Hispaniola was where to the first sugar cane was planted in the Americas. It took place in the vicinity of Puerto Plata by Christopher Columbus himself with sugar cane brought from the Canary Islands. According to Dominican historian Frank Moya Pones in “Historia Colonial de Santo Domingo” claims that by 1535 there were 200 Portuguese technitians in Dominican sugar mills. By 1547 there were more than 35,000 African slaves that worked in Dominican sugar plantations. After the initial boom of the first sugar cane industry of the Western Hemisphere, the Dominican sugar cane industry began to decline and during the second half of the XVI century it had been reduced to very small productions for local consumption only. This implied several things among which are a considerable decrease of the African slaves devoted to the industry and of the amount of sugar cane plantations. The sugar cane industry didn’t began to increase again to the point of dominating the Dominican economy in exports, the creation of wealth and the creation of jobs until the end of the 1870’s, some 300 years later, and through impulse and investments mostly from Americans. This surge in the sugar cane industry created a period known as “The Dance of the Millions” during the end of the XIX century and the beginning of the XX century. San Pedro de Macorís, on the Caribbean coast, was the most benefited town with an increase in population and wealth to become the richest town in the Dominican Republic and one of the richest in the West Indies. A legacy of this wealth is still visible in the exquisite architecture of its buildings in the old center, one of the finest late 1800’s and early 1900’s architectural collection in the Dominican Republic.
The Modern Sugar Cane Industry
At the end of the 1870’s, the modern Dominican sugar cane industry was born with special interest from the American William L Bass (a native of Massachussetts, United States), who founded his sugar mill of Consuelo near San Pedro de Macorís. By the end of the XIX century, the truly large Dominican sugar mills were in the hands of foreigners: 5 Italians, 4 Americans, 2 Cubans and 1 British. During the first rise of the modern Dominican sugar industry the workforce at first comprised mostly of Puerto Rican immigrants and quickly replaced by the Cocolos or blacks from the West Indies until the end of the 1920’s.
The rise of the sugar cane industry was greatly affected by the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Afterwards it recuperated and by the 1970’s it had 3,200 peasant farmers devoted to sugar cane production that after they were harvested were sold to the sugar mills. The sugar mills themselves had over 100,000 people working from sugar cabe harvesters in the plantations mostly from Haiti to Dominican and some foreigners from North America and Europe as technitians and managers. Dominican exports was dominated in more than 90% by sugar and molasses almost all of it heading for the United States, in fact most of the sugar created in the country was headed to that nation in North America. Sugar became the largest producer of hard currency for the country. In the mid-1980’s the sugar cane industry began to decline again, this was the second decline since the inception of the modern sugar cane industry. By that time the industry had 65,000 workers and of these around 50,000 were Haitian sugar cane harvesters in the plantations.
The Importance of the Dominican Sugar Cane Industry
Today, the Dominican sugar cane industry don’t have the importance in the economy as it had during the end of the XIX and much of the XX centuries. According to the Central Bank of the Dominican Republic, the sugar cane industry forms less than 1% of GDP. The production of sugar and molasses is around 0.2% of GDP. The share sugar and molasses have in total exports is also negligible. From January to June of 2021, the sugar and molasses exports amounted to US$125 million out of US$1.2 billion in exports of Dominican industrial production and almost US$6 billion of total exports.
The Dance of the Millions
From 1914 until the stock market crash of 1929 in New York City, the modern Dominican sugar cane industry went through its most glorious period known as “The Dance of the Millions.” This was a time of spectacular profits for the sugar companies and wealth for the country, particularly the centrer of the sugar cane industry which was San Pedro de Macorís on the Caribbean coast.
The wealth and prosperity in San Pedro de Macorís was so great, that the city attracted many immigrants from Spain, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the United States and many areas in the Lesser Antilles. There were many from Middle Eastern countries too, particularly from Lebanon. In fact, San Pedro de Macorís became the center of the Arab community in the Dominican Republic. Some of these immigrant groups were large enough to create their own social clubs such as the “Centro Español” whiere congregated the Spaniards or the “Casino Puertorriqueño” where the Puerto Ricans congregated. Today the “Centro Español” no longer functions, although the building still exist. The “Casino Puertorriqueño” still functions in the same building and is open to everybody, not just Puerto Ricans and Dominicans of Puerto Rican descent.
