The Economies of Latin America: New Cliometric Data

By César Yáñez; Albert Carreras | Go to book overview

9
THE SUGAR INDUSTRY, THE FORESTS AND
THE CUBAN ENERGY TRANSITION, FROM
THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY TO THE MID-
TWENTIETH CENTURY1

José Jofré González


Introduction

Cuba in the mid-eighteenth century was striking for having a higher level of economic activity than countries such as the United States and Argentina. However, at the beginning of the nineteenth century it started to lag behind the rest.

Authors such as Coatsworth,2 Sokoloff and Engerman3 point out that the success of countries like Cuba can be attributed to the combination of a relatively scarce workforce (free and slave) and access to abundant natural resources. Landes4 adds that this led to the utilization of a large part of the territory for sugar-cane cultivation and the importation of all provisions – as tended to be the pattern in the plantation economies. Moreover, this type of societal organization led to enormous inequalities in income distribution and to the emergence of bad institutions5 which became entrenched over time. These are the elements commonly used to explain how the rapid initial growth was later stunted and also to explain Cuba’s present-day backwardness. However, this type of economic specialization also led to the near disappearance of Cuba’s forests. This is a little-studied subject.

Generally, the process of Cuban economic growth has been associated with two factors: the availability of cheap energy obtained from the forests (where the land was the cheapest and most abundant productive factor on the island, in relative terms) and the availability of a slave workforce during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These two elements defined Cuban economic growth potential along the lines of Boserup’s bubble.

Cuban history demonstrates that as these factors started to become scarce, there was a change in the institutionality and new alternatives were sought in order for Cuba to continue participating in the international sugar market.

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