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CENTRAL-COLONO RELATIONS WITHIN THE CUBAN SUGAR INDUSTRY,
1914-1933: EXPLORING THE LOCAL CONSEQUENCES OF GLOBAL
CHANGESTE CASE OF SAN VICENTE FROM WWI TO THE GREAT iDcrp SSi; o j
2D LT FRAGA BOLIVAR M
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CENTRAL-COLONO RELATIONS WITHIN THE CUBAN SUGAR INDUSTRY,
EXPLORING THE LOCAL CONSEQUENCES OF GLOBAL CHANGES
THE CASE OF SAN VICENTE FROM WWI TO THE GREAT DEPRESSION
BOLIVAR MOYANO FRAGA
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to those who have helped me prepare this
thesis. To the members of my committee, Dr. David P. Geggus, Dr. Terry L. McCoy, and
Dr. Mark W. Thurner, for their help and cooperation in this endeavor. The time they
spent in reviewing my drafts, especially my advisor Dr. Geggus, and their constructive
criticism and recommendations undoubtedly improved my work.
For the opportunity to attend graduate school and obtain my master's degree, I am
very grateful to the United States Air Force and in particular to the Department of History
of the USAF Academy. I am also indebted to my Program Manager, Lt. Scott C. Naylor,
at and his assistant, Malisa L. Freeland, of the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT),
the unit responsible for funding my graduate program.
I would like to express my appreciation to Carl Van Ness of the University
Archives, who pointed me in the direction of Central San Vicente as the subject of my
thesis. He allowed me to delve freely into the Braga Brothers Collection and was always
available and willing to offer his assistance. His insight into the archives and his general
knowledge of Cuban history and the sugar industry were invaluable.
I had a great deal of support from fellow graduate student Jorge Vazquez who
contributed to this work at almost every step in the process. His expertise in Spanish as a
native speaker made up for my shortcomings in grasping some of the subtleties and
nuances of the language expressed in the correspondence and documents researched. His
critique of my work and advice are greatly appreciated as is the time he spent
proofreading my chapters and discussing my ideas.
The maps and charts included in this thesis and which are an asset to its
presentation are the result of the assistance rendered by Marcos Avellan, also a master's
candidate in Latin American studies. In addition, I thank him for reading an entire draft
of the thesis and providing valuable feedback. I also extend my gratitude to Angela
Stuesse for her contribution in proofreading my work and to the Fernindez-Casajuana
family, originally from Las Villas, Cuba, with whom I verified the meaning of terms and
expressions found in the archive. Lastly, my deepest appreciation is reserved for my
parents, whose unending support-from however far away-is a source of inspiration.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS .. .......... ....................... ii
ABSTRACT ........ ........ ......................... ........ vi
INTRODUCTION .. ............................................. 1
Source Material ................. .................... ........ 5
Literature Review. ............................................. 6
1 THE CENTRAL AND THE COLONO. ........................... 12
Development of the Colonato ...................................... 12
The Expansion of Centrales, Abolition, and the Railroad ................. 17
Colonos: A Varied Group ........................................ 24
2 CENTRAL SAN VICENTE: ONE CONSTITUENT
IN A VAST SUGAR EMPIRE ........... ......................... 28
The Cuban Sugar Industry: Before and During World War I ............... 29
Inside the Cuban Sugar Industry: Central San Vicente and Manuel Rionda ... 33
The Rionda Sugar Empire .. ..................................... 37
3 CENTRAL SAN VICENTE DURING WORLD WAR I ................. 56
.Central-Colono Relations ......................................... 57
International Regulation of the Sugar Industry ......................... 81
4 CENTRAL SAN VICENTE DURING THE 1920s AND 1930s ............ 87
The Dance of the Millions ................ ...................... 89
The Financial Crash and Economic Crisis ...... ..................... 95
Government Legislation in a Period of State Intervention ................. 111
The Aftermath of an Era of Economic Crises: The Revolution of 1933 ..... 124
5 DISCUSSION ................................................. 128
Sugar's Hold on Cuba ............................... ......... 128
Central-Colono Relations: The Case of Central San Vicente .............. 133
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS ................................. 148
The Cuban Sugar Industry, 1914-1934 ............................. 148
Colonos and Laborers in the Case of Central San Vicente ................. 150
REFERENCES ................. .............................. 153
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ........................................ 157
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
CENTRAL-COLONO RELATIONS WITHIN THE CUBAN SUGAR INDUSTRY,
EXPLORING THE LOCAL CONSEQUENCES OF GLOBAL CHANGES
THE CASE OF SAN VICENTE FROM WWI TO THE GREAT DEPRESSION
Bolivar Moyano Fraga
Chairman: Dr. David P. Geggus
Major Department: Latin American Studies
Sugar has been a mainstay of the Cuban economy since the mid-eighteenth
century. It has tied the island nation to forces not only beyond its physical domain but
out of its control as well. As such, Cuba and its inhabitants have been dependent upon
world market conditions and other factors that have impacted the international sugar
trade. An important element in the production of sugar since the mid 1800s has been the
relationship between the central (sugar mill) and the colono (cane farmer).
The manner in which this relation has been affected by the changes in the world
price of sugar is an important manifestation of the local consequences resulting from
global changes throughout twentieth-century Cuban history. World War I and the Great
Depression were two significant world events that impacted the international sugar
market. A study of the specific experience of a mill in western Cuba regarding the
interactions between mill and cane farmer from 1914 to 1933 contributes to the
understanding of Cuban history.
This thesis relied on materials contained in the Braga Brothers Collection,
considered to be a principal source of archival information found in the United States
pertaining to the Cuban sugar industry from the late nineteenth century to the 1960s. The
collection belongs to the Department of Special Collections of the University of Florida.
