This is a long-expected publication dealing with the interrelationship between rail construction and the growth of the Cuban sugar industry. It also shows how the internal evolution of the industry was synchronized with the fluctuations and trends in the international market. It thus argues that micro- and macropolitical economy have a structural connection. The work of Zanetti and García synthesizes the findings of a research team at Havana University. They detail the evolution of Cuban dependent capitalism and its proletariat and discuss railroad history under Spanish colonial rule, under British and U.S. ownership, and under the transition to socialism. They also question the validity of the “social savings” concept promoted by Robert Fogel; in their view, it is more important to discuss the social use of the savings. Marxist analysis is combined with econometric data and chronological documentation.
Cuba was the first Latin American country to build a railroad (1837). This railroad and the great majority of those that followed were built by the sugar oligarchy between the areas of production and the ports for embarkation. The railroads followed the trajectories of old mule trails. They did not open internal markets, nor were they destined to transport people. Moreover, by the midnineteenth century, private narrow-gauge railroads were built for the sugar centrales as supplements to “public transport.” The railroads simply increased the capacity and speed of previous transport networks, a qualitative improvement for the benefit of the sugar industry. Entrepreneurial family clans were able to construct the highest mileage of railways per capita in the world by 1862. Although Cuba had become the first and most important foreign market for the U.S. railroad industry, the control by U.S. capital was minimal. Rather, the massive U.S. investments in Cuban railroads followed the special political relationship imposed by the United States on the island after 1898.
Until the outbreak of the Ten Years War (1868-78), native entrepreneurs owned about 75 percent of the railways. The remainder was held by British interests only in mortgage. However, the avowed need to extend lines and the political and economic crisis caused by the struggle for independence brought a gradual British take-over during the last third of the nineteenth century. Just before Cuba was captured by the U.S. armies, British interests had become the direct operators and owners of the most important rail networks. Finally, the railroads fell into foreign control, but when competition with the automobiles lowered their profitability, private capital gradually sold them to the state. The emphasis on collective rather than private travel under socialism, as well as the railways advantages for long-distance transport, has promoted their modernization and the construction of new lines.
This monograph is indispensable to students of transport development and denationalization in Latin America. Traditional historiography has minimized the role of native entrepreneurs in starting railroad construction, but, as Zanetti and García have demonstrated for the Cuban case, the local elite was in the vanguard of railroad financing and promotion. The empirical data are so overwhelming that Marxist and non-Marxist readers alike will benefit by examining this book. Although the research and conclusions are quite exhaustive, the authors neglect to explain how the formation of internal companies within British and U.S. corporations was used to protect profits and avoid state controls. Moreover, they do not explore how Cuban entrepreneurs transferred their interests to foreign firms, nor how much power local entrepreneurs retained in the foreign corporations that assimilated the family companies. It is not enough, after all, to note that native interests became parasitic rentiers. Even if the sources which reveal such an important transition in ownership and policy are not found in Cuba, records in the United States and Europe should fill the gap.