This is a study of the factors which conditioned the development of urban centers in the Andean states of Táchira, Mérida, and Trujillo during the years of the region’s coffee prosperity. The first of the book’s three sections is a geohistorical description of urban growth in the region before 1870. The second section is an excellent analysis of the region’s communication network, and the third is a descriptive account of the changes which took place in the urban centers as a result of technological innovations of the period and the sudden prosperity based on the coffee boom.
Although the book’s title indicates that coffee and cities will be the foci of the study, in fact its greatest contribution is a lucid account of the geographical and historical elements which gave the region its urban configuration as of 1870 and which, as the author demonstrates almost inadvertently, played an important role in maintaining that configuration almost unchanged until 1930. The region had never been integrated into the province of Venezuela in the colonial period and remained unintegrated until the completion of the Trans-Andean Highway in 1925.
When the coffee boom began, the easiest outlet for produce was the port of Maracaibo in the state of Zulia, and the communication network which developed was geared to facilitating access to that city. The three small railroads which were constructed in the Andean region, two of them with purely domestic capital, did not open new areas of settlement as they connected traditional urban centers whose hinterlands were already populated. Outlying areas, more distant from railroads, continued to depend on mule teams using mountain trails until well into the twentieth century. The area was capital poor, and, since the new coffee holdings tended to be small, there was no appreciable accumulation. The producers depended on the merchants of the port of Maracaibo for capital and merchandising expertise, most of which was supplied by German houses. As coffee production prospered, a division occurred in agricultural activities. Some of the farmers closest to the urban markets began to dedicate their activities to food production, while others cultivated only coffee. Increasing amounts of merchandise were imported from Maracaibo, and the Andean cities became commercial centers. The author characterizes them as primary or secondary according to their role in the “coffee network.” The primary centers maintained direct contact with Maracaibo; the secondary ones traded only within their immediate hinterland.
The third section of the book is disappointing in that it is basically a list of mere physical changes introduced in the cities, such as new buildings, electricity, water and sewer systems and a few references to cultural activities, with no evaluation of their impact. Nevertheless the book, based on primary (although not archival) sources, is extremely well written and is a useful addition to the bibliography on this important but relatively unstudied region of Venezuela.