The Americas 59.3 (2003) 434-435
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This book is a Spanish translation of Coffee, Society and Power in Latin America (Baltimore, 1995) updated with two essays by Mario Samper K. The works in this excellent collection cap a significant body of scholarly work that links the rapid expansion of export agriculture in the long nineteenth century to state formation in Latin America. Departing from the grand generalizations of dependency theory and world systems, these essays stress diversity of outcome and listen carefully to the ways in which each specific coffee region resonated differently to the plucking of the same string in the international economy.
In Fernando Picó's description of a small Puerto Rican region, generational change, migration, cultural attitudes to land, and different access to credit account for the dynamics of land tenure changes. The contribution by Verena Volcke brings our attention to the importance of family dynamics and gender roles to understand the strategies behind diverse labor arrangements. David McCreery finds that ethnicity, geographical location, and demographic change, rather than who was in power, explain the end of coercive labor arrangements in Guatemala. That is, the careful case studies in this volume show the variety of factors and the complex negotiations, implicit and explicit, that gave the institutions of the coffee economy their shape and their plasticity.
Chapters by Héctor Pérez Brignoli (on the participation of Indian communities in the 1932 "Matanza" in El Salvador), Mauricio Font (on the politics of Italian immigrants in San Paulo), Lowell Gudmundson (on the role of small coffee producers in the 1948 Costa Rican revolution), and Michael Jiménez (on the relative lack of influence of coffee planters in Colombia), bring home the point that the study of collective action and political change in the respective regions also benefits from a more nuanced understanding of the coffee economy and the social groups that participated in it. Michael Jiménez further explores the limits of the power of planters in an excellent contribution on the United States side of the coffee market. His analysis of the business of roasting and distribution illuminates the reasons why Latin American producers never realized their dreams of sidestepping the middlemen. [End Page 434]
The variety of topics touched by these essays may confuse the non-specialist. Fortunately, an introduction written by the late William Roseberry does a masterful job providing a framework to understand how they relate to each other. The fact that most of these essays build on a distinguished scholarly tradition does not limit their originality. They have the cumulative effect of giving a final blow to the influential but simplistic notion that by the end of the nineteenth century elites of export-crop planters had achieved complete control of the political and economic life of their countries. In that sense this book is more than the sum of its parts, thus passing the most difficult test for edited collections.
Mario Samper's new contributions highlight the significance of this translation for the community of historians in Latin America. His comprehensive bibliographic essay includes the most recent work in comparative coffee studies and is conceived as a resource for Latin American university students. The same students who frequently, and justly, complain that much good work about their countries is written in English and is not available for them to better understand their reality. I cannot think of a better collection to give them an idea of the complexity of the impact of coffee cultivation in nineteenth century Latin America.
Finally, this work is being published at a time when coffee markets are experiencing yet another crisis (when the English edition first appeared international prices were four times higher than they are in February 2002). Samper's concluding discussion of a research agenda has the implicit assumption that the work of historians should be part of the discussion about the present and future of the...