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Published by EH.NET (October 2010)

Patricia Juarez-Dappe, When Sugar Ruled: Economy and Society in Northwestern Argentina, Tucum?n, 1876-1916. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2010. xiii + 233 pp. $32 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-89680-274-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Lyman L. Johnson, Professor of History, University of North Carolina — Charlotte.

This book is a useful contribution to the history of Argentina during the era of economic? expansion that had been initiated by national integration and institution building in the decades following 1861. Patricia Juarez-Dappe, Associate Professor of History at California State University, Northridge, provides a well-researched survey of four decades of growth in Tucum?n driven by the rapid expansion of its sugar industry. Historians and economists with limited knowledge of Argentine history might wonder why this case deserves focused attention given the already-large literature devoted to the impressive expansion of the national economy in this period. Juarez-Dappe shows that while Tucum?n tracked the fast-rising arc of Argentine economic growth, imitating in many details the national experience, the character and legacy of the province’s expansion diverged in crucial ways from national experience.

Once potential profits from sugar production were demonstrated by early innovators, landowners moved from tobacco and other long-established crops to sugar and investors provided the capital to develop large and efficient refineries. Profits rose dramatically as new technologies, especially railroads and steam engines, increased efficiency and contributed to economies of scale in Tucum?n. As the industry expanded, estate managers and refinery owners attracted laborers from surrounding provinces and then enforced the discipline required by the rhythms of the sugar cycle with the support of a pliant provincial government. The prodigious wealth produced in the countryside as this process matured allowed the province’s modernizing government to transform its tax regime and harvest revenues that paid for the delivery of expanded and improved education, medical services and hygiene as well as to remake San Miguel, the provincial capital, as a modern city.?

While Argentina’s remarkable economic growth in this period was driven by profits from a rapidly expanding agricultural sector, Tucum?n’s prosperity during the sugar era was fundamentally unlike that of the still more profitable provinces of the Argentine littoral. Those regions grew rich from the profitable export of wheat, beef, mutton and other products to Europe. Tucum?n’s sugar producers, on the other hand, depended almost entirely on the national market. Given Argentina’s fast-rising population and accumulating wealth, price equilibrium and profitability could be sustained during the first stages of the modernization of sugar production in Tucum?n despite dramatically increased production. As a result, the province’s planters and refiners enjoyed many advantages relative to those in other Western Hemisphere sugar-producing nations who were forced to accept ever-lower prices in the increasingly competitive export markets of the Atlantic Basin.

Over time falling international prices and increased Atlantic market integration meant that this advantage could not be sustained permanently. Ultimately, the prosperity of Tucum?n’s sugar sector would come to depend on the willingness of the Argentine national government to protect it from foreign competition. Wealth transfers from the households of Buenos Aires and other littoral cities to the farmers, agricultural laborers and refiners of Tucum?n and other provinces were managed by national political leaders to service their own electoral ambitions. Once profits and market stability came to depend on political deals and electoral alliances, rather than price competitiveness, Tucuman’s sugar sector entered a dark cul-de-sac that offered little potential for continued modernization or for the stimulation of other sectors of the provincial economy. While the sugar industry’s growing reliance on protection is acknowledged by the author, she does not engage this topic in depth. If the story had been pursued beyond 1916, these issues would have been forced to the center of the discussion.

The author is more interested in the process of modernization and consolidation of the provincial sugar industry and describes this process in a thorough and convincing way, providing the reader with a rich array of detail drawn from her intensive excavation of archival resources. In addition to samples drawn from national censuses, the records of the provincial statistical office, and civil and criminal records, Juarez-Dappe uses notary records to great effect. These rich sources are seldom consulted by national era economic historians, although they are routinely used in systematic ways by colonial historians with excellent results. In addition, to these archival sources, Juarez-Dappe has thoroughly surveyed the secondary literature, supplanting earlier works of synthesis with her fresh account.?

The result is a dense descriptive narrative of Tucum?n’s sugar industry that ranges widely to include changing patterns of land use, the introduction of new technologies, and the fast-changing relations between sugar growers and the owners of refineries. The author also provides a very useful examination of the provincial labor regime, examining in turn migration, work, housing, and labor discipline. This broad survey is organized topically, allowing the reader to follow changes in, say, land use or technology across time. This same organization limits the author’s ability to analyze the specific effects of changing market conditions or altered political and fiscal policies on the allocation of land, labor, technology, and capital across the period. Despite this limitation, Juarez-Dappe has provided a comprehensive and highly readable introduction to this topic.

Lyman L. Johnson is Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His recent books include Workshop of Revolution: Plebeian Buenos Aires and the Atlantic World, 1776-1810 (forthcoming Duke University Press); Aftershocks: Earthquakes and Popular Politics in Latin America (edited with J?rgen Buchenau); and Death, Dismemberment, and Memory. He has served as president of the Conference on Latin American History. ljohnson@uncc.edu???? ??? ??????????

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