DECEMBER 1983 - VOLUME 4 - NUMBER 12
Fleeing Baby Doc's Haiti
by Allen Ebert-Miner
Haiti has the distinction of being the poorest country in the Western hemisphere and the fourth poorest in the world. Since 1957 the greedy father and son duo of "Papa Doc" and "Baby Doc" Duvalier have ruled by force-an ironic legacy for a country that was the second in the Western hemisphere to gain independence, which was won in a successful 1804 slave revolt.
In 1983, urban workers in the capital of Port-au-Prince earn about $3.00 a day; peasants average $160 a year. Haiti has no freedom of the press, and no rights to form political parties or trade unions. Torture, murder, and arbitrary arrests are daily occurrences. Yet the U.S. has pumped millions of dollars into Haiti to keep it afloat.
In recent years, an ever-increasing number of Haitians have preferred to risk their lives in rickety sea-faring crafts to get to the U.S. than to endure the deprivation of their homeland. Altogether, nearly 500,000 have fled.
Bitter Cane documents this development. Produced by Haiti Films, Inc., a New York-based cooperative, the film is a meticulously researched investigation of the conditions leading to the Haitian refugee crisis, and combines rare archival film with clandestinely-shot footage. The title captures the work 'experience of Haitians, particularly those in the sugar cane industry.
Bitter Cane's film crew made three trips inside Haiti beginning in March, 1981. The crew used aliases and fictitious. titles to gain access to American assembly plants and coffee and sugar plantations. On one of these visits, they entered a clearing in the midst of thick sugar cane rows and talked to a worker for the HaitianAmerican Sugar Company.
Every month the worker goes to the "big shot" in town to borrow more money, the worker said. After he pays back the "big shot," he doesn't have enough to feed his wife and six children. His torn straw hat is pulled down over his ears. His arms fly in the air as he speaks. He's sad-looking, missing some teeth, frustrated, and tired. One has to wonder if his six children are enough to keep him from a journey to the Florida shores.
The cameras also walk us through the Rawlings baseball factory. Rawlings makes all of the balls used by the National and American leagues in the U.S. Yet baseball isn't even played in Haiti. In the film Haitian women stand at tables stitching horsehide spheres for less than $3.00 a day.
The 75-minute documentary includes an extensive profile of the Kellwood Company, a Fortune 500 company that imports fabric to Haiti and then sews all of the clothing for Sears. "Runaway" shops are not a new phenomenon, but vividly portraying them on film without getting bland or pedantic is refreshing.
Mack Gale, a white middle-aged executive with Kellwood, reveals that the company did some research before moving to Haiti. Kellwood, he says, looked into other Central American and Caribbean countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Jamaica, but found the political and social conditions in those countries not conducive to long-term investment. With a history of "political stability," says Gale, and low wages, Haiti was the prime choice. Bitter Cane only has to flash a truckload of blue-denimed Tonton Macoutes, Duvalier's dreaded security force, as they make their way through a neighborhood, to get a glimpse of the "political stability" at work in Haiti.
In the United States, the Bitter Cane crew tracked down workers in Spencer, West Virginia, headquarters of the Kellwood Company. The workers interviewed and hundreds of others had been laid off prior to the company's move to Haiti. Their anger is apparent. They articulate what appears to be a consensus among many unemployed workers, that the U.S. has no business propping up governments that repress their own people and then provide tax holidays to American firms.
Back in Haiti, the slums are the worst in the hemisphere. A mother can't find enough cardboard to patch her tin roof. When it rains her children get drenched. A young woman recalls how she had to sleep with her American boss in order to get the job. It wasn't the first time she had to do it, nor is she the only one. She is lucky though, she says: sometimes you have to sleep with the boss and he fires you anyway.
Many Haitians see no alternative but to flee. They pay their life's savings to an unknown pirate who gets them into a rickety vessel bound for the U.S. If they arrive safely they're incarcerated. Some get picked up by U.S. Coast Guard cutters. Others are less lucky: on October 26, 1982, a boatload of drowned Haitians washed ashore on the Florida coastline ,after, their tiny vessel hit a reef and tore apart.
In the Alderson, West Virginia detention center one Haitian women summed up the situation: "All our suffering stems from what the U.S. is doing in Haiti."
The approach of Bitter Cane is not neutral. The filmmakers set out to document Haiti's crisis with a good idea of where they would find its roots. They make no claims of objectivity, but instead strive to get close to the truth. They do a splendid and timely job of it. Apparently judges at the Cannes Film Festival this year agreed, for they awarded Bitter Cane a second prize in the documentary division.