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Money, Power, and The Price of Sugar

2010 May 11

At church on Sunday we read this quote by Martin Luther King Jr., said five months before his assassination –

“I say to you this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live. You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be, and one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand of some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid. You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab or shoot or bomb your house. So you refuse to take a stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are ninety, but you are just as dead at 38 as you would be at ninety. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.
You died when you refused to stand up for right.
You died when you refused to stand up for truth.
You died when you refused to stand up for justice.”

It struck me because just the night before I had witnessed fear and bullying used to silence the voice of justice. I had bought a ticket to attend Austin’s first ever Fair Trade Film Festival sponsored by Austin’s Ten Thousand Villages. They had gathered local fair trade groups and stores for a very festive market and had rented out a local theater to show three films dealing with trade issues followed by panel discussions. One of those films to be shown was the award winning documentary The Price of Sugar which exposes the abuses committed against Haitians working on the sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic. But that film ended up not being shown after Ten Thousand Villages received a letter from the lawyers representing Dominican plantation owners Philipe and Juan Vicini. The Vicini family has filed a defamation lawsuit against the film after several attempts to stop distribution of the film. The letter implied that if the lawsuit is won then any group that had chosen to show the film would face possible legal action as well. The powers that be at the non-profit Mennonite ministry decided they could not afford that risk and so chose not to show the film.

TPOS GENERIC 9_25_07 SMALLAnother film was shown and we were treated to hearing from a lawyer from the powerful law firm Patton Boggs as she read a prepared statement on behalf of the Vicini family. The family claims the film shows abuses and deplorable conditions and erroneously alleges that they occurred at plantations and sugar operations owned by the Vicinis. Their main argument is that a main subject in the film, the Rev. Christopher Hartley, who claimed to have discovered the atrocities, was “dismissed” from the Dominican Republic by the Catholic Church and therefore is an untrustworthy source. The lawyer actually told us that we should stop defending “sexy” films like this and focus on real issues in the world instead. When questioned she said that her purpose that night was to ensure that the Vicini’s side of the story was represented, but had no comment when confronted with the fact that their legal actions ensured that only the Vicini’s side got told at this film fest. Also when asked why her firm was defaming the Priest Christopher Hartley, she replied that since his bishop dismissed him there was cause to question his word.

I’ll be honest. Her words so enraged me, I was literally shaking. That money and power can bully those trying to bring justice into this world into silence infuriates me. I fully understand why Ten Thousand Villages backed down; they had to decide if they would risk their entire ministry to share this one particular story. But when the people who commit injustice are getting filthy rich off of abusing laborers and then can use that money to silence anyone who exposes their sin, there is something seriously wrong. And when the church takes their side as well, it is heartbreaking.

Father Christopher Hartley spent his early years working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. In 1997 he was sent to serve the poor in the Dominican Republic, but the more he witnessed the abuses the poor Haitian workers were subject to there, he realized he could not remain silent. Charity wasn’t enough; he had to fight against the systems that were causing the injustices in the first place. He started documenting what he saw and speaking up for improving worker conditions. This of course brought him into confrontation with the Vicini family – the wealthiest and most influential family in the DR. He was rocking the boat; the Vicini’s didn’t like it, so therefore the government didn’t like it, and so therefore the Catholic Church didn’t like it. His bishop removed him from the DR in 2006. Hartley commented, “The family, the government, and I think even the church was tired of me, I don’t think the church wanted to endure this constant bashing in every newspaper, day after day after day.” So like many priests that actually put into action a theology of liberation based on a deep appreciation of scripture, his voice became too controversial and had to be silenced. He is now working with the Sisters of Charity again.

It is one thing to give charity, but when people start addressing why charity is needed things get uncomfortable. Haitians are suffering from extreme abuses in the sugar fields in the DR, but when such a lucrative money-making enterprise gets questioned, those questioning voices are silenced in whatever way they can. Voices for justice, especially religious leaders who start acting like Jesus instead of just talking about him, face that silencing. Some end up murdered, others are shuffled to “safer” postings, and others are attacked by national media sources. Challenging injustice is dangerous, especially when it questions how people make their money.

It disgusts me that our world plays by the “he with the most money wins” rule. But when the legal system fails us, it is up to the people to work from below to make change. If money is all some people care about, then let’s make this about money. It took a grassroots boycott of sugar from the Caribbean slave plantations for the British government to finally start listening to William Wilberforce and ban slavery back in the 19th century. Almost all the sugar sold in the US comes from the DR, buying it funds the Vicinis and this system of modern day quasi-slavery and abuse. Buying fair trade sugar speaks with the only language these people hear – money – a language that is difficult to silence.

But it is also encouraging to hear Martin Luther King Jr. words. He had to pay the ultimate price for standing up for what is right. In the face of litigation and controversies like this, it is good to be reminded that if we fail to stand up for justice we are already dead.

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18 Responses leave one →
  1. May 11, 2010

    It is one thing to give charity, but when people start addressing why charity is needed things get uncomfortable.

    This right here said it all I think. “Charity” makes the giver feel good without requiring they ever take a look at themselves (or the systems that got them to where they’re at).

