Journalism professor wins Overseas Press Club award

Author, professor and journalist Sandy Tolan (left) engaged in on-the-ground reporting to assess working and living conditions on Dominican sugar cane plantations, where Haitian workers work for as little as $4 a day. (Photo courtesy of Sandy Tolan)

Whether reporting from Gaza, Sarajevo or southern India, journalist and USC professor Sandy Tolan could not forget Lulu Pierre.

Tolan met Pierre in 1991 while visiting the Dominican Republic on assignment for NPR, where he was working at the time. Pierre, then 14, was the victim of a child labor and human trafficking operation that brought Haitians to the Dominican Republic where they were forced to cut sugar cane on plantations to survive. .

After struggling with the daunting task, Tolan said Pierre “gave up, and he said, ‘I surrender myself to God.'” Tolan decided to step in and help get Pierre back to safety in Haiti.

More than 30 years later, Tolan returned to Haiti to try to make a story about finding Pierre and whether he had returned safely. Although this effort failed, another story became the focus of Tolan’s return – modern conditions in the Dominican sugar cane fields.

Tolan, along with reporting partner Euclides Cordero Nuel, created “The Bitter Work Behind Sugar” for Reveal of The Center for Investigative Reporting, co-published with Mother Jones magazine. The story won an Overseas Press Club award and spurred potential change for Haitian cane cutters in the Dominican Republic.

“Due to our reporting and some additional work in The Washington Post, the United States Congress, through the Commerce Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee [has] wrote two very strong letters, including what’s called a watch letter, demanding that three federal agencies investigate what they call “slavery-like conditions,” Tolan said.

Cordero Nuel says Tolan broke the news of the award to the team during a panel discussion that included the duo’s editor, Michael Montgomery. The Overseas Press Club’s Morton Frank Award is given to “best international business news reporting on television, video, radio, audio or podcast”. The award will be presented at a ceremony in New York on April 21.

Tolan said the situation in the fields and small working-class towns, the bateyes, had not improved much since he last visited in the 1990s. In 2019, they found homes in poor condition, poor medical care and without electricity or running water.

“Most houses lacked the basic things we take for granted [in the United States]said Rafael Perez, a second-year business administration student, of one of his service trips to the country. “Some had running water, some didn’t – but not good living conditions.”

The workers are only paid $4 a day, but it depends on the amount of sugarcane brought in. Health care and other services are sorely lacking, and Haitian workers are forced into loan schemes that can incur more than 520% ​​interest a year, locking them into a life of debt, Tolan said.

“That’s why Central Romana doesn’t want to change people’s lives,” Cordero Nuel said. “If their lives change because of better wages, they don’t have workers.

Central Romana is the huge corporation responsible for around 70% of the Dominican Republic’s sugar exports and wields incredible power in the country. Cordero Nuel said they were “a state within a state”.

“Central Romana says it poured millions into bateyes to improve living and working conditions,” Tolan wrote in “The Bitter Work Behind Sugar.”

Yet the company still exploits its workers with miserable working and living conditions. While those stuck at the bottom of Central Romana suffer, brothers Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul, who bought Central Romana in 1984 with a group of investors, live a life of luxury, traveling on million-dollar yachts and staying in luxury resorts.

This human rights catastrophe does not exist in a vacuum: Much of the Central Romana sugar cane produced by Haitians goes directly to U.S. processing plants and ends up in the hands of ordinary Americans, said Tolan.

“It turns into cakes and cookies and Hershey bars, literally Hershey bars,” Tolan said. “There is literally a connection between the lives of these people in the Dominican Republic, these Haitian cane cutters, with the consumer decisions that we make.”

Euclides Cordero Nuel, a Haitian Dominican journalist, was able to bridge the gap between the sugar cane workers and Sandy Tolan. He has dedicated most of his career to telling the stories of Haitian-Dominicans. (Photo courtesy of Sandy Tolan)

Cordero Nuel grew up in a batey and testifies to the difficulties these workers face. The Haitian Dominican journalist has devoted most of his career to telling the stories of Haitian Dominicans, especially those who work in the sugar cane fields.

“When I’m not working on the sugar cane plantation, the interviews [and] talk to people and investigate the violence there, [the] violations, I am on the Dominican border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti,” said Cordero Nuel.

Cordero Nuel helped culturally and linguistically bridge the gap between sugar cane workers and Tolan. The couple met when Tolan was looking for someone who knew the area and the Dominican bateyes.

“It’s rare to find someone who has these kinds of linguistic gifts, courage, good humor, kindness and great journalistic instincts,” Tolan said, speaking of Cordero Nuel.

The team was in danger because of its reporting, sometimes threatened by armed guards.

“There were times when I put my phone on airplane mode because we thought we were being followed,” Tolan said.

Both journalists are thrilled to receive the award, but Tolan is especially excited for Cordero Nuel, given the start of his career and the danger he faced as a journalist.

“I’m so excited for [Cordero Nuel] because it was more difficult for him. He had a harder time because of the story than me,” Tolan said. “He is a young journalist who is relatively early in his career, and I am so delighted for him above all.”

Tolan and Cordero Nuel hope these investigations will lead the United States to take action to hold Central Romana accountable. There is concern that by doing so, Tolan said, the sugar cane company will simply mechanize itself, leaving its many workers unemployed. However, Tolan said Central Romana would improve the living conditions of its workers.

“Action by Congress and perhaps other agencies will have a far greater impact than any award,” Tolan said.


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