Out of the agricultural and industrial
development of these amazing plants were to come
those economic interests which foreign traders would
twist and weave for centuries to form the web of our
country's history, the motives of its leaders, and, at
one and the same time, the shackles and the support
of its people. Tobacco and sugar are the two most
important figures in the history of Cuba ... Thus, a
study of the history of Cuba, both internal and
external, is fundamentally a study of the history of
sugar and tobacco as the essential bases of its
Cuban intellectual Fernando Ortiz wrote these lines in the opening of his work
entitled Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. To him, these two agricultural
products symbolized and defined his island nation in almost every single aspect and
manner conceivable. Essentially, they were contrasting, but parallel elements in Cuban
history. According to Ortiz, tobacco represented national sovereignty, while sugar,
colonial status. Tobacco meant independence, while sugar signified foreign intervention
atid dependency.2 When his work was first published in 1940, sugar accounted for 75%
of Cuba's total export value. By then, it had long been the dominant industry in the
island's economy. During the 1860s, sugar represented 80% of exports; tobacco, 10%,
and coffee, 2%.3 Although Ortiz placed much importance on tobacco, Cuba relied on
SFernando Ortiz, Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar (Durham: Duke UP, 1995), 4-5.
2 Ibid., 7.
3 For the 1940 figure, see Susan Schroeder, Cuba: A Handbook of Historical Statistics (Boston: G.K. Hall &
Co., 1982), 414. For the 1860 statistics, see Francisco L6pez Segrera, "Cuba: Dependence, Plantation
Economy, and Social Classes," Between Slavery and Free Labor, ed. Manuel Moreno Fraginals, et al
(Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1985), 84.
sugar more than on any other product, linking the island to the global economy and
making it dependent on world market forces.
In 1914, an event outside Cuba caused changes in world market conditions that
favored sugar production on the island. The First World War destroyed much of the
European beet sugar industry thereby causing the world's supply to decrease.
Consequently, the price of sugar increased, and the island benefited as a result. Those
engaged in the production of this commodity-the owners of centrales (sugar mills); the
colonos (cane farmers); and the mill employees and laborers-profited from its sale
during the conflict. Thus, World War I represented Cuba's first sugar boom of the
The island continued to prosper for a brief period after the war. However,
because the conflict had stimulated sugar production in other areas of the world, output
quickly exceeded demand.4 Consequently, prices plummeted in 1920, translating into
decreasing earnings for the Cuban sugar industry and economic recession for the island
as a whole. The recovery of European sugar contributed further to world overproduction.
Thus, Cuba faced a series of crises during the 1920s, which culminated in 1929 with the
onset of the Great Depression. Fortunes and profits made from sugar were lost; incomes
declined drastically; and mills and banks went bankrupt.
SAccording to Dr. Lippert S. Ellis, "The world production of sugar has increased quite steadily since 1852
Production increased very rapidly just prior to the World War and, though there was some decrease
during and immediately after the War, production has continued to gain since that time. ... At the same
time that this enormous growth has been taking place in the sugar crop of the world, the consumption of
sugar has been increasing steadily. The real cause of the sugar crisis which has existed for the past few years
is the fact that the increase in production has developed more rapidly than the increase in consumption." See
Lippert S. Ellis, The Tariff on Sugar (Freeport, IL: Rawleigh Foundation, 1933), 23-25.
The changes in the world market price of sugar had important implications for
central-colono relations.5 This relationship specifically revolved around the price of
cane, which, in turn, depended on the value of sugar. Since international market
conditions dictated the price of sugar, global events such as World War I and the Great
Depression affected the interactions between mill and cane farmer at the local level.
The present work examines the particular case of Central San Vicente regarding
the effects that the changes in the world price of sugar had on central-colono relations
during 1914-1933. San Vicente was a sugar mill in the western province of Matanzas
that had been in existence since the late nineteenth century (fig. 0-1). During the period
studied, the central belonged to the business interests of Manuel Rionda y Polledo, a
prominent sugar businessman. Rionda was instrumental in founding new capital stock
companies that channeled foreign capital, both U.S. and European, into Cuba after the
island's War for Indepedence (1895-1898). As such, he played a significant role in the
industrialization of production with the establishment of modern centrales.
During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Rionda built an impressive
enterprise that encompassed several companies. In terms of sugar estates, it included the
six mills which belonged to him and his extended family and the seventeen mills owned
by the Cuba Cane Sugar Corporation, which Rionda had created during the First World
War. San Vicente was the smallest of the Rionda "home plantations."
5 For the purpose of this thesis, central-colono relations are defined as the sum of interactions involved in
the production of sugar between the mill, represented by the management and ownership, and the cane
farmer. It is not meant to be confused with the Marxist concept of relations of production, which refers
strictly to the separation of labor and capital.
Provinces of Cuba
FIG. 0-1 CUBA AND CENTRAL SAN VICENTE
The above map depicts the location of Central San Vicente and the political configuration of Cuba
during the period examined. In June 1878, following the Ten Years' War, the Spanish
government created six provinces in Cuba. This political-administrative division remained in
place until 1976, when eight additional provinces were formed. Western Cuba consisted of Pinar
del Rio, La Habana, and Matanzas. Las Villas, which was often referred to as Santa Clara, was
geographically in the center of the island. In terms of sugar production, however, the western
portion of the province was part of western Cuba, while the eastern section was located outside the
traditional sugar cane heartland. The remaining two provinces, Camagiiey and Oriente, comprised
the eastern region.
Map: Antonio Nuftez Jimenez, Asi es mi Pais: Geografia de Cuba (La Habana: Imprenta Nacional de Cuba,
Information: Alfredo Mateo Domingo, Historia de la Divisi6n Politico Administrativa (1607-1976) (La
Habana: Editorial Arte y Literatura, 1977), 126-127.
