Latin American Research Review 40.3 (2005) 346-353
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Always in Demand:
Recent Books in Latin American Economic and Business History
Richard J. Salvucci
Alpine, New Jersey, is an affluent community in Bergen Country, just across the Hudson River from Yonkers, New York. It was once known, it is said, as the "Hamptons of New Jersey" in consideration of its well-heeled residents, one of whom, it seems, was a certain Manuel Rionda Polledo, one of a group known as Alpine's "40 Millionaires." Part of his estate, "Río Vista" still stands, an artifact of Jersey folklore called "Devil's Tower." Built sometime around 1910, the clock tower offered, from its location on the Palisades, excellent views of New York, and according to some accounts, was to be a place of interment for Manuel's beloved wife, Harriet. Today the tower is said to be haunted. The same Rionda had a grandnephew, Manuel Rionda del Monte, who was killed at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. By then, though, Manuel Rionda Polleda had been long gone, dead in New Jersey in 1943 at age 89. Wall Street paid him warm tribute, as well it should have, for in his own estimation, Manuel Rionda was the man "who did the most to introduce American capital into Cuba" (289). Considering that Yankee merchants and traders had been knocking at the door for nearly two hundred years when Rionda died, that must be counted as a remarkable epitaph.
I must admit I had never heard of him before Professor McAvoy's book, although he rates several mentions in Hugh Thomas' encyclopedic [End Page 346] history of Cuba. Whether or not he merits the full biographical treatment he receives here is hard to say, although that is no reflection on the book, which is excellent. I should be the last person to complain about a lack of flesh-and-blood detail in what is, after all, essentially a business history, but I occasionally had the impression that Rionda was a useful device around which to organize financial data drawn principally from the Braga Brothers Collection at the University of Florida. Having never examined the documents, I can only imagine that they are strong on the sort of thing that warms the hearts of cost and general ledger accountants, but leave the rest of us gasping for air. It is difficult to get much human-interest material from these kinds of records, and it is not necessarily clear that whether Manuel Rionda smoked, drank or gambled (other than on sugar) is of much interest to McAvoy. Yet a lot of high-level business and political influence rests on just such personal foibles, and an occasional allusion to bribes, or funds needed "to grease the wheels" in Washington, D.C. (42) made me wonder how much McAvoy was holding back.
Rionda was an immigrant from the Spanish region of Asturias, and when he went to America, he joined his brothers. But he didn't stay in Cuba and was sent to the United States for an education. Running throughout the narrative is an appreciation, now scarcely comprehensible, of how closely the fortunes of Cuban sugar, not to say Cuban politics, were linked to the United States. Rionda certainly spent more of his life in the States than in Cuba, where the family's interests were managed by other members of a clan of García Marquesian proportions. From the outset, it was clear to Rionda that the United States could make or break Cuba economically, and it subtracts not a bit...