Railroads and sugar in Cuba

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Wed Dec 29 07:17:16 MST 1999

Published by H-LatAm at h-net.msu.edu (November, 1999)

Oscar Zanetti Lecuona and Alejandro Garcia.  _Sugar and Railroads:
A Cuban History, 1837-1959_.  Trans. Franklin W. Knight and Mary
Todd.  Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1998. viii
+ 496 pp.  Tables, maps, photographs, endnotes, bibliography, and
index.  $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8078-2385-6; $29.95 (paper), ISBN

Reviewed for H-LatAm by Andy Daitsman <adaitsma at pehuenche.utalca.cl>,
Instituto de Estudios Humanisticos, Universidad de Talca


Zanetti and Garcia's _Sugar and Railroads_ comes highly recommended
indeed.  The Spanish-language original (1987) won the Association of
Caribbean Historians' Elsa Goveia Prize for the best work on
Caribbean history published between 1986 and 1989, and this English
translation contains a laudatory introduction by the best-known
Caribbean historian currently working, Franklin W. Knight.

_Sugar and Railroads_ is an excellent monograph.  Careful and
sensitive historians, Zanetti and Garcia provide a complex, richly
textured analysis of the Cuban railroad industry from its origins in
the early nineteenth century up to the eve of the Cuban Revolution
in 1959.  The study is based primarily on corporate records, but the
authors also draw on research in Cuban and Spanish government
archives, some oral history (especially of participants in the
twentieth century labor movement), and wide reading in the secondary
literature on the economic history of railroads.

They trace in precise detail the interconnections between railroad
construction and sugar production, arguing convincingly that the
cost savings of rail transport permitted non-subsidized Cuban cane
sugar to compete successfully on the world market with subsidized
European beet sugar.  Identifying a "triad of plantation, railroad,
and the port" (e.g., p. 53), they explain how the anarchic laissez
faire promoted by the Spanish colonial state led to "an uneven
development of the country, by which some regions had, and others
lacked completely, ... modern means of transportation" (p. 77).  By
the end of the century, Cuba, despite having opened (in 1837) the
seventh railroad line to begin service anywhere in the world and the
first in Latin America, still lacked an integrated system of rail
transportation, and substantial regions of the country--especially
in Oriente--had no railroads whatsoever.  Cuban railroads, Zanetti
and Garcia tell us on several occasions, led to economic "growth ...
but not development," echoing the title of John Coatsworth's book on
Mexican railroads.[1] Efficient low-cost rail transportation,
without backward links or multiplier effects, served only to deepen
the country's dependence on mono-crop exporting.

This dependency however, at least initially, was not due to direct
domination of the railroad sector (or even the economy at large) by
outside agents.  Although Zanetti and Garcia show that British bank
loans financed much of the early railroad construction, they contend
these should not be understood as "foreign investment" as such,
considering that the lenders "received no control over the railroad
or any other rights" (p. 26).  The North American engineers,
furthermore, who planned and directed the actual construction work,
were over the course of time replaced in their managerial positions
by Cuban nationals.  The initial Cuban railroad network, then, was
built at the initiative of Cubans, in large part those who had
direct ties to the sugar industry either as producers or traders,
and was controlled by Cubans for most of the nineteenth century.

Direct foreign domination of the railroads came later, towards the
final third of the nineteenth century, when the pressure of domestic
political conflict and global economic crisis provoked severe
financial strain in the early Cuban-controlled railroad companies.
By the 1870s and 1880s, British creditors began to exchange their
credit to these firms for equity in them, and eventually took
control of several of the competing western Cuban railway lines.  In
1889, London's J. Henry Schroder Bank, the principal lender to most
of the railroad firms, pushed through a merger of the Cuban rail
properties it had accumulated.  The company that resulted,
Ferrocarriles Unidos de La Habana, came to exercise near monopoly
control over the densely populated western core of Cuba until its
nationalization by Autentico president Carlos Prio Socarras in 1949.

Cuba's eastern railroads also underwent a process of foreign
acquisition and monopolization, though a different one from what had
taken place in the west.  Eastern Cuba was still relatively
undeveloped when the United States occupied Cuba in 1898, and the
most important eastern railroads were built following the U.S.
takeover.  Almost all the new roads were financed by U.S.  capital:
several of them, including the path-breaking Ferrocarril Central,
were directly built by U.S. firms.  Monopolization occurred in the
1920s, under the pressure of the severe crisis affecting sugar
prices at that time.  Despite the heavier direct involvement of U.S.
nationals in the east, Cubans still played an important role
developing the rail network there.  Zanetti and Garcia highlight in
particular Jose M. Tarafa, a revolutionary war veteran turned sugar
entrepreneur.  Tarafa-organized firms built most of the secondary
rail circuits in Oriente, generally with strong financial backing in
the United States, and Tarafa himself pushed through the 1923
legislation (the "Tarafa law") that enabled the monopolization of
the eastern railroads (see Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen).

With monopolization by foreign firms completed (the British in the
west, and North Americans in the east), the main focus of the book
from the 1920s on shifts to the development of the railroad labor
movement, and the impact labor's gains had on the profitability of
the railroad firms.  Groundwork for this had been laid in previous
chapters, with more or less brief discussions of the composition of
the railroad construction labor force, the rise of mutualism, and
the participation of railroad workers in the struggle for
independence.  In the final four chapters, however, the railway
unions move to center stage.