As a case examination, this thesis relies heavily on San Vicente's archives
donated to the University of Florida in 1993 as part of the Braga Brothers Collection.6
The Braga brothers were members of Manuel Rionda's extended family, and their
donation is considered to be "one of the richest archival sources on the modernization
and expansion of the Cuban sugar industry in the century preceding the rise to power of
Fidel Castro."7 It contains the records of Rionda's New York sugar brokerage firm, the
Czamikow-Rionda Company, and its Cuban subsidiaries and affiliates, which together
"were involved in every sector of the cane sugar business: cultivation, refining, storage,
transportation, financing, and brokerage."'
Offering a number of possibilities for primary source research, the Braga Brothers
Collection has been used previously for graduate work. Nevertheless, the material on
San Vicente had remained unexamined until now. The majority of this information is in
the form of correspondence-letters, memoranda, and cables. They represent the single
largest record type of the entire collection. These documents disclose the
communication between Manuel Rionda and the mill's managers, company officers,
colonos, other mill owners, brokerage firms in New York and London, and prominent
figures within the Cuban sugar industry. Besides the correspondence, San Vicente's
records also include yearly company reports, production data, accounting information,
6 The Braga Brothers Collection was first donated to the University of Florida's Department of Special
Collection in 1981. A subsequent donation, which included the material on San Vicente, was made in 1993.
7 Carl Van Ness, "Guide to the Braga Brothers Collection," U of Florida.
and reports on the mill's activities and on matters relating to machinery. As a whole, the
archive's documents narrate the experience of Central San Vicente, which is analyzed by
comparing and contrasting it with the general historiography on Cuba regarding the
The literature on the Cuban sugar industry during the early twentieth century
includes the works written heretofore by graduate students using the Braga Brothers
Collection. Robert Naime Lauriault chose Central Francisco, a Rionda estate located in
eastern Cuba, as the subject of his dissertation, Virgin Soil: The Modernization of Social
Relations on a Cuban Sugar Estate-The Francisco Sugar Company, 1898-1921 (1994);
Lauriault examines the mill's relations of production and argues that the sugar capitalists
in the first wave of investment in the east benefited from the opportunity to remold the
relations of production. They essentially proletarianized the colonos and created a rural
In Nature and Profit: A Cuban Sugar Plantation in the Early Twentieth Century
(1993), Mark J. Smith utilizes Central Manati, also in eastern Cuba, as the subject for his
thesis on the relationship between society and the non-human environment represented
by agricultural production. He explores the interactions that constituted the ecology of
sugar production, which included growing the cane, manufacturing the sugar, and turning
the sugar into profit. Covering the period 1910-23, Smith focuses on the experience of
Manati from its creation until the end of Cuba's first economic crisis of the 1920s. His
work investigates the historical conditions under which centrales developed, the manner
in which they secured their dominance of the Cuban landscape, and the ecological
conditions under which they operated. According to Smith, an interplay existed between
humans and nature in the Cuban sugar industry. As humans shaped the landscape
according to their needs, nature conditioned the modes of production they used. He
discusses the colonos as one aspect of production on Manati.
No Other Law But Supply And Demand: Institutional Change and the Cuban
Sugar Economy, 1917-1934 (1993) is the title of Michael Marconi Braga's thesis which
seeks to explain the reasons for the institutional changes concerning the sugar industry
that occurred during the 1920s and 1930s. Braga employs the perspective of New
Institutional Economics as his framework of analysis in his work. His fundamental)
premise is that institutions are rules that govern and constrain the interactions among
society's members. Braga applies this definition on a less macro level by studying the
manner in which laws and precepts affected the functioning of the sugar industry and the
Cuban economy. He claims that the industry, like society, is comprised of competing
interests groups. The gain of one group is at the expense of another. Colonos and
central owners are two of the groups which Braga examined. In his research of the
collection, Braga did not concentrate solely on one mill.
In their works, the three former graduate students give a historical background of
the cane farmer and make the point that struggle and conflict characterized central-
colono relations. They do not, however, present much information on or discuss the
experience of western Cuba within this context. For his part, Lauriault includes in his
conclusion a brief general discussion on the colonato in the west. Nonetheless, as case
studies of eastern mills which are based on information from the Braga Brothers
Collection, their work is valuable in making comparisons with the experience of Central
In addition to the graduate work using the Riondas' archives, there is the
comprehensive historical narrative on Manuel Rionda and the Cuba Cane Sugar
Corporation titled Lion's Tail, Head of a Mouse: Manuel Rionda and the Fortunes of
Cuba Cane by Muriel McAvoy-Weissman. Her manuscript is the story of Rionda and the
large corporation he created, which became the leading sugar producer in Cuba during
World War I. McAvoy-Weissman's work provides valuable and useful information on
the entire sugar enterprise in which Rionda played a significant role. Nevertheless, she
reveals little about Central San Vicente.
Among Cuban historians, Ram6n Guerra y Sanchez, Azicar v Poblaci6n en las
Antillas (1927), and Manuel Moreno Fraginals, El Ingenio (1964), are significant in the
study of the sugar industry and its effect on Cuban society. The chief concern of their
works is the rise of the sugar latifundia and the influx of large amounts of capital into the
eastern provinces of Cuba during the early twentieth century. They examine the impact
of these two historical phenomena on the island's social relations. Both Guerra and
Moreno discuss the negative consequences of the growth of sugar mills for Cuba's
inhabitants. When Guena's book was first published, he specifically warned against the
socio-economic changes taking place with the rise of centrales. Both historians consider
the experience of the colono within this context, depicting him essentially as a victim of
the sugar industry.
