Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 342-343
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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) 321pp. $49.95 cloth $19.95 paper
In these days of increased--perhaps excessive--scholarly specialization, fields of knowledge, such as Caribbean history, can benefit from broader, synthesizing studies that employ regional and comparative approaches, that expand chronological and geographical contexts, and that explore the connections between local realities and international developments. Ayala's American Sugar Kingdom is a welcome addition to the surprisingly modest body of works that look at Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic as a regional unit of analysis. Ayala's study successfully integrates developments in the U.S. economy with the emergence of new kinds of plantations in the Hispanic Caribbean during the first third of the twentieth century. Though focusing on one main economic thrust stemming from U.S. oligopolistic sugar-refining interests, [End Page 342] his study recognizes structural and social differences that produced different results in the individual components of the Hispanic Caribbean.
American Sugar Kingdom challenges the interpretative framework of the so-called "plantation school," which tends to emphasize the continuities between nineteenth-century ingenios and haciendas and the colossal centrales that were built during the first decades of the twentieth century. Ayala argues that new oligopolistic forces dominated by a handful of U.S.-based sugar-refining barons represented new forms of ownership that succeeded in vertically integrating the production and refining stages of the sugar industry. Beginning in the mid-1910s, this vertical integration was taken a step further via the conjunction of sugar- producing and refining directorates with those of major banks and finance corporations. These new vertically integrated sugar interests were able to establish much larger sugar mills, controlling vast extensions of land and employing large numbers of native and migrant proletarians.
The book is carefully structured to give a sense of the various processes that led to the emergence of the Hispanic Caribbean's modern sugar plantations. The story begins with the process of horizontal integration in the U.S. refining interests; the next phase included the vertical integration of the refining industry in the United States; this development was followed by the vertical integration of sugar production in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. The second half of the book is devoted to more specific topics, such as the colonos (cane producers who did not manufacture sugar), labor and migration, and the political and social ramifications of the sugar crises of the 1920s and early 1930s. The book's best chapters are 3 and 4, in which Ayala painstakingly reconstructs the composition of the various sugar-refining and sugar-producing corporations to identify interlocking directorates that point to vertical integration. For example, he reports that James Howell Post, who presided the National Sugar Refining Company, held directorates in the National City Bank, in two other banks, and in a steamship company. He also held high posts and directorates in the Cuban American Sugar Company (Cuba), the West India Sugar Finance Corporation (Dominican Republic), Aguirre Sugar Company (Puerto Rico), and a half dozen other corporations controlling the region's largest sugar centrales.
Because of its broad regional scope, American Sugar Kingdom offers new perspectives on the sugar industry that came to dominate much of life and politics in the Hispanic Caribbean. The book strikes a healthy balance between the homogenizing forces stemming from the United States and the profound social and economic differences that have historically separated Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico.