Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Sugar and Railroads: A Cuban History, 1837-1959

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Sugar and Railroads: A Cuban History, 1837-1959

Article excerpt

Oscar Zanetti and Alejandro García, Sugar and Railroads: A Cuban History, 1837-1959 (translated by Franklin W. Knight and Mary Todd. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998), xxviii + 496pp.

Oscar Zanetti and Alejandro García's book, Sugar and Railroads: A Cuban History 1837-1959, fills an important gap in Cuban and indeed Caribbean historiography. It represents the first comprehensive examination of any railroad system in the Caribbean, even though in the majority of Caribbean societies railroads did not have a decisive impact upon their economic development. The railroad system was crucial to the success of the Cuban sugar economy after 1837, which by the mid-nineteenth century had successfully competed with and challenged the dominance of British and French West Indian sugar. This study therefore has relevance not only to Cuban economic history, but also the West Indian economic history.

This outstanding work, which won the Association of Caribbean Historians' Elsa Goveia Book Prize as the best work on Caribbean history published between 1986 and 1989, was originally published in Spanish and was skilfully translated by Franklin W. Knight and Mary Todd. This eighteen-chapter comprehensive work scrupulously details the emergence, expansion and stagnation of the railroad system from 1837 to 1959. The book analyses all aspects of this new and increasingly important technology to the Cuban economy, including the transportation dilemma that confronted the economic elite that led to the adoption of this means of transport; technical information on the construction and geographical routing of the railroad; the impact of the railroad on the labour force evidenced through the increased militancy of railroad workers; the opportunities that the railroad afforded international capital to penetrate the Cuban economy; and the economic effects of the introduction of railroads on the Cuban economy.

The book conveys the unmistakable sentiment that the railroad in Cuba, contrary to those in Europe and the United States, did not stimulate modernity, progress and industrial development, primarily because it was not utilized in Cuba in order to satisfy and encourage the growth of an internal market but to enhance the relationships between local sugar producers and their external markets. As a consequence of railroads, therefore, Cuba experienced increased dependence on sugar and the plantation system that it spawned, foreign penetration of the economy, and greater levels of incorporation into the global capitalist economy.

The first three chapters evaluate the road and general transportation dilemma that the economic elites, in particular sugar producers, experienced in Cuba that found a solution in railroads. The process towards financing and routing the initial railroad network and the progress that resulted from the initial years of the railroad, which convincingly signalled that the new technology presented a solution to the transport dilemma, are also explored in the first three chapters.

In chapter four, Zanetti and García discuss the railroad boom years during which local and international capitalists invested in the railroad industry and received good profits on their investments. These years coincided with the period of economic revitalization of the sugar industry in Cuba and the maturation of the capitalist production structures globally. Chapter five details the specifics of the expansion that reached its zenith in 1868 - in terms of physical infrastructure, efficiency of administration by the railroad companies and economic impact. Chapter six sensitively addresses the human aspect of the railroad system, examining on the one hand the personalities that were instrumental in owning, promoting, supporting and managing the system, and on the other the various ethnic groups - predominantly African and Chinese - who toiled to lay the rails and run the engines, and who derived little or no benefits from its proceeds. …

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