In 1928, as part of a series on U.S. imperialism, Leland Hamilton Jenks first
published Our Cuban Colony: A Study in Sugar. His work explores the history of Cuban-
American relations, concentrating on the period after Cuban independence until the late
1920s. Jenks analyzes the "sugar tie" which linked Cuba to the United States and which
had important implications for the island. Like Guerra and Moreno, Jenks also strongly
suggests that sugar production had negative consequences for the Cuban people. Within
the context of society, Louis A. Perez, Jr. discusses social responses to the rise of sugar
mills primarily in eastern Cuba in Lords of the Mountain: Social Banditry and Peasant
Protest in Cuba. 1878-1918 (1989).
As regards sugar production in western Cuba, Laird W. Bergad's Cuban Rural
Society in the Nineteenth Century: The Social and Economic History of Monoculture in
Matanzas (1990) is of particular importance to this thesis as background information oa
the condition of this province's colonos at the start of the twentieth century. Bergad cites
some of the reasons for the contrasts in the colono experience between the western and
eastern regions. Explanations include differences between the two areas in terms of land
tenure, the number and situation of cane farmers, and the degree of infrastructure
development. As a general group, there are also numerous comprehensive histories on
Cuba that include discussions on the sugar industry and U.S.-Cuban relations as regard
the sugar trade.
Most historians highlight the movement of capital to and the subsequent rise of
centrales in eastern Cuba when writing on the sugar industry during the early twentieth
century. Therefore, the discussion on central-colono relations is predominantly done
within this context. As noted by Lauriault, mill owners in this region were able to mold
the relations in the production of sugar more in line with their agenda, since the eastern
portion of the island was less developed than the western section. In contrast, the influx
of capital and the modernization of the industry in the west during World War I
encountered conditions of production that had evolved in the late nineteenth century.
The present work examines the case of central-colono relations on a western mill
during the early twentieth century. It reveals several nuances associated with sugar
production in the west between 1914 and 1933 concerning the cane farmer. These
include the variety in colono experiences and the complexity of land tenure, both of
which suggest that cane farmers as a group defy classification; the influx of capital in
western Cuba during the First World War did not impact the colono and the sugar
industry in the same manner as it did in the east; and certain central owners were able to
maintain a cooperative relationship with cane farmers both in times of prosperity and
The following chapters analyze and discuss San Vicente's experience from World
War I to the early years of the Great Depression. Chapter 1 introduces the colonato, the
institution or system involving the cane farmer in his role within the Cuban sugar
industry. It gives a historical background of and general information on the colono.
chapterr 2 provides an overview of the Cuban sugar industry from the turn of the century
to World War I and situates Central San Vicente within the Rionda sugar empire.
Chapters 3 and 4 examine the mill during the war and the post-war era. Lastly, Chapter 5
is a discussion on the case of San Vicente.
Throughout the work, the primary focus and theme center on the colonato. It had
its roots in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and although not completely free of
friction, this system remained intact during World War I. High sugar prices permitted the
continuation of this institution without major disruptions. The decline in prices after the
war, however, generated greater conflict within the colonato during the 1920s and early
1930s. This friction partly led to its transformation during the Great Depression with the
1933 Revolution in Cuba.
THE CENTRAL AND THE COLONO
Ramiro Guerra y Sanchez claimed that the influx of foreign capital after Cuban
independence and the subsequent establishment of large centrales "marked the beginning
of the contest between colono and central." He added, "The last decades of the
[nineteenth] century passed without any appreciable change in the situation because the
capital resources of each continued to be fairly evenly matched. But independence
created new conditions for industry and . permitted foreign capital to weigh
overwhelmingly on the side of the factory."' The two sides in the Cuban sugar industry
were, as Guerra noted, the sugar producer and the cane farmer-the mill and the
canefields-processing and agriculture. Manuel Rionda and his associates represented
one side, the colonos the other. Yet this division of labor existed before Rionda had
entered the industry.
Development of the Colonato
Francisco Frias y Jacott, the Conde de Pozos Dulces, a mid-nineteenth century
Cuban economist and planter, promoted the idea that the sugar industry should be
SRamiro Guerra y Sanchez, Sugar and Society in the Caribbean (New Haven, Yale UP, 1964), 67.
2 The term division of labor is based on the Spanish term "separacidn de la areas" employed by Domingo
Aldama, a mid-nineteenth century Cuban planter, whom Guerra cites in Spanish in his original version titled
Azucar Y Poblaci6n en Las Antillas (La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1976), 73.
arranged so that the manufacture of sugar was kept separate from agriculture. According
to the count, if the manufacturer did not have to worry about cultivation, he could focus
entirely on the processing of sugar, employing his capital in enlarging and improving the
mill's operation. Cane farming entailed an entire sphere of expenses and duties in itself:
the purchasing of land; the planting and harvesting of the crop; and its transportation to
The Conde de Pozos Dulces was not the only Cuban economist or planter who
thought in this manner concerning the sugar industry, nor was his idea entirely new. The
practice of a small number of Cuban peasants growing cane and selling it to be ground
had existed since the 1790's.4 Thus, as Rebecca Scott writes in discussing late
nineteenth century Cuban history, "The concept of the colonia-an estate that would
grow cane to supply to a central mill-was not a new one."' Nevertheless, as the Cuban
sugar industry changed and evolved, so did the colonato.
Before the emergence of centrales in the 1880s, sugar was produced by slave
labor on relatively small plantations called ingenios. The term ingenio, according to its
definition, refers strictly to the mill which grinds the cane. Nevertheless, it was widely
used to describe the entire estate on which cane was cultivated and ground. During the
mid-nineteenth century, when Cuba was in its Golden Age, providing one quarter of the
3 Guerra, p. 64; Julio Le Riverend, Historia Economica de Cuba (La Habana: Editorial Pueblo y Educacion,
1974), Chp XXV.; Hugh Thomas, Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers),
4Thomas, 276. Thomas's original source for this information is Manuel Moreno Fraginals, El Ingenio,
Tomo I, 1760-1860 (La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1978), 34.
