The Americas 59.3 (2003) 419-420
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Winner of the American Society for Environmental History's George Perkins Marsh Prize in 2001, this book is a pioneering environmental history of Cuba during the long nineteenth century. Only a handful of works in Latin American environmental history deal with this period of critical transformation in the relationship between human beings and the natural world. Pérez integrates Cuban history with insights from recent scholarship on the anthropology and sociology of natural disasters to show how hurricanes shaped the course of nineteenth-century Cuban history.
These hurricanes were so destructive because they struck environments that were particularly vulnerable. Over the colonial period, the destructive force of hurricanes gradually increased, not because the hurricanes were becoming more forceful but because Cuban environments were becoming more vulnerable. This vulnerability was a socially-constructed by-product of Cuba's programs of economic development, particularly the export boom of the early nineteenth century. In the 1840s, Cuba's economy had achieved a sort of "structural equilibrium," enjoying a vibrant and diversified export industry rooted in sugar, coffee, and tobacco. The export boom also led to population growth and urbanization, particularly in port cities on the coast and rivers, regions particularly susceptible to the impact of hurricanes. This vulnerability was made painfully obvious during the 1840s when, after fifty years without a major hurricane, the island was struck in short order by two major hurricanes: San Francisco de Asis in October 1844 and San Francisco de Borja in October 1846. "Never before had Cuba experienced so much destruction," argues Pérez, "in large measure because never before had there been so much to destroy' (p. 131).
The long-term effects of these hurricanes were not random; certain social groups and certain industries suffered more than others. The hurricanes threw the inequalities of the colonial social and political order into sharp relief. For example, they destroyed the structural equilibrium in Cuba's economy, contributing to the expansion the sugar industry at the expense of the coffee industry. The hurricanes struck Cuba's coffee haciendas at a moment when rapidly declining global coffee prices made it particularly difficult for coffee planters to recover. As a result, many coffee planters shifted to other forms of agricultural production. In addition to these broad structural changes in the Cuban economy, these shifts also meant a sharp decline in the quality of life for many Cuban slaves. To recover lost capital, many coffee growers sold their slaves to the sugar mills, which were hungry for labor. Drawing here, as elsewhere, on detailed primary accounts, Pérez contrasts the comparatively light burdens of slave life on the coffee plantations (at times almost romanticizing it) with the often punitive labor conditions on the sugar plantation. Similarly, in the urban areas the poor often bore the brunt of the storms. Pérez shows how the destruction in Havana was worst in the extramuro barrios of San Lázaro, Jesús Maria, and Peñalaver, whose inhabitants were mostly of African descent. [End Page 419]
The hurricanes also engendered political and cultural transformations in Cuba. The inefficiency of colonial authorities to provide disaster relief efforts, called into question the benefits of the colonial system for Cuba. Private charity, not the imperial government, provided most of the immediate relief from the hurricanes. The government in Madrid provided little help in the longer-term recovery, only reluctantly eliminating tariffs on goods and provisions for relief imported from the United States. The closing chapter sketches out the social and cultural history of hurricanes in Cuba in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, showing how they have been incorporated into Cuban fiction and poetry. Hurricanes helped to create "shared experience of nation" in Cuba, helping forge the idea of cubanidad, "to incorporate the experience of the hurricane as a facet of nationality" (p...