  2. May 11, 2010

    While the treatment of Haitian sugar workers seems to be a real problem, it’s worth noting that America imports rather little sugar from Haiti. Most of the sugar we consume is produced domestically; with heavy subsidies given to domestic sugar producers, foreign sugar has a very hard time competing. That means two things: sugar producers in the Third World have a difficult time selling their product and American grocery store shoppers pay about twice what they ought for sugar. And the whole system is supported by American taxpayers. The only winners are American sugar growers. That sounds like injustice to me.

  3. May 11, 2010

    Aaron – I wasn’t talking about Haiti, but the Dominican Republic. Haitian immigrants work on the sugar plantations and are often kept as slaves and abused (something that centuries of racial division plays a part in). The DR sells almost all of its sugar to the US. And in 2005, they were extended a NAFTA trade deals ensuring that they could sell their sugar in the US for the inflated US subsidized price. The DR is the ONLY country in the world that can compete with the US in terms of sugar production (a huge part of that is that it is actually US businesses that own many of the sugar plantations in the DR). While on one hand I support minimum price subsidies to help developing countries compete in the world market, but when those subsidies aren’t also tied to human rights standards (as they are in the fair trade system), they don’t serve to help anyone but the handful of plantation owners. It’s the people, the poor laborers, who need the help and they aren’t getting it.

  4. Sharon Matheny permalink
    May 12, 2010

    Aaron–It’s true that the majority of sugar in the US is produced domestically, but this sugar comes from sugar beets. The large majority of sugar from sugarcane in the US comes from DR.

  5. Sharon Matheny permalink
    May 12, 2010

    Thank you Julie, for probably the best article on this issue so far. I watched ‘The Price of Sugar’ privately, and I encourage everyone to request it from our locally owned video stores. Since I’m on the board of directors at Ten Thousand Villages of Austin, I was one-eighth of the decision to not show the film. A very very large part of me wants to screen it next year independently of TTV, because after watching it I was most struck by what the Vicinis are NOT protesting. By their own court filing, they essentially have verified the horrible inhumanities depicted in the film, and disabuse any spectator the luxury of assuming artisitic hyperbole. While technically TTV was bullied into giving in, I take great pleasure in knowing that far more people in Austin now know about this film than would have without controversy.

  6. May 12, 2010

    Have you noticed the film was sidelined by netflix as well? I put it in my queue in August of 2008 and it was supposed to be out about 4 months later. It was never released and remains in my queue with a now unknown release date…
    Guess that makes sense with that legal action pending. But it makes me angry.

  7. May 12, 2010

    Julie, I linked to this article on my blog because I think it is an extremely well rounded post about the truths of the many injustices surrounding these issues. It also feels a bit like some kind of censorship which is enough to make a person extremely angry as well. I am impressed that you were able to not yell and keep yourself calm. It enrages me that the injustices in the world are suppressed because of money and power. What, then, can we do?

    Karen – I noticed the same thing about netflix…

  8. Amy-Lynn permalink
    May 12, 2010

    Julie,
    I was wondering if you know anything about the way sugar cane is harvested in Central and South America? I have been trying to find out if the injustice and slavery that is happening in DR is also happening in other countries that grow sugar cane.

  9. May 12, 2010

    Karen – I noticed that too

    Amy-Lynn – I’ve heard that sugar laborers in Brazil have a decent job – are paid well and all that. But Brazil is really hurting because they do treat their workers well, but can’t compete against US subsidized prices. But ‘ve only read that one report, so I really don’t know how true that description is.

  10. Fred Schoch permalink
    May 16, 2010

    I love finding out about blogs like this. This seems to be the only place we can be introduced to different truths that our own news services don’t like to take on. I wonder if there is another way a film like this can be shown “under the radar ” of those who legally oppose it?

  11. Pedro Ernesto permalink
    April 11, 2011

    Let me just tell you a little unknown fact about the so-called locations where the film was shot. Many of those bateyes, if not all, are actually CEA property. These are all old, run-down, state owned abandoned sugar mills. The priest failed to mention these facts and decided to point the finger at the easiest and richest target in Dominican Republic, the Vicini family. And to my knowledge the film maker, Bill Haney actually went to high school at Portsmouth Abbey School with one of the Vicini family members. You watch a sensational movie and decide that its 100% factual, well my dear life isn’t so black and white. Of course the Vicini family is going to defend themselves when everything in that film is a fabrication to defame them. Do some research and you will be surprised with what you find, and even with yourself.

  12. April 11, 2011

    Pedro – maybe I could if the Vicini family would stop using their riches to suppress the film.

  13. Father Christopher Hartley permalink
    February 18, 2013

    Do you have a DVD copy of The Price of Sugar? Thank you very much for your courage, Julie, you are a brave woman.

    • February 21, 2013

      No I do not. I’ve had difficulty getting my hands on a copy.

      • Fr. Christopher Hartley permalink
        February 22, 2013

        Would you like one? I would need a postal address but please do not post it here!!

        • Francisco Basantes permalink
          July 10, 2013

          Felicidades al padre Christopher Hartley por su labor. Nunca olvidare esas palabras que todavía recuerdo. “Poco se ama a quien no se quiere imitar” C.H

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