Spectacular homes and buildings with very attractive architectural designs began to dominate the city. One of the country’s most handsome churches grace its center. The town’s first firefighter house is still standing and ranks of one of the most beautiful in the country. The seaport of the city became one of the most actives in the country and the Higüamo River was the scene of the landing and takeoff of the seaplane from Pan American Airways originating every week in the United States. Without a doubt, this was the greatest period that ever existed in San Pedro de Macorís earning the city the nickname “Sultana del Este” or “Sultan of the East.”
Sugar Cane Companies
Around 75% of the terrain covered in sugar cane belong to plantations owned by three commercial entities. Most of these are in the great plains of the eastern Dominican Republic.
Central Romana Corporation. In 1911, the South Porto Rico Sugar Company based in Puerto Rico acquired 20,000 acres close to La Romana, at that time an uninhabited area. The purpose was to expands its sugar operations, because in Puerto Rico they ran out of land and the demand for sugar kept growing in the United States. Their first sugar cane planted in the Dominican Republic came from Puerto Rico. In the beginning, they used Puerto Rican men to harvest the sugar cane, but quickly comverted to using Cocolos or black men from the British West Indies. They were more motivated than the Puerto Ricans and had the bonus of speaking English, hust like the American owners of the South Porto Rico Company. All sugar cane harvest in their Dominican property was exported to Puerto Rico and it was converted to sugar and molasses at their sugar mill in Guánica, and from there sent to be sold in New York City.
Some time went by and their Dominican operations needed to expand and it did to such a degree that a new sugar mill had to be built, the Central Romana. It currently is one of the world’s largest suhar mill and dominates the skyline of La Romana. It had a capacity of converting everyday 2,000 tons of sugar cane into sugar and molasses, harvested in 7,300 acres of sugar cane plantations. In a short time of its founding, the Central Romana became the leading producer of sugar and molasses in the Dominican Republic, almost all of it exported to the United States. It currently has more than 200,000 acres, a capacity to process over 125,000 tons of sugar cane and a source of jobs for over 25,000 people. With its large workforce it became the largest private employer in the Dominican Republic.
In the 1960’s, the Central Romana was purchased by Gulf + Western, a corporation based in the United States. The CEO was Charles Bludhorn, a native of Austria but lived most of his life in the United States. From the moment that he first visited the Dominican Republic, then a hardly visited country by outsiders, he fell in love with the country. This great admiration led to the creation of the first free zone manufacturing park in the Dominican Republic with the principal purpose of creating jobs. It also developed what is now the largest private community in the Dominican Republic, Casa de Campo, with the creation of the Teeth of the Dog golf course, ranked as one of the world’s best 100 golf courses. Another of his creations is Altos de Chavón, often described as a replica of a Mediterranean village, but there is nothing “replica” about it. This village is an original design that used as inspiration the southern French town of Saint Paul-de-Vence. It has an exquisite attention to detail, an ancient Greek inspired amphitheater that was inaugurated with a concert by Frank Sinatra, an interesting Taino archeological museum and the main campus of the La Escuela de Diseño Chavón or Chavón Design School, considered one of the world’s top 5 best design schools and in association with New York City’s Parson School of Design. The other campus is in Santo Domingo.
Today, the conglomerate belongs to the United States based Fanjul Corporation owned by the Cuban-Americans Felipe and Alfonso Fanjul from Palm Beach, FL.
Inicia. Another giant in the modern Dominican sugar cane industry. Inicia is a recent name change as part of the company’s image renovation, but initially this was popularly known as the Casa Vicini. The first sugar cane mill was Ingenio Cristóbal Colón near San Pedro de Macorís. It was founded by Italian immigrant Juan Bautista Vicini in 1883. The company is also the owner of Ingenio Italia (now CAEI) between San Cristóbal and Baní and Ingenio Angelina. This is one of the oldest Dominican owned sugar company in the Dominican Republic. For the 1883/84 zafra it had 11,000 tareas with a train network that spanned 7 kilometers. Currently, its sugar cane instalations are the most productive in the Caribbean with a capacity of converting 8,000 metric tons of sugar cane to sugar and molasses everyday. The Vicini family, who are the founders and owners of Inicia, have expanded their business operations into various sectors of the Dominican economy and in other countries too. This means that its once very impactful sugar cane operations are no longer its main business, more by the expansion and growth of the other sectors than a real decline from the sugar cane operations.
