I recently accepted an invitation to speak at a showing of the documentary “The Price of Sugar” sponsored by Portland State University. “The Price of Sugar,” which I had not seen before that event, is a powerful documentary depicting the plight of Haitians who toil on sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic.
According to the filmmakers, these workers cross the border from Haiti to labor in conditions that the film's central protagonist, Father Christopher Hartley, calls "quasi-slavery." They are housed in sugar company towns called bateyes. Stripped of identification papers, they cannot legally travel elsewhere in the country.
My role in the May 7 event involved offering my perspectives on the economic conditions in Haiti that drive Haitians to cross the border illegally and risk arrest and deportation. Since February 2006, I’ve had several opportunities to travel to Haiti to work on developing economic and educational projects in this poorest of counties in the Western Hemisphere.
Imagine my surprise the morning of the event to receive both an email and a fax at my office at Marylhurst University from the Washington, D.C. office of Patton Boggs, LLP informing me their law office represents the Vicini family, “who are involved in various business ventures in the Dominican Republic including sugar.”
According to the 29-page document, the Vicinis are the victims of misrepresentation by the makers of the documentary; the documentary contained no less than 53 errors, omissions, or fabrications that allegedly amount to defamation of the Vicini family and businesses; and a “cease and desist” motion had been filed in a United States District Court in Boston, Massachusetts. “What,” I thought, “kind of mess did I just step in?”
A careful reading of the legal document revealed that I wasn’t a target, but simply being informed that a legal effort has been underway to stop the distribution and showing of the video. Since I had no direct knowledge of the information contained in the video, nor was I in any way responsible for obtaining and showing the video, I chose to go ahead with my prepared remarks on general economic conditions in Haiti and show my own photos from recent trips to that country.
What’s important here, and both I and my hosts at the video screening were careful to point this out, is that anyone interested in learning more about the economic, political, and social conditions of people engaged in trade around the world are obligated to choose their information sources wisely and carefully.
Researchers seeking support for their own agendas and ideas can easily find sources that will support their position. We are human after all and we gravitate toward those bits of data that seem to resonate with our opinions. But careful researchers who desire to build a real knowledge of the world have a much tougher challenge. Researchers seeking an accurate picture of the conditions under which people labor around the world may find it harder to find unbiased, neutral, accurate data.
It is not my intent here to pass judgment on the veracity of the information contained in “The Price of Sugar” or to comment on the legal claims of anyone connected with the video. My intent is to caution viewers to be diligent in their pursuit of true knowledge by exercising a reasonable amount of skepticism and to engage in critical thinking any time they are learning something new.