Once hailed as “The Paris of the Caribbean” the city of San Pedro de Macoris (SPM) was established in 1822 and became one of the major producers of sugar, molasses, bovine cattle, rum, and Major League Baseball players.
In the mid-1800s Cuban immigrants threatened by a slave revolt and their own war of independence, settled in SPM and established the country’s first “ingenious” or sugar mills or bateyes. They brought their sugar cane farming knowledge and contributed to making the sugar industry the most important economic activity in the area.
Most of the laborers were Afro-Caribbean immigrant workers recruited from the Leeward islands known as the “Cocolos.” Then in the 20th century came Haitians across the border in the hundreds of thousands to cut cane, many for 1 to 2 dollars a day.
Working conditions for sugarcane workers could be characterized as analogous to slavery.
On the surface, Haitian bateyes appear very similar, if not identical, to poor Dominican neighborhoods.
Dominicans are Latin and pride themselves on their Spanish roots, whereas Haitians speak Creole and are largely descendants of freed African slaves.
Much the same way some Americans today fear the effects of the illegal immigration of Mexicans in the Southwest in the mid-1960s, the government proposed a solution—the “batey” erected on the outskirts of sugarcane plantations.
In the mid-1990s, the bateyes drew the attention of humanitarian organizations, calling for action to address the “deplorable treatment” of Haitian families and children living in the bateyes. Most of the 400+ bateyes in the Dominican Republic had not changed much since they were originally erected—they still had no running water, no electricity, no cooking facilities, no bathrooms, no schools for the children, and no medical facilities.
The children do not have birth certificates or identity papers of any kind. This lack of documentation made it nearly impossible for children of Haitian descent to attend school or benefit from any other social services. Essentially a permanent underclass was created — they have no right to own property, no right to an education, no access to healthcare, and no right to vote. In essence, a class of people condemned to poverty.
A little over a decade ago, when the world markets (particularly the U.S.) switched to high-fructose corn syrup and away from cane sugar, the Dominican government was forced to privatize the sugar industry and closed many of the struggling sugarcane plantations. Without cane to cut, the Haitian workers were no longer needed. All that remained in the bateyes were crying babies, uneducated mothers, and unemployed men who could not even meagerly provide for their families.
This situation forced the Haitians from the bateyes into the cities in search of work and became the target of Dominican frustration and racial prejudice.
Today, there are 400+ bateyes. Most still do not have latrines. Potable water is rare. Electricity, almost nonexistent. Primitive dirt roads carved through ever-encroaching jungles become muddy lakes when it rains— cutting off entire bateyes from the outside world for days at a time. Inside the bateyes, education and healthcare remain almost nonexistent.
Historically, SPM became a thriving port city of 80,000 by the end of the 19th century and Europeans settled in the city making it a very cosmopolitan urban center. English, French, Dutch, German, Italian all were heard spoken in the city of SPM. It was thus given the name of “Paris of the Caribbean” with an opera hall where Jenny Lind, a Swedish opera singer often called the “Swedish Nightingale,” sang. There were beautiful homes and a wide esplanade that gave it a European flavor.
Glenn Mark Losack is a psychiatrist and author of The Bonds We Share: Images of Humanity, 40 Years Around the Globe.
Image credit: Glenn Mark Losack