5 Rebecca Scott, Slave Emancipation in Cuba: The Transition to Free Labor. 1860-1899 (Princeton:
Princeton UP, 1985), 208.
world's supply of sugar, there were approximately 2,000 mills on the island, ranging in
size from 10 to 200 caballerias (caballeria: measurement approximately equal to 33.16
acres). The average ingenio measured roughly 20 caballerias. The wealth generated by
the sugar trade in this period encouraged the move toward industrial production
beginning in 1860.6
Guerra explains that, as the industry advanced technologically, it was no longer
economically feasible to be a sugar planter without owning a larger amount of land or
having a considerable amount of capital. The renewal of machinery and acquisition of
new processing methods required large financial resources that were beyond the reach of
the small landowner, whose modest mill could not produce the quality grade of sugar
needed to compete in the market. Given that sugar was the dominant economic activity
in Cuba, his only alternative to make a profit, or to simply make a living, was to sell his
cane to the owner of a larger, mechanized mill. Despite the fact that mills began to
decrease in number, production continued to increase as did the number of colonos.
With mechanization, the processing capability of each mill improved, expanding its
Initially, the colono simply took his cane to be ground at the nearest mill and paid
the mill owner with part of the sugar produced from his cane, disposing the rest of it as
he so desired. The Ten Years' War (1868-1878), however, changed the conditions within
6 Fe Iglesias Garcia, "The Development of Capitalism in Cuban Sugar Production, 1860-1900," Between
Slavery and Free Labor, 55. On Cuba's Golden Age of sugar, see Thomas, 536. Several authors on Cuban
history refer to the mid-nineteenth century using that term.
7 Guerra claims that beginning in the 1840s, almost all coffee plantations were turned into sugar plantations
to take advantage of the economic prosperity presented by the industry. The labor and capital that had been
employed in coffee were transferred to the production of sugar. Land on which coffee had been grown was
used instead for cultivating cane. See Sugar and Society. Chp. 8.
the industry concerning the cane farmer." This war, an unsuccessful attempt at gaining
independence from Spain, precipitated the demise of the small landowner with the
outdated mill and his resurgence as a colono. It also deepened the division of labor with
the emergence of more formalized contractual arrangements.9 Eventually, some colonos
would be tied to a certain mill.
Although the destruction from the rebellion was largely confined to the eastern
half of the island, disruption of the sugar industry was felt throughout Cuba. According
to Susan J. FernAndez, "Increased debt, depleted treasuries and fiscal and monetary
policies and systems unresponsive to colonial requirements were the legacies of the Ten
Years War."'1 Thus, the conflict resulted in the failure of more ingenios, and the island
lost a greater share of the world market." While Cuban sugar production declined,
international output increased, pushing prices downward. Throughout the 1880s,
economic ruin became commonplace for many mill owners. Yet the irony of the
situation was that in order to survive, a mill owner needed to produce more at a lower
8 Guerra, 63.
10 Susan J. Fernmndez, Banking. Credit, and Colonial Finance in Cuba. 1878-1895. diss., U of Florida,
1987, v. Fernindez writes that the Ten Years War had been a protracted and costly rebellion.
" According to Fe Iglesias Garcia Cuba had 1,382 mills in 1860. In 1877, there were 1,190 and in 1881,
1,170. This decline was primarily due to the destruction and failure of mills in the eastern part of the island
as a consequence of the Ten Years' War. Between 1860-1877, among Cuba's six provinces, the number of
producing units actually increased in Havana and Matanzas. In the easternmost provinces of Camagiey and
Oriente, however, the number ofingenios decreased significantly. From 101 in 1860 to 3 in 1877 in
Camagiey, and from 216 to 18 in Oriente during the same time period. Between 1877 and 1881, the
quantity of mills decreased in all of Cuba's provinces, with the exception of Las Villas. See "Capitalism in
Cuban Sugar Production," 63. According to production data presented by Susan Schroeder, Cuba produced
29.7% of the world's sugar in 1868 and 15.3% in 1878. Between 1878 and 1890, the island accounted for
an average of 13.4% of the international supply of sugar. See Cuba: A Handbook. 261.
cost. This strategy required mechanization, which required capital, that in turn was not
Essentially, the owners of failed mills became colonos, and the mills to which
they took their cane became centrales, differentiating them from their predecessors, the
ingenios, and literally describing their central location within a cluster of colomas.
Those who lost not only their mills, but also their lands were able to lease land from the
central. Hence, there emerged two general types of colonos: the colono independiente
and the colono dependiente. The difference related to land tenure. Independent cane
farmers owned their land outright, while dependent colonos rented land from the mill, or
from another cane farmer, as illustrated in succeeding chapters.13
This distinction was fundamentally based on the idea that the owner of a failed
ingenio who was able to maintain his land had the capability to cultivate cane without
financial or material assistance from the mill. Hence, he was independent of the mill.