Consejo Estatal de Azúcar (CEA). The third major player is a company owned by the Dominican government. It was created in 1966 as the government confiscated all the properties of the Trujillo family. These properties then became various companies owned by the Dominican government and the Consejo Estatal de Azúcar ( CEA) jncluded all the sugar cane mills and plantations that used to belong to Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. Among the sugar mills that were confiscated was the Central Río Haina, the largest of its kind in the world. Another sugar cane mill confiscated is Ingenio Santa Fé between San Cristóbal and Bajos de Haina. In addition, it also owns the following sugar mills: Consuelo, Porvenir and Quisqueya in the province of San Pedro de Macorís; Ozama and Boca Chica in the province of Santo Domingo and both nonexistent at the moment; Barahona in the province of the same name; Amistad and Montellano in the province of Puerto Plata and Ingenio Azucarero Pringamosa in the province of Hato Mayor. In total they have a capacity of converting 34,700 metric tons of sugar cane on a daily basis. Many sugar mills of the CEA have been privatized to Dominican and foreign investors including from non-traditional countries in the Dominican sugar cane industry such as Guatemala. Others ceased operations on the basis of a supposed crisis in the price of sugar in international markets.
The United States Sugar Quota
The modern Dominican sugar cane industry has been closely related to the United States since its inception in the late 1870’s. Not only was it created mostly by American investors and Americans were too the ones that normalized the importation of Cocolos and later Haitians to work in the plantations alleging that Dominicans were adversed to working in the plantations (the wages paid in the sector also had something to do with it, since it was too low to attract Dominican workers except in technical and managerial positions where the pay was much better). From the start almost all the sugar and molasses produced in the Dominican Republic was exported to the United States. It seems fitting that the government of the United States would give a preferential treatment to the modern Dominican sugar cane industry. To this day, the Dominican Republic has a sugar quota with the United States. This agreement stipulates that Americans pay a higher price than the world market price for sugar to Dominican producers while these must meet a certain amount of sugar every year. There has been times that the entire sugar production of the Dominican Republic has been exported to the United States and the local Dominican market is supplied with sugar imports from Brazil, somewhat akin to importing sand in the Sahara Desert. Sugar imported to the Dominican market was cheaper than sugar exported to the United States.
The modern Dominican sugar cane industry has been subject to some criticisms. When the industry began to flourish and the large sugar cane plantations were created, many of the investors were criticized for how many terrains were acquired. Another criticism is its dependency on foreign labor, at first immigrants from Puerto Rico, then replaced by immigrants from the Lesser Antilles and lastly, replaced by immigrants from Haiti. The cost of labor tended to be a major reason for the replacements. Dkminican labor has been limited to administrative and technical positions while the vast majority of workers were foreigners. For a time the sector’s reluctance to modernize and mechanize garnish much criticism, considering the sugar cane industries of other countries had mechanized a long time ago. This is no longer the case, but it took criticisms to create this change. Another change in recent years after msny being criticized was the living and working conditions of the harvesters.
Due to these criticisms, the sector has seen a vast improvement in the quality of life of the workers, although in the sugar mills that ceased operations many of the batey communities have fallen into extreme poverty. Public schools and public hospitals are obligated in attending the sugar cane industry workers and their families in case of a medical emergency regardless of their immigration status.
The future if the modern Dominican sugar cane industry isn’t very clear. The industry has suffered a continuous decline for some decades, in particular in the government owned sugar cane mills. Although the quota of the United States has been revised on multiple occasions to guarantee sugar production in the Dominican Republic (otherwise it would be focused on the local market and a small part of the land currently under sugar cane cultivation would continue, but the vast majority would cease), the world price of sugar has been declining steadily. The removal of the American quota means that the modern Dominican sugar cane industry would considerably decline. Many terrain that once was cultivated with sugar cane, now grow pineapples or African palms or oranges, etc. To finish, the great sugar cane industry that dominated the country during the late XIX and much of the XX centuries seem to slowly be reaching if not its end, certainly its decline.