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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 352-354
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American Sugar Kingdom: The Plantation Economy of the Spanish Caribbean, 1898-1934
American Sugar Kingdom: The Plantation Economy of the Spanish Caribbean, 1898-1934. By César J. Ayala. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. Pp. xii+321. $49.95/$19.95.
To date, the literature on colonial plantation economies in general, and those of the Spanish Caribbean in particular, has emphasized continuity in economic organization that persisted through changes in colonial powers. The central claim of César Ayala's book is that, contrary to this prior emphasis, changes in colonial powers brought with them profound changes in the economic organization of some colonial plantation economies. Hence the end result, namely economic underdevelopment, should be understood not as the consequence of persistence of any form of economic organization, but as the consequence of these changes. Focusing on the sugar plantation economies of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, Ayala makes a convincing argument. His book provides a significant and valuable reinterpretation of underdevelopment in the Spanish Caribbean in particular and, perhaps, more generally in colonial plantation economies. To use the author's own words, this is "new rum in new barrels" (p. 3). It might be added that, in the fashion of a good Caribbean rum, it also pleases the palate.
While American Sugar Kingdom does not explicitly claim to address the concerns of historians of technology, there are a few strong currents of the [End Page 352] interaction of technology with economic organization, and by extension society, running through the book. One phenomenon that underlies a substantial part of the analysis is the role of scale economies. The technology of sugar refining, especially in the later years under consideration, involved heavy investment. In order to dilute the effect of this large fixed cost on the per-unit cost of milled sugar, it was necessary for mills to produce large quantities. A natural consequence of this was the consolidation of production in a small number of hands, something that the author observes in the context of the "penetration of U.S. capital into the economies of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico" (p. 121). As the mills grew in size, so did the interest in creating a reliable supply of cane. This led to the reorganization of the production of sugar cane, often to the detriment of agricultural labor. The second and related phenomenon that underlies a substantial portion of the book is the role of technology in bringing about these profound changes in the organization both of capital and of labor in the sugar plantation economy. This process of technological change was closely tied to the transition to U.S. capital in the Spanish Caribbean during the first decades of the twentieth century.
Other aspects of American Sugar Kingdom that merit comment include, first, the avenues of research that the book opens for historians of technology. Does the role of technology in general, and economies of scale in particular, as drivers of profound changes in economic organization suggest a tradeoff between technological progress and the counterfactual "alternative path of capitalist development free from colonial domination and the plantation economy" (p. 201), which, presumably, would have been more desirable? Second, there are a number of themes of interest to the economist. These include divergent experiences in response to the Great Depression in Cuba on one hand and the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico on the other, as a consequence of nonmembership or membership in the U.S. customs area. The reasons for the existence and development of different economic institutions in the different areas studied, and the differing interplay between economics and politics in these areas, are fascinating topics for further examination by an institutional economist.
On a stylistic note, the book is readable and engaging. The use of Marxist concepts and terminology--"proletariat," "imperial," "bourgeoisie," and so on--make a thorough understanding of these terms a prerequisite to understanding some of the arguments. Occasionally, terms are used in a manner...