Written by Pedro A. Regalado
In a very warm Santo Domingo during the summer of 2016, I searched through the Presidential Papers at the General Archive of the Nation in the Dominican Republic. Among many compelling finds, I combed through correspondence, official speeches, and other sources that documented governmental efforts to curb the island’s emerging drug trade during the 1970’s and 1980’s. I also found information on the country’s evolving relationship to multinational banks. Yet, what stood out most, as often happens, was something that I didn’t expect to find. I stumbled upon documents regarding Veprosa Exports S.A., an American company headquartered in South Carolina, a state known for its sugar and cotton plantations during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and for its textile manufacturing in the twentieth century.
Yet, what stood out most, as often happens, was something that I didn’t expect to find.
Veprosa Exports S.A., represented an extension of those earlier economies. In April 1986, the Director for the Advancement of Border Communities of the Dominican Republic wrote to the country’s president, Salvador Jorge Blanco, about a plan for the “recovery” of prisoners in a prison in the city of Dajabón. That prison was tied to Veprosa: the director’s office sought to provide prison labor to agriculture companies who, in turn, would export their products to foreign markets. The goal was to create a program that could be applied to “other border prisons and to other cities in the nation with dense populations.” Among the benefits, the director listed,
It would better the general conduct of prisoners. For the first time in the Dominican Republic’s history, prisoners would earn a salary (10 Dominican pesos daily). Prisoners would obtain a personal banking account in the Agricultural Bank of Dajabón. Prisoners will learn the basics of planting, fertilizing, fumigation, and irrigation as part of their practice for cultivating exports. And above all, prisoners will learn that honored work will generate incomes for their family necessities.
Veprosa would be the first company in this new prison-to-market program, exporting watermelons to Miami and okra to New York City.
In places like the Dominican Republic, where labor has long been cheap, many U.S. companies like Veprosa sought to escape an already declining U.S. labor movement during the post-World War II era. There, they reproduced the conditions that earlier U.S. business interests had set in place during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, before the mass recruitment of Latina/o laborers to U.S. cities. And as in decades past, they found politicians and businesspeople eager to profit by providing, as the Director in Dajabon did, liberal rationalizations for human exploitation.
These richly detailed documents help us to understand how American capitalism’s continued search for profit continues to impact economic thought among Latin Americans and their decisions to leave their countries.
That Dajabon is a border city by Haiti prompts many questions about the intersection of class and race in the search of profit. By exploring Veprosa’s company structure in more detail and in the archive, I sought to unpack the transnational business dynamics that have molded Latin American subjectivities during the late 20th century.
And it was among these documents that I realized how U.S. business interests, even when U.S. individuals were absent, had residual effects in the ways Latina/os shaped metropolitan areas. These richly detailed documents help us to understand how American capitalism’s continued search for profit continues to impact economic thought among Latin Americans and their decisions to leave their countries. As I left the Presidential papers it became clear that as many answers as there were on those warm sunny days, I had just as many new questions.
Rafael David Carrasco, “Todo Por La Patria,” Dirección General de Promoción de Las Comunidades Fronterizas, Fondo Presidencial: Cárceles del País. Archivo General de La Nación, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
Pedro A. Regalado is a Ph.D. Candidate in American Studies where he focuses on the history of U.S. cities in relation to race, immigration, and capitalism. His dissertation tracks the history of New York during the second half of the 20th century through the lens of Latina/o life and their evolving forms of work.
Pedro was an inaugural recipient of the RITM Summer Research Fellowship, which is awarded to Yale students to support research on a contemporary or historical topic related to race relations, regional or international migration, or indigenous communities.
The Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration advances work related to Ethnic Studies fields; to intersectional race, gender, and sexuality research; and to Native and diasporic communities in the United States and abroad.