Midway through Candide, Voltaire’s famously naive protagonist enters Dutch-controlled 18th-century Suriname, where he encounters “a negro stretched upon the ground, with only one moiety of his clothes, that is, of his blue linen drawers; the poor man had lost his left leg and his right hand.”
“Good God!” exclaims Candide, who proceeds to ask the man why he’s in such terrible shape.
“When we work at the sugar-canes,” the man answers, “and the mill snatches hold of a finger, they cut off the hand; and when we attempt to run away, they cut off the leg; both cases have happened to me. This is the price at which you eat sugar in Europe.”
We still eat sugar at a similar price.
And not just in Europe, but all over the world.
A few years ago I narrated a documentary called The Sugar Babies: The Plight of the Children of Agricultural Workers in the Sugar Industry of the Dominican Republic. Produced and directed by Amy Serrano, the film highlights the continued human cost of sugar production and consumption in our hemisphere. We do not have to travel to the distant past to find fingerless, armless or legless people on sugar plantations. There are hundreds of them nearby.
Recruited under false pretenses and sometimes trafficked from Haiti, many of these men and women (and children too) work in Dominican sugarcane villages, or bateyes, in conditions that barely differ from those of their 18th-century forebears. During the zafra, or cane harvest season, they work from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week. Yet they are barely able to pay for the food they eat. Some have their identity papers taken from them and fall into such bottomless debt that it becomes impossible for them to leave. Their children cannot go to school or learn a trade. Given the world’s insatiable appetite for sugar, this brutal cycle might well drag into the next century.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the United States imports more than 200,000 tons of sugar from the Dominican Republic each year. This makes the Dominican Republic the United States’ largest sugar partner among those countries—including Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador—that signed the 2004 Dominican Republic–Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). In September 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a report on conditions in the bateyes that found evidence of “potential violations” of the CAFTA-DR agreement. The report cited child labor, forced labor (especially for those at risk of deportation) and deplorable living conditions, including a lack of sanitation facilities and potable water.
Recently the High Court of the Dominican Republic ruled that only those who have lived in the country since 1929 and have one Dominican parent are entitled to Dominican citizenship. This ruling, by most accounts, would render nearly half a million Dominicans of Haitian descent stateless.
“Alas!” to echo Candide’s sentiment, “the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong.”
If forced to travel through time, Candide might be heartbroken, but not completely surprised. For after meeting the Surinamese slave, he wept but still continued on his way.
His complicity is also ours.
What would we do in his place?
Would we also just weep and walk away?
Hopefully we would take a closer look at how sugar continues to be produced around the world, both in our own backyard and further out. For a much higher price is being paid for sugar than the few dollars we hand over at the supermarket counter. In some cases that price is everything. That price is life and death.
Read more pieces related to the themes Kara Walker explores in A Subtlety: Tracy K. Smith: “Photo of Sugar Cane Workers, Jamaica, 1891,” Ricardo Cortés: “The Act of Whitening,” Shailja Patel: “Unpour” and Jean-Euphèle Milcé: “To Drink My Sweet Body.”