Bittersweet: Evicted Dominican families search for justice in the U.S.

On January 26, 2016, armed officers from the Central Romana (CR) Corporation evicted some 60 families from their homes in the Dominican Republic. The CR, a company that started operations in 1912, has become the largest sugar producer in this country. It has large tracts of land in El Seibo and maintains an expansion policy.

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The first eviction occurred in the Los Cajuilitos and the second in the Villa Guerrero sector in the province of El Seibo, both rural communities where sugar cane crops, belonging to the CR, occupy most of the territory.

Clarivel Álvarez, an evicted mother of two, who now represents the families that lost their homes, was reluctant to leave her house, fearing for the lives of her children. She says she was afraid of the intentions of the armed CR guards who destroyed everything in their path.

“At that time we got caught in a tremendous downpour,” explained Olga Mejía, another one of the evicted. “They never presented property titles or eviction papers.” Still, they destroyed the homes of some sixty families and even threatened to kill those who refused to leave their homes.

Enero 26, 2016, Seibo, República Dominicana (imágenes propias de los damnificados).

Four years later, having obtained the support of the United Nations, but not their own country, 24 of those families filed a lawsuit against the Fanjul Corporation, a sugar, agricultural, tourism, real estate, energy and transportation holding, headquartered in West Palm Beach, and against the Central Romana (CR), one of Fanjul´s “minority investments.” The lawsuit seeks compensation for injuries and damages both physical and psychological.

In the lawsuit, lawyers argue the case must be tried in the States as Fanjul is a Florida corporation and Central Romana, “operates, conducts, engages in business in Florida.” Moreover, the Dominican Republic is not an adequate forum for this case, adds the lawsuit: “Fanjul is the largest landholder and largest employer in the Dominican Republic, as well as the leading producer of sugar in the Dominican Republic. The Fanjul Corporation has influence in the Dominican Republic, including in government and the judicial system. Given its influence, plaintiffs would not have a fair opportunity to fully litigate their claims.”

The plaintiff also argues that the evictions took place without a valid court order and that the families were assaulted.

Enero 26, 2016, Seibo, República Dominicana (imágenes propias de los damnificados)

The Fanjul corporation, which acknowledges having “a minority investment” in Central Romana, considers the lawsuit accusations unfounded since the land belongs to CR. Alfonso Fanjul and J. Pepe Fanjul assured in a statement that the Dominican Republic prosecutor’s office had already investigated and ruled the actions of Central Romana were in accordance with current legislation. They added that the people were expelled by “law enforcement pursuants.” Jorge Estula, a spokesman for Central Romana in the Dominican Republic explained that the CR is unaware of the content of the complaint from South Florida, having not received official notification.

“We do not know if we are going to achieve much or anything at all, but this (legal action) seeks to prevent other families from suffering what these have suffered,” says the Dominican priest, Miguel Ángel Gullón, who has taken the case of the evicted families in his hands, and brought it to the United Nations in Geneva.

One of the first consequences of this lawsuit has been that CR lost the possibility to certify as sustainable its sugar cane crops by Bonsucro, a London-based NGO that promotes this type of production. Now Estula emphasizes it has another certification: that of ProTerra. The Board of Directors of this global association of producers “decided not to accept the Central Romana in the Bonsucro certification at the moment,”  explained Rafael Seixas, membership manager for Bonsucro in a letter.

None of the El Seibo authorities or the mainstream media has denounced the evictions that took place there. “Now the Supreme Court has already given the Central Romana permission to evict another 300 families. I have already told them that they are not going to displace them,” says Gullón, who also directs a community Radio, Seybo, which keeps bring up the issue.

It was in this region of the Dominican Republic that several years ago, a group of families began to settle along Matencio Road and near the Los Cajuilitos batey. Until the early hours of January 26, 2016, Claribel Álvarez had been living there for eight months. “I lived in house number 5 on Matencio Road,” said Álvarez, referring to the house she built with her own resources.

According to the official website of CR, the company has managed to build thousands of houses in ​​the region for the benefit of employees and their families, becoming the leading company in this area. According to Gullón, the residents of these houses are mostly undocumented Haitians: “They work from sunrise to sunset for very low wages. They don’t rest a day of the week, they only stop on New Year’s and Good Friday. When the time comes to retire, they have to leave the house that belongs to the company and they do not receive a pension.” (The evicted families are not Haitian and therefore do not work at the Central.)

According to Álvarez, until eviction day, nobody had claimed ownership of the land. “When I decided to settle on that path, I did it out of necessity. I was a single mother of two children and could not afford to pay the rent and eat. So I settled there with a group of humble families. “

Morena Sánchez said that everyone in town knew that Matencio Road belonged to no one. “Since it belonged to no one, we went there to give our children a roof.”

Enero 26, 2016, Seibo, República Dominicana (imágenes propias de los damnificados)

As cellphone videos filmed by the victims show, the evictions were carried out by force, and the CR armed guards did not show judicial authorization. Nor were accompanied by agents of the state.

Before the lawsuit, a group of victims tried to find justice. In one instance, they went to authorities such as the Provincial Governor. Álvarez declared the governor preferred not to interfere because if he did, he would lose his job. The municipal mayor did not want to intervene either. “We also went to the press, but no one dared to get involved,” said Álvarez.

Father Gullón has asked the Public Ministry to grant the affected families compensation of $30,000, a house, a job and the land. But CR did not accept those conditions, alleging they have owned the land since 1960.

To read the second part of this story, click here.

Monica Gomez Batista , who is currently finishing her master's degree in broadcast media & journalism at FIU, is from Havana, Cuba. She graduated in 2017 with a bachelor's degree in philosophy and is passionate about human rights and immigration.

Raised in Denver, Colorado, Priscilla moved to Miami in 2015 to pursue a bachelor's degree in communications and most recently a master's in Spanish language journalism. She believes that good journalism gives a voice and empowers communities. That’s exactly what she plans to do through out her career.

Currently working on his Spanish journalism master's degree. Endara has dedicated his career to telling stories about the experiences of people with disabilities and to interviewing professionals in the health and education system. He has published stories on South Florida News Service, Caracol Radio and his blog. Endara has also interviewed artists such as Ricardo Montaner, Gabriel Porras, Alexis Valdés and Christopher Millan.