Dominican Sugar Company Challenged in Florida Court
June 17, 2020 By Zeb Larson
A lawsuit filed in January against the Fanjul Corporation in the Florida Southern District Court seeks to redress the loss of property that 60 families suffered in January 2016. That is when the Central Romana sugar company forced the families off their land in the El Seibo province of the Dominican Republic. While the case is currently paused waiting for Central Romana to be served, it could set a precedent for multi-national companies implicated in human rights violations.
In the middle of the night on January 26, 2016, armed guards for the Central Romana Corporation, a sugar producer, awakened about 60 families in the Villa Guerrero neighborhood of El Seibo. They forced families, including children, from their houses, before tearing them down. One victim, who had recently had cataract surgery, was blinded in one eye when the guards shined a light in their face. The families, many living in extreme poverty, had occupied the land informally.
Four years after the violent evictions, human rights activists have joined twenty-four of the victims to file suit against Fanjul Corp in Florida, a major sugar and real estate conglomerate run by the Fanjul family. The case alleges that Fajul is the parent company of Central Romana.
Robert Vance, the attorney for the plaintiffs, hopes to establish that Central Romana falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. court system because the Fanjul Corp headquarters are in West Palm Beach. The victims seek redress for the loss of property, disruption, and emotional damages they suffered. To demonstrate that the two entities are intertwined, Vance plans to explore their business relationship and leadership to show that they are working in tandem, and that Fanjul is effectively the parent company of Central Romana.
“Central Romana is a bad actor,” says Vance.
The families originally sought justice in the Dominican Republic but were unsuccessful. The country’s public prosecutor took two years to consider the complaint and render a decision. The plaintiffs were given only five days to organize an appeal, in the middle of the country’s Christmas holiday.
Civil courts were a dead end, as no lawyers wanted to take on the case. International observers argue that the judicial system in the Dominican Republic is corrupt and protects corporations. In Dominican Republic v. AES Corp, the Dominican government chose to sue a company in U.S. courts because its own court system was determined to be too unreliable. Given the power that Central Romana wields in the Dominican Republic, the plaintiffs feel they could ever expect a fair trial. The complaint notes that Fanjul’s influence in the economy could allow the company to influence the ruling.
After the 2016 evictions, without any resources, the families dispersed to wherever they could find housing. Many resettled with family members in Santa Cruz del Seibo, and other impoverished neighborhoods. Absent of any means of redress the situation in their home country, victims began working with overseas activists.
Many of the victims have been organizing against Central Romana’s abuses in the Dominican Republic. Women like María Magdalena Álvarez Gálvez, who was among the sixty families evicted in 2016, are pushing back against the company’s activities. Gálvez has publicly spoken out against Central Romana, including at an event organized by Dominicans for Justice and Peace at the UN Human Rights Council. The activists have also been providing support to other communities currently being threatened with eviction, supporting them to pressure the Dominican government.
Central Romana is the largest sugar producer on the island and the country’s largest private employer. The company is the kind of “Big Sugar” corporation that would have been the norm a hundred years ago in the Caribbean, wielding disproportionate power in the country. Even as sugar has declined in importance for the country’s economy, Central Romana’s operations are highly profitable. In addition to sugar, the company also controls cattle ranching activities and a 7,000-acre resort, Casa de Campo. The Fanjuls allege that their investment is small, though members of the Fanjul board serve in Central Romana’s leadership.
Central Romana is widely believed to wield political influence on the island, which has allowed them to skirt or even outright break the law when it has suited their interests. The Department of Labor in 2013 found that the company violated labor laws, subjecting employees to illegal working conditions. Although the families in Villa Guerrero were squatting, the Dominican Constitution nevertheless guarantees the right to housing for all people, and eviction requires a legal process. Central Romana stands accused of ignoring those processes and violently evicting the 60 families.
Fanjul Corp is run by four brothers: Alfonso, José, Andres, and Alexander. Their sister Lian responsible for the company’s charities. The family left Cuba for the U.S. in the wake of the Cuban Revolution when they lost their original land holdings. In Florida they established new sugar plantations and land holdings that made them one of the largest sugar producers in the world. They began by buying up land in the Everglades for sugarcane cultivation and bringing in Jamaican workers under the H-2 Visa program.
By the 1980s, Fanjul Corp was strong enough to expand into the Dominican Republic through Central Romana, and the family business has grown to become one of the largest sugar producers in the world. Today, Fanjul Corp co-owns American Sugar Refining, meaning that much of the sugar distributed in the U.S. comes through subsidiaries like Domino, Redpath, and Florida Crystals. Their U.S. operations mirror their Dominican counterparts, diversified into sugar production, cattle, and resorts.
The Fanjuls are also important political players in the U.S. Through their business and attached political action committees, Fanjul Corp makes hundreds of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions. In 2016, nearly $1.2 million went to Democrats, with another $600,000 going to Republicans. Speaking to Vanity Fair in 2011, Alfy Fanjul said, “One of the reasons why we get involved in American politics is because of what happened to us in Cuba. We did not get involved in the Batista government, and we do not want what happened in Cuba to happen to us again.”
The Fanjuls use these contributions to protect their business activities in the U.S. by lobbying for protective tariffs. Sugar is an agricultural commodity whose status can be precarious because of import quotas, and the Fanjuls advocate so that Central Romana will be able to sell sugar in the United States. They also appear to be politically influential in the Dominican Republic. Disclosures through Wikileaks revealed that the Fanjuls tried to bribe Dominican politicians to oppose the Central American Free Trade Agreement, fearing that it might threaten their bottom line.
The crux of the case in the Florida courts will be whether the lawyers will be able to prove that Central Romana and Fanjul Corp are effectively the same entity. To date, nobody has ever been able to demonstrate this in court, though as a legal tactic, it has worked with other companies. The legal team’s arguments will hinge on showing similar leadership between the two companies, their economic relationship and funding streams, and whether their businesses are intertwined. Lawyer Robert Vance is confident that they will at least get to discovery on the jurisdictional issue on whether Fanjul can be sued in this way.
If this approach does not work, activists and the plaintiffs are concurrently planning to file suit in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. That suit will be filed imminently, and may argue that the Dominican Republic has failed to uphold certain parts of the American Convention on Human Rights.
Should the suit prove to be successful, this would be a landmark achievement for human rights in the Dominican Republic. “If the court here finds that it can exercise jurisdiction over Central Romana itself and that the two companies are identical, all sorts of actors in the Dominican Republic can sue them in the United States,” says Vance.
Vance was already involved in a suit against Central Romana on behalf of workers who allege that they were exposed to unsafe pesticides without safety training. The families who were evicted could receive compensation for the loss of their property, emotional damages, and monetary damages related to their displacement. Central Romana has been routinely described as an abusive employer, with its sugarcane cutters paid starvation wages to work in brutal and often degrading conditions. In 2015, Al Jazeera described the working conditions faced by Haitian plantation laborers as bordering on slavery.
For the sugar industry in the Dominican Republic, and other jurisdictions where Central Romana operates, the lawsuit is a warning that foreign courts could hold them accountable for human rights abuses.
About Zeb Larson
Zeb Larson received his PhD from The Ohio State University, where his research focused on the anti-apartheid movement in the United States.