- American Sugar Kingdom: The Plantation Economy of the Spanish Caribbean, 1898–1934
How did U.S. capital come to dominate the Spanish Caribbean's social and economic structure after 1898 ? This is the principal question posed by César Ayala's comparative study of the modern sugar industry of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic in the decades immediately following the Spanish-American War. Ayala rejects the Plantation School's emphasis on long historical continuities and proposes instead that the Caribbean was a site for a "radical social and economic transformation . . . as a result of U.S. imperial expansion" (p. 2 ). Driving this transformation was a new type of corporation—the holding company. U.S. banking and sugar-refining corporations came together at the end of the nineteenth century to form powerful sugar trusts that not only defined the relationships between corporate structures in the mainland but also the ways in which these interests organized sugar production in the Spanish Caribbean—the "American Sugar Kingdom."
Ayala eventually retreats from his "radical transformation" argument when describing the emergence of the colonato (sugar farmers), the labor system, and the relationship between the plantations and the centrales (mills). Although U.S. capital transformed the industrial process of sugar making during the twentieth century, Ayala argues for the importance of local differences in shaping the encounter between U.S. interests and those in the islands. Therefore, Ayala creates a gap between radical transformation and the conditions (land tenure, labor, industrial) that existed in the islands. When looking closely at the sugar industry during the period, Ayala argues that it is clear that U.S. capital had a transformative power in relation to production and output. However, U.S. capital was not hegemonic. American sugar interests were dependent on local political, social, and economic structures in order to successfully secure land and labor to supply their centrales. Yet, the American-owned centrales were not the only ones in existence, as Ayala shows. The presence of locally owned industrial mills, some of them constructed at the end of the nineteenth century, challenges the "radical transformation" claim.
Ayala's arguments regarding the role that colonos played in the industry are based on his analysis of Cuban sugar farmers. His examination of Puerto Rican and Dominican sugar farmers is less detailed. However, his approach merits further consideration, because Ayala provides a new methodology to understand this complex agricultural subject. According to this study, Puerto Rico's colonato emerged late and was the product of American economic expansion. Unlike Cuba, where the Americans found virgin land to build their mills without having to depend on the colonos, in Puerto Rico, American investors and mill owners found that most of the island was already owned by farmers. Ayala's reliance on statistical analyses of [End Page 542] agriculture done in the 1930 s and 1940 s pushed him to conclude that, under such conditions, most of the land planted in sugar was either controlled by a small number of large colonos and centralistas or by a large number of smallholders. According to Ayala, Puerto Rico had far more smallholders who worked their lands with the help of family labor (p. 141 ). Following the model created by Mintz, Ayala begins to describe the colonato in terms of small farms or minifundia.
Ayala's evidence—based on extensive primary and secondary source materials—shows the overwhelming importance and power of the Cuban sugar industry. Documentation of investment levels, size of farms, output of centrales, and so on, supports this claim without rejecting the importance of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic for the industry. This is a splendid book that explores a side of the encounter between the U.S. and the Spanish Caribbean during the twentieth century, making it a valuable reference to those interested in comparative colonialism and empire building.