcommittee concluded, "Given the seriousness of the issue of forced recruitment and labor ... the Subcommittee believed the situation should continue to be monitored closely in the future." However, twice the Bush Administration did just the opposite. In April, USTR Hills ended her review of Dominican labor practices when President Bush announced his decision to maintain GSP benefits. In August, the USTR rejected a new petition from Americas Watch requesting continued review of worker rights during the 1991-1992 season. In each case, USTR Hills missed an opportunity to continue to try to influence the Dominican government to cease its reliance on forced labor.

The USTR's refusal to accept the Americas Watch petition for ongoing review of Dominican labor practices was particularly disturbing in light of the Dominican government's recision of one of the positive steps cited by the USTR to justify ending formal review. The GSP Subcommittee report relied upon by the USTR for her decision stated: "By legalizing the immigration status of Haitian workers ... the [October 1990 presidential] Decree would remove the barriers which have stopped illegal immigrants from seeking legal protection of their worker rights as provided for in the Dominican labor code." However, shortly after the USTR's decision, the Dominican government began its mass expulsion of Haitians, effectively rescinding the legalization provision of the October 1990 decree. Nonetheless, even after this reversal, the USTR refused to continue formal review of Dominican labor practices.

The Administration's decision to maintain GSP trade benefits was made seven weeks before the Dominican government announced its repatriation decree. The decision appears to have emboldened the Dominican government by giving it a seal of approval for promises rather than significant concrete steps to end labor rights abuses. That message was only reinforced two months later when, despite the mass expulsions, the USTR refused to accept an Americas Watch petition for further review.

The State Department's attempt to portray improvement in Dominican labor practices was no more convincing than that of the GSP Subcommittee. In prepared testimony on June 11 before House Subcommittees on Western Hemisphere Affairs and on Human Rights and International Organizations, Joseph Becelia, the director of the State Department's Office of Caribbean Affairs, did virtually nothing but tout five "meaningful steps" taken by the Dominican government to address labor rights concerns. The steps were later aptly summarized by Florida Representative Harry Johnston as: "the first one [step] is a commission, the second one is a decree, the third one is an announcement, the fourth one is an announcement, and the fifth one is an announcement." The strongest language Becelia used to describe ongoing forced labor in the Dominican Republic – after describing at some length each of the five "meaningful steps" – was: "notwithstanding this progress, we are concerned about continuing allegations that worker rights are not fully protected in the Dominican Republic." He went on to promise to continue to monitor worker rights in that country.

While the vows of the Dominican government to improve its labor rights practices represented important first steps toward respecting these rights, these promises were no substitute for the action required to eliminate forced labor altogether. As the State Department witness conceded in an exchange with Representative Robert Torricelli, chairman of the House Western Hemisphere Affairs Subcommittee, the steps taken by the Dominican government have not ended the Dominican Republic's dependence on forced labor.

Mr. Torricelli: Is it your judgment that Haitians are not at this moment being forced to do labor against their will in the Dominican Republic?

Mr. Becelia: No, I wouldn't want to draw that conclusion, Mr Chairman. I would not venture to make that opinion.

Mr. Torricelli: So is it your judgment that at this point children of a minor age are not being forced to do labor in the Dominican Republic?

Mr. Becelia: No, I would not subscribe to that hypothesis either. I would not say that this is not taking place, if that answers your question.

Mr. Torricelli: Of course, you would agree that basic labor rights are not being recognized, obviously.

Mr. Becelia: I would agree that there are abridgements of internationally accepted labor rights.

The Bush Administration's sole comment on the expulsions was in a report to Congress following the June 11 congressional hearings. The State Department said:

This report contains the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo's comments on the allegations of child slavery and other abuses of Haitian Braceros [canecutters] made in the May 30 ABC "Primetime Live" program. The Government of the Dominican Republic (GODR) strenuously denies the allegations, and in response to the ABC program and other international criticism, President Balaguer has ordered the repatriation of all undocumented aliens working in the sugar fields under age 16 and over age 60. Based upon our continuing review of the Bracero issue, we believe that the GODR does not have a policy of exploiting Haitian youths in slave-like conditions. To the contrary, the GODR is taking meaningful steps to curb abuses, although much remains to be done.

