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From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000

Author(s):Topik, Steven
Carlos Marichal
Frank, Zephyr
Reviewer(s):Baskes, Jeremy

Published by EH.NET (January 2007)

Steven Topik, Carlos Marichal and Zephyr Frank, editors, From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. v + 378 pp. $24 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8223-3766-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jeremy Baskes, Department of History, Ohio Wesleyan University.

The field of Latin American history has been slow and reluctant to abandon the dependency paradigm (and its world systems sister). Conceived largely by Latin American scholars who used the region as the prime example to illustrate the alleged underdevelopment of the periphery caused by international trade, dependency theory came to be the nearly universal model influencing textbooks as well as monographs on regional trade.

For some time, scholars of Latin America have grown dubious of the claims of dependency theory. The model seemed too rigid, too dogmatic and too flimsily based on statistical data, which when actually compiled did not necessarily corroborate the paradigm’s dismal predictions. Despite the discrediting of dependency theory, Latin American scholars did not find a suitable alternative, rejecting the triumphant claims of neoliberalism as equally unrealistic.

The essays in this excellent collection seek to illustrate the value of examining Latin America’s international trade through the lens of “commodity chains,” the trajectory through which commodities passed from producers to consumers. While this method cannot possibly “answer” as many questions as dependency theory purported to address, the authors leave little doubt that a commodity chain approach can prove rewarding.

As the authors demonstrate, the examination of commodity chains serves to rupture historians’ tendency to focus exclusively on the national level. Too often, Latin American historians have focused on the supply side of the region’s exports, and have consequently been ignorant of the broader forces affecting the industries. The essays in this book demonstrate clearly the value of examining the entire commodity chain.

From Silver to Cocaine contains twelve essays penned by fifteen authors, each of them highly respected scholars. Each essay focuses on a single (or complementary) commodity and attempts to follow its path from producer to consumer. Four of the pieces examine colonial products. Carlos Marichal writes on both silver and Mexican cochineal; David McCreery compares Salvadoran and Bengali indigo and Laura Nater explores Caribbean tobacco. The remaining essays discuss Latin American commodities that, for the most part, took off in the second half of the nineteenth century. Steven Topik and Mario Samper contrast the Brazilian and Costa Rican coffee industries; Horacio Crespo examines the world market for sugar; Mary Ann Mahony investigates Bahian cacao; Marcelo Bucheli and Ian Read focus on Central American bananas and especially the United Fruit Company; Rory Miller and Robert Greenhill compare and contrast Peruvian guano and Chilean nitrates, both used as fertilizers; Zephyr Frank and Aldo Musacchio consider the Brazilian rubber boom; Allen Wells looks at the demise of the Yucatecan henequen industry; and, finally, Paul Gootenberg explores coca and cocaine.

It would be impossible to summarize adequately these rich and detailed chapters. One issue emphasized by a number of the authors is the social transformations undergone by commodities as they move from producer to consumer. Coffee became the preferred beverage of French revolutionaries who thought little about the enslaved workers who produced it. Cochineal was employed to dye the clothing of kings and popes, yet was produced by poor indigenous peasants in southern Mexico. Tobacco and coca were considered spiritual products by their Caribbean and Andean producers but consumed by Americans and Europeans for their medicinal or intoxicant value.

A central issue examined by most of the essays was the “agency” of producing countries. Dependency theory suggests that decisions of significance are made in the “metropolis” and that the “peripheral” producing countries have little control over their destiny. These essays clearly extinguish this notion demonstrating that “Latin American producers were much more than simple marionettes set to dance by overseas commands and demands. They were not simply passive victims” (p. 3). While wealthy capitalists and multinational companies undoubtedly wielded significant influence, producers and governments in Latin America exercised considerable market and other power. The massive expansion of Bahian cacao naturally responded to growing international demand, but was also influenced by government policies and the gradual conclusion among planters that it was their most advantageous commodity. The coffee industry of Costa Rica and Brazil followed very different paths due to distinct domestic conditions. Costa Rica opted to produce high quality coffee while Brazil took advantage of ample territory and an interventionist state to become by far the world’s largest producer.

More generally, the essays convincingly show the greater understanding that arises through an examination of the entire commodity chain. The boom and bust of the rubber trade in Brazil is much more comprehensible and much less tragic when one takes into consideration the evolution of the automobile industry. Considerable light is shed on the Salvadoran indigo industry by examining its major competitor, Bengal, India. While substitute products might have contributed to henequen’s decline, corruption and mismanagement in Mexico sealed its demise.

An additional matter addressed in the essays is the distribution of profits between core and periphery. Dependency theory predicted that profits from international trade invariably accrued in the more developed countries. While none of the essays goes so far as to suggest that the opposite was the case, for the most part they reject dependency’s predatory claim, arguing that reasonable profits accumulated and development occurred in Latin America. The arrangements of production and the networks of distribution were rational solutions given the different endowments of the various actors. According to Miller and Greenhill, for example, the nitrate and guano industries came to be organized in the most efficient manner conceivable, benefiting from the technological, financial, and informational advantages enjoyed by the multinational companies engaged in the trade. Despite multinational control over marketing, the authors conclude that each government extracted reasonable rents and that no alternative organization of the trade “would have provided significantly better rewards for Peru and Chile” (p. 261).

The death of dependency theory in Latin America is long overdue. It answered lots of questions, but the answers were most often facile. The essays in this excellent collection illustrate the potential rewards of reexamining old topics and offer a compelling way to help shape this new research. Unlike so many edited collections that lack cohesion or seem poorly conceived, the essays in From Silver to Cocaine are remarkably well integrated and address similar questions and themes. As such, the reader is well rewarded from comparison of the differing commodity chains.

Jeremy Baskes is Professor of Latin American History at Ohio Wesleyan University. He is the author of Indians Merchants and Markets: A Reinterpretation of the Repartimiento and Spanish-Indian Economic Relations in Colonial Oaxaca, 1750-1821 (Stanford University Press). His current research examines the ways that merchants in the Spanish empire organized their transatlantic commerce to mitigate risk.


Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII