Published by EH.NET (September 2003)

Julie A. Charlip, Cultivating Coffee: The Farmers of Carazo, Nicaragua, 1880-1930. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2003. xiv + 288 pp. $28 (paperback), ISBN: 0-89680-227-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by H?ctor Lindo-Fuentes, Department of History, Fordham University.

In this carefully researched and very useful book Julie Charlip (Associate Professor of History at Whitman College) analyzes the transformations experienced by Carazo, a small rural region in eastern Nicaragua, during the period between the end of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth. A careful reading of land property records, her main source, allows the author to paint a nuanced picture of the impact of the introduction of coffee cultivation in an area selected because of its fairly complete records and the fact that it was an early and highly successful adopter of coffee cultivation. Her main source allows her to provide a detailed account of the process of land privatization, inequality of land distribution, introduction of coffee processing machinery, credit mechanisms, labor arrangements, and the social and political processes associated with the introduction of coffee cultivation.

Her analysis departs drastically from earlier interpretations according to which the introduction of coffee production in Nicaragua enriched a greedy elite at the expense of others, disrupted subsistence agriculture and created an army of landless laborers by depriving idyllic Indian communities of their lands. Instead, she highlights the importance of medium and small coffee growers, the complexity of labor recruitment mechanisms, and the unexpected winners and losers of the entire process. A good example of her fresh approach is her analysis of the privatization of traditional corporate forms of land tenure (indigenous community, municipal, or church lands). While the standard analysis saw privatization as a virtual expropriation of the weakest groups carried out by wealthy and well-connected individuals, her study shows how a wide variety of people took advantage of the situation to obtain land. Moreover, she contradicts the idea that the privatized land was fundamental for the expansion of coffee cultivation. In fact, in her view privatization was not motivated by the economic needs of planters eager to increase their production but by the political needs of a state that in its process of consolidation needed to weaken the Catholic Church. In addition, she sees no evidence that privatization or the expansion of export agriculture affected subsistence agriculture.

This contrarian edge is also present in the discussion of the impact of coffee cultivation on social relations and the relationship between the community and the central state. Rather than finding a state dominated by a coffee planter class imposing its authority on defenseless communities, she finds that local decisions and the selection of authorities were based on a great deal of negotiation and participation from the part of subaltern groups.

One could read this work as yet another challenge to the historiography produced in the 1970s and 1980s, a job that it does most effectively. But the coffin of dependency theory-inspired interpretations, already tight with many a nail, hardly needs a new one. Yet, breaking away from universalizing interpretations implies the need to write local history that, as this work does, pays serious attention to the specificity of local experiences. This book is a valuable contribution to the recent historiography of the impact of coffee cultivation that stresses its diverse outcomes depending to the unique resources and social and political conditions of the regions where it was introduced.

Economic historians will find some weaknesses in the analysis (changes in commodity prices and the costs of factors of production do not capture the author’s imagination and do not play a role in her discussion of decisions taken by economic actors), but readers interested in the role of economic institutions in Latin American will find much to learn in Charlip’s well documented work and numerous tables. This work shows how under a weak central state the rules of the economic game, whether related to land property rights or labor contracts, were the result of negotiations that reflected changing local power balances. This introduced an element of uncertainty that increased transaction costs and encouraged rent-seeking behavior through political power.

The book ends with a surprising twist. It addresses Barrington Moore’s thesis about the origins of dictatorship: What explains Nicaragua’s political system up until 1979? According to Charlip, if the social origins of dictatorship are not found in the introduction of commercial agriculture they ought to be found in the early years of the twentieth century when Nicaragua was a virtual U.S. protectorate. That is, if dependency theory is not even a candidate for resurrection, the discussion of the evils of imperialism still has a strong heart beat. The link between dictatorship and imperialism is left for another book.

While this work’s analysis debunks previous interpretations, it is not organized according to an alternative theoretical framework. Instead, it seeks to raise questions about how a brand of economic history led to economic policies that had a negative impact on the real lives of the poorest Nicaraguans. The most influential representative of the dependency analysis in Nicaragua was the work of Jaime Wheelock Rom?n, who became the Minister of Agriculture of the Sandinista regime. His views were an important element in the formulation of the Sandinista land reform. For Charlip the failure of the land reform was the result of a lack of understanding of the history of land tenure in Nicaragua. While Wheelock’s scholarship left people with the belief that Nicaragua had a substantial population of landless campesinos whose ancestors had lost their land at the turn of the century, Charlip shows that people in areas like Carazo were small farmers or at least grew up in family-owned plots. Therefore, even though there were regional differences, many Nicaraguan campesinos had recent experiences with private ownership and preferred to own land than to participate in cooperative ventures in state-owned properties. This explains their resistance to Sandinista policies. The most important contribution of the book is to provide a case study of how bad economic history is a dangerous thing in the hands of politicians.

Hector Lindo-Fuentes is the author of Weak Foundations: The Economy of El Salvador in the Nineteenth Century 1821-1898 (University of California Press, 1990).