It is inexcusable that the Bush Administration blandly described the deportations without condemning the Dominican government's act of responding to legitimate criticism of human rights abuses by retaliating against the victims of those abuses. Indeed, the Administration deceptively portrayed the deportations by repeating the decree's formula that they were directed against only Haitians under age sixteen and over age sixty, when in fact Haitians of all ages were arbitrarily detained and summarily expelled. The Administration's lack of criticism was undoubtedly understood by the Dominican government as tacit acceptance of the deportations.

By contrast, the House Subcommittees on Western Hemisphere Affairs and on Human Rights and International Organizations have taken an active interest in the plight of Haitian cane cutters in the Dominican Republic. For example, Chairman Torricelli made forceful statements at the June 11 hearing highlighting the unfortunate contradiction between the Bush Administration's acknowledgment that forced labor continues to be used in the Dominican Republic and its policy decision to remove the Dominican Republic from the GSP review process. Chairman Torricelli stated:

[I]f a message is going to be sent to the Dominican Republic, let it be this. I am not interested in good intentions, I am not impressed by any additional promises. There is not a person in this country who would want one dollar of our taxpayer's money to go to any government that condones any of these activities at any level.

As long as I am chairman of this subcommittee and able to muster a majority, it will never happen again, not a dollar. This next year is either going to witness the most remarkable progress in human relations in Dominican history, or it will mark the end of American assistance to the country.

In light of the Administration's abdication of any role in scrutinizing Dominican labor practices, Americas Watch urges Congress to follow up on its June inquiry and take appropriate steps to signal its displeasure, not only with continued forced labor in the Dominican Republic but also with the Dominican government's new policy of indiscriminate expulsions of Haitians. In addition to the cut in aid promised by Chairman Torricelli, we urge Congress to take steps to ensure that the Dominican Republic is not permitted to export sugar to the United States so long as it employs forced labor to harvest its sugarcane. Finally, we urge Congress to use its influence with the Bush Administration to encourage the USTR to resume her review of Dominican labor rights practices with an eye toward denying GSP trade benefits, as required by U.S. law, unless the use of forced labor ceases.

The Work of Americas Watch

Americas Watch, together with the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees (NCHR) and Caribbean Rights, undertook two missions to the Dominican Republic in 1991. The first, in early-February, was a follow-up investigation of human rights and labor rights practices on Dominican state-run sugarcane plantations. The delegation conducted interviews with cane cutters at five plantations in three regions. The delegation also met with the Dominican secretaries of labor and migration, as well as with human rights advocates, church workers and trade-union activists.

In March, shortly after returning from the Dominican Republic, a member of the delegation met in Washington with representatives of the GSP Subcommittee of the USTR to report on the delegation's findings. Based on that mission, the three organizations published their third report on the Dominican Republic, Half Measures: Reform, Forced Labor and the Dominican Sugar Industry. The report was released in March and submitted to the USTR's office, which was to make its determination about GSP benefits to the Dominican Republic one month later.

On June 11, Americas Watch testified on the conditions of forced labor in the Dominican Republic before the House Subcommittees on Human Rights and on International Organizations, and on Western Hemisphere Affairs.

At the end of July, Americas Watch, together with the NCHR and Caribbean Rights, sent a second mission to document human rights abuses surrounding the massive, forced deportations of Haitians and Dominico-Haitians from the Dominican Republic. The organizations' representative met with the secretaries of labor and immigration, the director of the State Sugar Council and other government officials, as well as with Haitians and Dominico-Haitians residing in the Dominican Republic. A report on the mission will be released in early 1992.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.