On the other hand, the owner of a failed ingenio who was not able to keep his land due to
his wrecked financial condition but remained in the sugar industry by becoming a tenant
of a mill was a dependent colono-relying on the mill to cultivate his crop and make a
12 Thomas, 273.
13 The land cultivated by a colono, whether owned or leased, was known as a colonia.
The Expansion of Centrales, Abolition, and the Railroad
According to Rebecca Scott, some plantation owners saw the colonato as a means
to rebuild from the destruction of the Ten Years' War and to remain in the sugar business
in a period of scarce capital. They could reconstruct their ingenio in the form of a
central by dividing their land among colonos or rely on existing, undamaged colonies for
cane instead of using their own resources for its cultivation. The emergence and
expansion of centrales thus stimulated the proliferation of colonies. In the Santa Ana
district of Matanzas, the agricultural census reported that, in 1881, there were eleven
sugar estates cultivating a total area of 172 caballerias. Between 1884-1885, the same
district reported twelve sugar estates, with a total area of cultivation measuring 240
caballerias, and 114 additional colonies. According to Scott, "The compilers of the
report commented on the development in a very short period of time of over one hundred
and fifty colonies devoted exclusively to the growing of cane."14
Cuba's gradual emancipation process which lasted from 1870 to 1886 gave
further impetus to the development of the colono system.'5 Abolition created a need on
the part of mill owners to find an alternative source of labor for planting, growing, and
harvesting cane. As Scott explains, the colonato was seen as the answer "to some of the
problems of the postemancipation period, precisely because it made possible the
mobilization of new sources of labor and capital. Campesinos, especially whites, who
14 Scott, 209-210.
15 Abolition in Cuba began with the enactment of the Moret Law in 1870, which freed slaves over the age of
sixty and those born after September 17, 1868. The emancipation process included a period of
apprenticeship, known as thepatronato, which was ended in 1886, signaling complete abolition of slavery.
See Francisco A. Scarano, "Labor and Society in the Nineteenth Century," The Modern Caribbean, ed.
Franklin W. Knight and Colin A. Palmer (Chapel Hill: The U of North Carolina Press, 1989) 79-81.
would not have worked alongside slaves were willing to undertake the cultivation and
cutting of cane on their own."16 U.S. sugar businessman Edwin Atkins observed that
after abolition, "country people leased small pieces of land from the estates and delivered
cane to the mills or centrals."'7
Access to cane was key to a central's profitability and success. It needed to
produce as much sugar as possible and, therefore, required as much cane as possible.
The demand for cane drove the centrales into competition with one another for land,
which had never been the case with the ingenios. Initially, the size of a central, as with
the ingenio, was limited by the high cost of hauling cane using ox-driven carts. With the
decline in the price of steel rails after 1877, however, centrales were able to significantly
expand their holdings by laying down their own rail lines to access cane lands formerly
outside their area.'8
According to Cuban historians Oscar Zanetti Lecuona and Alejandro Garcia
Alvarez, private railroads had been used in Cuba since the 1850s, though to a small
extent. That changed during the last quarter of the century. The advent of steel rails and
lightweight, narrow gauge tracks, known collectively as the ferrocarril portdtil (portable
railroad), greatly affected not only the transportation of cane, but the sugar industry as a
whole. Once fully integrated into the production of sugar, the railroad contributed further
16 Scott, 210.
17 Cited in Scott, 210. Scott's original source for the quotation is Edwin Atkins, Sixty Years in Cuba
(Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1926), 39.
'8 Guerra, 65-66.
to the industrial development of the central.19 Robert Lauriault claims, "The
introduction of railroads to the cane fields represented a major advance in the forces of
production, which had profound implications for the relations of production, for the
entire political economy and, in fact, for social relations throughout Cuba."20 Although
centrales continued to use ox carts, they were no longer restricted in size by this
cumbersome mode of transportation. Thus, centrales extended their boundaries, rapidly
absorbing the old ingenios. Some of the former mill owners remained on the land and
concentrated on farming cane, becoming colonos. 2
According to Hugh Thomas, "The private railway boom began in the 1880s and
lasted all the first half of the 1890s."22 Jos6 Sainz of Matanzas, who owned San Vicentp
during the late 1800s, laid his track precisely during this period.23 In extending their size,
mills came into competition and conflict with another as cane land became scarce. The
central was now limited in size by a neighboring mill and the cost of laying rail. Colonos
profited from this situation, since central owners bid highly for their cane. Guerra writes
that one could determine the degree of competition in a certain area of the island by the
price of cane. In western Cuba, especially in the Matanzas sugar heartland, the colono
'9 Oscar Zanetti Lecuon and Alejandro Garcia Alvarez, Caminos Para El Azucar (La Habana: Editorial de
Ciencias Sociales, 1987), 155-157. Zanetti and Garcia claim that the private railway was the decisive
element in the process of mill centralization that made it possible for the central to organize-to
consolidate-the entire agricultural component related to the production of sugar into one economic unit,
essentially forming the plantation latifundia, typical of the sugar sector.
20 Robert Lauriault, Virin Soil: The Modernization of Social Relations on a Cuban Sugar Estate-The
Francisco Sugar Company. 1989-1921. diss., U of Florida, 1994, 5.
21 Zanetti and Garcia, 153-157.
22 Thomas, 274.
23 Braga Brothers Collection (hereafter cited as BBC), Series 2, vol. 38, Manuel Rionda to Walter Ogilvie,
August 20, 1915.
