Speaker Dye addresses role of sugar in Cuban economy

On October 25, Professor of Economics at Barnard College and affiliate member of Columbia University’s Department of History and Institute of Latin American Studies Alan Dye gave a talk in Rockefeller Hall. The lecture, entitled “Where are All the Yankees? Ownership and Entrepreneurship in Cuban Sugar, 1898-1921,” focused on the often overlooked roles that local entrepreneurs have played in building Cuba’s sugar industry. The event’s audience was comprised mostly of community members, many of whom asked questions or provided insight of their own throughout the talk.

Dye came prepared with a Power Point presentation that he actively referenced to frequently over the hour and a half talk he delivered. The earliest slides contained quotes from historians about the economic situation in Cuba specifically relating to the sugar industry and its effect on Cuban markets and international trade policy.

After reading these quotes aloud, Dye began to explain why he felt that they weren’t completely accurate. He argued that the speakers seemed to associate Cuba’s fate too much with swift invasion, and paid too much attention to US intervention post-1959, simplifying a much more complicated situation. He said, “The picture may be much less black and white.”

Dye went on to examine the personal efforts of planters in Cuba, specifically during the crucial years at the beginning of the twentieth century. He introduced a measure of investment that he had used to gather evidence; he called it “mill-level grinding capacity,” and, after explaining a few of its caveats, showed the room a graph comparing Cuba’s with the US’ around the 1920s.

Dye then proceeded to show that the relationship between the two countries’ levels of investment at the time were, by this more inclusive measure, surprisingly, not what many thought they were. He later even suggested that locals had an advantage when it came to building sugar mills, as sugar production is a complicated process that relies on multiple parties coming together and requires many pieces. Dye argued those with the lay of the land would have been better suited to be constructing the necessary structures for sugar production and trade.

The lecture concluded with Dye defining an entrepreneur as an individual or organization that undergoes a period of significant expansion and is able to “identify an opportunity and has finance” then calling attention back to his original questions and reiterating his fundamental points.

Philip Durniak ’14 attended the lecture due to his academic connection to the topic. He wrote in an emailed statement, “I was first introduced to the topic of Latin American economic development in professor Sarah Pearlman’s class on the subject last semester. I found the topic to be interesting as it helps to understand the disparity between the US and Latin America and when professor Pearlman invited me to the lecture I was intrigued to learn more about the topic.”

Durniak also disclosed that while the talk did not necessarily broaden his understanding of the Cuban economy as a whole, it did give him insight into specifics that he hadn’t been aware of. He explained, “As far as the Cuban economy as a whole, I feel that my understanding was not expanded all that much. (Unless this [was] discussed at the beginning of the talk, which I missed). However, concerning the specific topic of the talk, the sugar industry, I learned a significant amount. I was previously unaware of the interplay between US and Cuban investors as well as the rise of the sugar conglomerates in the country. It was also interesting to see the mill transactions at the micro scale; I had not anticipated to see such complicated and well thought oust transactions occurring.”

Assistant Professor of Economics, who also teaches in the Latin American and Latino/a Studies, and organizer of the event Sarah Pearlman also shared her thoughts on the talk’s accomplishments in an emailed statement. She wrote, “I think the event was a success in that the talk was very interesting. Professor Dye is clearly an expert on the topic and did a great job of explaining it to an audience of non-specialists in the sugar industry or Cuba during this time period.”
Pearlman went further highlighting some more of the strengths of the lecture. She said, “[Dye] did a nice job of making the talk accessible to economists and non-economists, and even those who feel uncomfortable with data and empirical analysis could have come away learning something about the history of the Cuban sugar industry.”

Audience members agreed with Dye’s argument to varying degrees.

Durniak, for one, was skeptical. He wrote, “I initially felt that the speaker made a compelling argument for that the Cuban sugar industry was not characterized by massive and sudden US involvement in the early 20th century and that instead domestic parties were in fact that main sources of development.”

He continued, “While the data agrees with the idea that US intervention was not as significant as the dominate discourses state, the questions raised about colonial capital make me hesitant to assume that domestic Cuban investors were the main source of capital. Because Cuba was recently independent it stands to reason that the main players in the sugar industry derived their money from Spain and continued to use Spanish connections to expand the industry as opposed to purely domestic players and capital.”

Assistant Professor of Economics Ergys Islamaj was more convinced. He wrote in an emailed statement, “The speaker presented hard data and evidence in a very clear and concise way.”

Islamaj continued, “The data supported the argument that local entrepreneurs were largely involved in production in the sugar industry during the boom years and that foreign investors did NOT buy their businesses at fire sales prices.”

Pearlman, too, was persuaded by Dye’s evidence, and commended the in-depth and involved research that he did in order to obtain it. She wrote, “I thought Alan’s evidence on the role that local entrepreneurs played in developing the sugar industry from 1898 to the early 1920s was quite compelling. He has numerous stories of local owners of sugar mills who not only renovated their own mills, but also used the proceeds from mill sales to start more modern establishments.”

She added, “Arriving at these conclusions clearly required a lot of painstaking work in terms of calculating the capacity of all of these sugar mills and figuring out who the mill owners were at different points in time. Sometimes these efforts can be under-appreciated, but Alan clearly went to a lot of work to try and tell this story.”

Still, the lecture left Pearlman with some lingering unanswered questions. “Did local owners still play an important role in the technological upgrading of the industry after 1920?” she wondered.

However, not all of the questions she had were meant to be answered; in fact, some were raised purposefully. Pearlman stated, “It would be interesting to see what happened to the industry over the next several decades.”

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