The Origin of the Dominican Batey

11/14/07

COTN’s ministry in the Dominican Republic began in the summer of 1997 when we first came alongside the village of Algodon—a Haitian batey (pronounced BAH-tay). A batey (plural bateyes) is a shanty-town camp where sugarcane cutters live. Bateyes are found only in Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

Our ministry in the Dominican Republic is centered around our Village Partnership Program which ministers to Haitian bateyes (Algodon, Altagracia, and Los Robles) and poor Dominican villages (Don Bosco and Pueblo Nuevo). On the surface, Haitian bateyes appear very similar to poor Dominican villages. To understand the real differences, one must understand how and why bateyes came into existence.

The Dominican Republic shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti, but the two neighboring countries might as well be across the globe from each other. Dominicans are Latin and pride themselves on their Spanish roots, whereas Haitians speak Creole and are largely descendents of freed African slaves.

In the early 1900s, Haitians sugarcane cutters, lured by the promise of work, began the seasonal migration to the Dominican Republic—the Haitians were willing to do this low-wage, back-breaking work whereas most Dominicans were not. Over the decades, many of these sugarcane workers did not return to Haiti at season end, and thus created a large, permanent population of Haitians in the Dominican Republic—a population that was not welcomed.

There has always been a clash of cultures between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, but under the anti-Haitian regime of Rafael Trujillo (1930–1961), animosity, prejudice, and racial tension toward Haitians reached horrific levels, culminating in Trujillo’s brutal order of a Haitian massacre (where 25,000+ Haitians found outside the sugar plantations were killed) and ultimately Trujillo’s assassination in 1961. During this time, Dominicans harbored a growing fear of a “Haitian invasion” (much the same way some Americans today fear the effects of the illegal immigration of Mexicans in the Southwest). In the mid-1960s, in an effort to stop this growing Haitian immigration from diluting the Dominican culture, the government proposed a solution—the batey. Bateyes were company-owned towns (consisting of nothing more than crude barracks surrounded by fencing) erected by the government on the outskirts of sugarcane plantations.

Throughout the late 1960s, ‘70s, and 80s (the heyday of the Dominican Republic’s sugar economy), Haitian sugarcane cutters were confined to these bateyes (i.e. “work camps”) under the watchful eye of armed government soldiers. Their belongings were confiscated and they were trucked back and forth from the fields, often working from sun up to sun down. The daily wage was barely enough to buy one meal a day—oftentimes the cane cutters and their families had nothing to eat but the very cane they cut. The bateyes had no running water, no electricity, no cooking facilities, and no bathrooms. The shanty homes consisted of slatted wood walls, tin roofs, dirt floors and often housed up to eight or more people. The Haitians were not allowed to leave the bateyes, under the threat of deportation, except to work in the fields. By the 1990s, the bateyes had become home to hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children—second- and third-generation Haitians born in the Dominican Republic, but with no legal citizenship status to be there and with no ties to their “homeland” Haiti. They basically became a people without a country.

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. And since the Constitution of the Dominican Republic does not extend citizenship to children born to non-naturalized Haitian parents, these children born in the Dominican Republic, did 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. These families and children were denied access to medical, social, and educational facilities. Just as the generations that preceded them, these families faced a dead-end life—with no way out of the batey. Essentially, what the Dominican Republic had done was to create a permanent underclass—a category of individuals that, in the eyes of the law, doesn’t exist—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 US) 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. Essentially, the economy of the batey (though sparse as it was) completely dried up. Not long after the Haitians’ only means of support disappeared, so did the armed government guards and the fences that once kept them prisoner. All that remained in the bateyes were crying babies, bored and uneducated mothers, and unemployed men who were no longer able to even meagerly provide for their families.

But the Dominican’s privatization efforts were not without consequence—much to their dismay, it forced the Haitians from the bateyes into the cities in search of work. Starting in the late 1990s, the women, ineligible for legal jobs, took positions in the homes of Dominicans as nannies and maids, or worse—entered into the sex trades. The men found under-the-table work in construction and farming. They also took to the streets as vendors. But in a country where unemployment is already high, competition for jobs was tough. And with this increased visibility and competition came a backlash—government officials and the media began to blame the Haitians for increased violence, social problems, and poverty, causing them to become, yet again, the target of Dominican frustration and racial prejudice.

Today, the bateyes remain—with little change, except that brought about through humanitarian and non-governmental organizations. An estimated 500,000 residents—7% of the population of the Dominican Republic, live in 400+ bateyes. Most still do not have latrines. Potable water is rare. Electricity, non-existent. Primitive dirt roads carved through ever-encroaching jungles become muddy lakes when it rains—cutting off entire bateyes from the outside world (including food and water) for days at a time. Inside the bateyes, education and healthcare remain almost non-existent. Where these services are available, they generally have been built and are operated by humanitarian organizations, not the government. And when natural disaster strikes (like Tropical Storm Noel that made a direct hit in October of 2007, washing away homes, furnishings, and livelihoods), the bateyes are the last in line to receive assistance from the government—if they receive any at all.

Yet there is hope. Children of the Nations is making a difference in the lives of these families and children by investing in these communities through our Village Partnership Program—building schools and churches, operating feeding programs, providing medical services—providing hope where there once was none. We are investing in children who will grow up and transform their own nations. We seek to end the dead-end cycle of poverty and give these precious children a chance at a life far different from the one they have—a chance to make a difference in their own communities.

You can make a difference in the lives of needy children by sponsoring a child in the Dominican Republic today!