obtained a higher price for his cane than in the east. The reason for this difference had to
do primarily with the number and concentration of both centrales and public railways. 24
The first public rail line in Cuba was laid in the 1837 in the western province of
La Habana. From there, public railroads expanded throughout the west during the
nineteenth century and were an essential feature of the Cuban sugar industry."2 Public
railways played a significant role in central-colono relations, for they permitted the
independent colono to move freely within the system of competing centrales by offering
him the possibility of transporting his cane to the mill of his choice.26 Zanetti and Garcia
report that the first railroad was not constructed in eastern Cuba until the mid-1800s, and
its development there was not as extensive as in the west (fig. 1-1). As such, colonos i:
the west benefited to a larger degree from the public railroad network than their
counterparts in the east.27
24 Payment was based on the unit of the arroba, a measurement of weight equivalent to 25 pounds. In the
west, the colon obtained the price of 7 arrobas of sugar for every 100 arrobas of cane he delivered to the
mill. In the east, however, the maximum price offered was 5 V/, with 4 being the average. See Guerra, 66-
25 Zanetti and Garcia, 34-35.
26 The colono had to pay for the freight charges in transporting his cane via rail.
21 Zanetti and Garcia, 74.
FIG. 1-1 THE EXPANSION OF PUBLIC RAILROADS IN THE
LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY
As shown, western Cuba had a more developed rail infrastructure than the eastern region. Central
San Vicente was situated 5 miles east of the town of Jovellanos within the "United Railways
triangle," as the Riondas referred to the formation created by a line of railways running directly
north from Jovellanos to the seaport of Cardenas, southeast from Cardenas to Col6n, and west
from Col6n back to Jovellanos.
Map: Levi Marrero, Geograa de Cuba 3 ed. (La Habana: Editorial Selecta, 1957), 363 The labeling of
Jovellanos not included in the original.
The expansion of centrales and the subsequent scarcity of land in western Cuba
resulted in competition for colono cane.28 Consequently, mills faced the dilemma of
securing enough cane for each harvest at the lowest possible cost. Guerra claims that
" Lauriault, 6.
this circumstance made the central owner strongly interested in controlling the crop's
sources. To do so, required restricting the colono 's independence. Guerra writes:
This could be accomplished through one of two
means: by economic domination of the colono-
reducing his independence and making him a vassal
of the mill, bound by contract and prevented from
freely selling his product-or by purchasing lands
and administering them as cane farms or having them
sharecropped or rented by colonos dependent on the
Cane cultivated on lands administered by the mill came to be known as calia por
administraci6n, or administration cane. As Lowry Nelson explains, it was "produced
under the direct management of the mill itself."30 Wageworkers were hired to do the
actual work of growing, harvesting, and delivering the crop. To this, Scott adds thai
beginning in the 1890s, "Contracts between colonos and mills .. show the efforts of
estates to extend control over the colono and guarantee that he would sell only to a single
Contracts with cane farmers involved three different agreements: the grinding
agreement (molienda de caltas), the credit agreement (refacci6n agricola), and the land
lease (arrendamiento). The amount of cane to be cultivated and supplied to the mill
came under the grinding agreement. The refacci6n agricola entailed the mill owner's
advancing money to the colono to cover the costs of planting, cultivating, and harvesting
the cane. This cost was deducted from the payment to the colono at final settlement. In
some instances, the central did not have to advance money to the colono to cover costs.
30 Lowry Nelson, Rural Cub (Minneapolis: The U of Minnesota Press, 1950), 121.
3 Scott, 211.
Instead, town shopkeepers, who were willing to invest in the cane farmer, provided him
with the needed credit. Later, banks also loaned money to cane farmers. Lastly, the
arrendamiento specified the terms of land use and the rental fee.32
Collectively, these agreements "obliged the colono to supply cane exclusively to
the particular central at stipulated prices and conditions."" Yet not all contracts
contained all three agreements. Arrangements made between mill and farmer were made
on the basis of individual circumstances. For instance, a settlement with an independent
colono would most likely not have included a land lease agreement. On the contrary,
according to Nelson, those who rented land from the mill were "tied by a 'triple bond' to
the mill: they were dependent upon it for land to rent, for milling of the cane, and for
credit."34 In short, mill owners modified a situation regulated by the forces of supply and
demand (which in western Cuba, had benefited the colono) by tying the cane farmer to
the central through contracts.3
The development of more formalized contractual arrangements was not the only
notable change within the relationship between mill and cane farmer during the period
after 1880. Another important alteration was in the form of payment. According to
Leland Jenks, centrales switched from paying colonos for their cane with cash to
payment in kind. The amount paid was determined as a percentage of the mill's output.
The colono was given a certain quantity of sugar in exchange for a certain amount of
32 Information is based on the overall research of San Vicente's records. Also see Lauriault, 69; Scott, 210.
33 Iglesias Garcia, 72.
34 Nelson, 97.
" Lauriault, 69.
cane-either planted or delivered to the mill, depending on the terms of contract. Under
the previous method of payment, only the mill owner bore the risks involved in the sugar
market. For instance, during years of low prices, he incurred heavy losses because he
still had to pay the colono in cash despite the fact that the commodity was generating less
revenue. Under the new system, however, the colono also assumed the risks of the
Later, as financing the crop became a problem, with more and more colonos
going into debt permanently, the rapid sale of sugar became an economic necessity for
the farmer in order to pay his creditors and workers. Consequently, instead of being
given sugar in return for his cane, the colono and the mill owner settled on the promedio
as the form of payment. The promedio was the average price paid for sugar at the port
from where the mill shipped its product This sum was calculated bi-weekly and paid to
the colono for cane delivered in each period.3
Colonos: A Varied Group
The changes within the sugar industry after 1880 altered the colonato.
Essentially, it underwent modifications and became more complex. Different contractual
arrangements and methods for accessing the crop resulted from the expansion of
centrales, the advent of the private railroad, and the competition for cane. As such,
6 Leland Jenks, Our Cuban Colony: A Study in Sugar (New York: Arno Press & The New York Times,
37 Ibid., 33 The promedio was basically the average warehouse price of raw sugar in Cuba.
additional differences within the colonato emerged. In the following passage, Scott notes
that by the latter part of the nineteenth century, cane farmers formed a varied group:
Colonos were, however by no means a homo-
genous group. They included former slaves who had
been granted or leased small plots of land ... small
landholders who turned to cane growing as the
expansion of railways improved access to mills,
tenants and entrepreneurs who rented land and
contracted to supply a specific mill, and former
planters for whom new investments in modern
processing machinery were not possible or prudent. .