As might be expected from a book originally published in Cuba and
whose authors still live and work in the Academy there, Zanetti and
Garcia glorify the role of Communists and denigrate that of their
opponents in the construction of the labor movement.  In part, this
reflects a reality of labor organizing in Cuba in the thirties and
forties, as the Communists in general were less likely to cut
sweetheart deals with management or to employ gangster-like tactics
to solidify their authority in union locals.  Still, the
requirements of toeing the official line lead to curious omissions
-- such as the absence of any sustained analytical treatment of the
populist 1940s.  For example, Batista's name does not even appear in
Chapter Seventeen, devoted to the 1940s, even though the text
recognizes that his 1940 Constitution "led to the beginning of a new
stage of legality, which gave the people's movement possibilities
for promoting democracy in the country." (pp. 348-369, quotation on
p. 361)  Likewise, President Grau's keynote address to the First
National Congress of Railroad Workers (held in 1944 and, according
to the authors, a critical event in the creation of trade union
unity) earns only a brief mention in an endnote. (pp. 365-7, note
60, p. 467)

By the start of the 1950s, Cuban railroads had entered into frank
crisis.  On one hand, stagnation in the sugar industry combined with
stiff competition from trucks and buses to provoke a sharp decline
in revenue.  On the other, a combative labor movement in alliance
with a populist state had won significant wage increases that
sharply increased labor costs.  The railroads needed state
intervention to survive, and they got it.  Ferrocarriles Unidos, in
the west, was nationalized as a joint venture in 1949, while
Ferrocarriles Consolidados, the U.S.-dominated eastern monopoly,
received heavy state subsidies throughout the 1950s.  Both firms
sought to cut costs by reducing wages and service, as they invested
in new equipment in a vain effort to improve service quality.  Wage
cuts, however, led to an increasing combativeness among railway
workers, who in large numbers actively supported the 26th of July
Movement's efforts to overthrow Batista.  About a year after the
revolutionary takeover in late 1958, the railways were fully
nationalized, and at that point the book abruptly ends.

Despite some minor flaws, _Sugar and Railroads_ is a good book, one
that appreciably deepens our understanding of how railroads
functioned in the political and economic history of Cuba.  Rather
than offer sweeping new interpretations about Cuban history,
however, the book instead provides critical nuances within the
existing historiographical framework.  The broad outlines of the
railroads' impact on Cuban development had been traced long before,
and they are not substantially challenged here.  For example, the
critical concept of growth without development is directly borrowed
from Coatsworth's work on Mexico, and is mentioned in relation to
Cuba in standard synthetic textbooks published in the 1970s and
80s.[2] Another key conclusion, that railroads, by expanding the
radius of operations of the highly productive sugar _centrales_,
permitted the intensification of sugar production in the twentieth
century, is also much older than this book.  Consider the following
lines written by Fernando Ortiz in 1940:

  "Mechanization is the factor that has made possible and necessary the
   increased size of the centrals.  Prior to this the central's radius of
   activity was the distance suitable for animal-drawn haulage.  Now, with
   railroads, the limits of extension of a central are measured by the
   cost of transportation."[3]

The labor history sections of the book also fail to satisfy,
especially to any reader sensitive to the issues raised by the
so-called "new" labor history (now nearly forty years old).  Zanetti
and Garcia give us a straightforward institutional history of
working class organizations, developed under the assumption that the
PSP automatically and naturally represented the highest and most
developed interests of the working class.  Workers in general are
seen either as factors of production (that is, from the point of
view of capital) or as potential revolutionary agents (that is, from
the point of view of the vanguard party), but never as historical
agents in their right, with hopes and fears, a worldview, and an
individual consciousness produced by their unique life experiences.

The book also suffers from silly translating and copy-editing
mistakes, too many run-on sentences, poor word choice at times (my
favorite:  "qualified labor" for skilled labor), parts of two
chapters where the endnote numbers do not correspond to the numbers
in the text, and sloppy indexing.

Although it does not break significant new methodological or
theoretical ground, _Sugar and Railroads_ does present a deeper and
much more complex picture of the importance of railroads in Cuban
economic development and represents an advance in the
historiography.  The strong initiative taken by Cubans in building
the railroads, for example, and the divide-and-conquer competition
between U.S. and British firms to dominate the transportation sector
in the early twentieth century, are placed in new and illuminating
historical contexts that greatly enhance our understanding of Cuban
economic history.  Likewise, the discussion of the labor movement,
while not explicitly analyzing the role of populism in Cuba,
nevertheless provides sufficient concrete information so that a
reader well-informed in Cuban political history can draw new and
interesting conclusions about the relationhip between the state and
labor during the nineteen-forties.

In all, it is a good book, which clearly belongs on the reading
lists of everyone interested in Cuban history, in dependency theory,
and in U.S.  relations with Latin America.  Those with the
linguistic skills might prefer to read it in Spanish.


[1]. Quotation appears on p. 104, see also p. iii; cf. John H.
Coatsworth, _Growth Against Development: the Economic Impact of
Railroads in Porfirian Mexico_ (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University
Press, 1981), first published as _El impacto economico de los
ferrocarriles en el Porfiriato: crecimiento y desarrollo_ (Mexico
City: Secretaria de Educacion Publica, 1976).

[2]. See, e.g., Thomas E. Skidmore and Peter H. Smith, _Modern Latin
America_, first edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984),
pp.258-263; E. Bradford Burns, _The Poverty of Progress: Latin
America in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1980), pp.74-78; Burns, _Latin America: A Concise
Interpretive History_ second edition, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Prentice Hall, Inc., 1977), pp. 134-8.

[3]. Fernando Ortiz, _Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar_, trans.
Harriet de Onis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), p. 51.

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Louis Proyect

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