Colonos ranged from persons who were in effect
working piece-rate on land owned by vast estates to
investors who owned land and employed large
numbers of workers.38
Between the independent and dependent farmer, the difference was primarily
noted in the terms of their contracts: the latter having less advantageous terms, usually
being paid less for his cane.39 Among the general sub-group of colonos who rented
lands, an important distinction emerged. Farmers who rented lands that pertained to the
mill, whether owned or leased, were usually locked into selling their cane to that central
only. Hence, they were known as colonos del central (colonos of the mill), or colonos de
lafinca. As such, colonos de afuera (colonos from outside) referred to those who grew
cane on land not controlled by the mill.
Colonos del central were either tenant farmers or sharecroppers. Because they
did not own land-and in some cases, equipment or any materials-the central provided
them with the resources necessary for farming the cane, and it set the terms and
conditions for the cultivation and supply of the crop to the factory. Thus, their earnings
8 Scott, 212.
39 General research of the BBC reveals that this was the case. Also see Lauriault, 6.
were regulated by contract.40 According to Ramiro Guerra, some of these were
essentially mill employees without salaries. Colonos de afuera, however, could either be
renters on land belonging to a party other than the central that milled their cane, or they
could be proprietors of their own land, in which case they were independent.
In studying colonos, these distinctions become more important and noteworthy-
although shrouded in perplexity-as the nature of land tenure in the production of sugar
became more complex.41 Nevertheless, as a whole, the historiography on Cuba claims
that whether the cane farmer was a colono independiente, a colono dependiente, a colono
del central, or a colono de afuera, he was tied to the mill-bound by contracts stipulating
the amount of cane to be grown and delivered; by the debts he had incurred to cover
planting and harvesting expenses; by rental agreements; and by the use of private rail
lines to transport cane.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the colonato was a defining
characteristic of the Cuban sugar industry, which essentially had been divided into two
spheres: manufacture and agriculture. For the central owner, this arrangement meant
being able to concentrate capital on the upkeep and improvement of his mill in order to
extract greater amounts of sugar with the finest quality possible. He could also think in
larger terms, making contracts with colonos to bring more cultivated land under his
control. Thus, expanding his access to additional cane, and he had the rail lines to reach
4 Lauriault, 377.
41 The files of San Vicente pertaining to the BBC reveal several instances in which colonos who did not own
land were not tied to, or dependent upon, the central and, therefore, were able to move relatively freely
within the industry much like cane farmers who owned land and to whom historians have strictly reserved
the term colono independiente. In some cases, independent farmers who were so heavily in debt to the mill
were essentially tied to the central in a similar fashion as colonos del central were until they paid back their
it. For the colono, it meant assuming all the risks involved in agriculture-drought, fire,
pests, floods, and disease-coupled with the acquisition of labor. According to Lauriault,
in being responsible for labor, the colono "shielded the management of the central from
that source of volatility also."42 Nonetheless, as components of the same industry,
central owners and colonos were both subject to the forces and factors that shaped the
Cuban sugar industry.
42 Lauriault, 70.
CENTRAL SAN VICENTE: ONE CONSTITUENT IN A VAST SUGAR EMPIRE
On April 4, 1914, Plicido Alonso, the manager of Central San Vicente, wrote in
his daily correspondence to Manuel Rionda, proprietor of the sugar plantation, "I observe
that the price of sugar is not increasing, and I would like you to inform me about future
prospects, since it is really disheartening that it is so low. Is there any hope?"' Five days
later, Rionda responded by stating, "He who knows the most about sugar, knows the
least," claiming that, given sugar's volatility on the world market, forecasting the
industry's course was uncertain.2 Thus, Rionda could give his plantation manager no
guarantees that the price of sugar would increase.
When Alonso wrote his letter to Rionda, the price of raw Cuban sugar, cost and
freight, in New York was 1.98 cents per pound.3 By the end of July, on the eve of World
War I, the price had climbed to 2.27 cents. In August, it sold at 4.68 cents per pound,
and in the following month, at 4.78 cents. Although the price declined towards the end
'BBC, Series 14, vol. 4, Placido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, April 4, 1914. Translated by B. Fraga.
2BBC, Series 2, vol. 34, Manuel Rionda to Placido Alonso, April 9, 1914. Translated by B. Fraga.
3Most historians and economists consider three price quotations when discussing the Cuban sugar industry:
1) the price of raw sugar in Cuban warehouses; 2) the price of raw Cuban sugar, cost and freight (c. & f), in
New York; and 3) the price of 96* centrifugal sugar, duty paid, in New York. According to Ellis, the c. & f
price, which includes the insurance paid and, therefore, is also known as c. i. f. (cost, insurance, and freight),
is the price of sugar landed at New York before the duty is paid. Theoretically, the duty-paid price varies
from the c. & f. price by the amount of the duty. The price of the 960 sugar determines the price of all other
sugars and, thus, is the most important price quotation for raw sugar on the New York market. When
discussing the "New York market" as regards the sugar trade that which is specifically meant is the Coffee
and Sugar Exchange at New York. See Ellis, 30.
of 1914 and into 1915, it increased again thereafter, reaching an average price of 4.76
cents in 1916; it continued its upward trend throughout the remaining war years.4 If
Rionda could not give the response that Alonso desired, World War I did, at least
The Cuban Sugar Industry: Before and During World War I
The First World War signaled the first boom in the Cuban sugar industry during
the twentieth century. While Europe consumed itself in the destruction of war, Cuba
prospered, benefiting from the changes within the sugar market caused by the deleterious
events on the other side of the Atlantic. The fighting that ensued when German armies
attacked their neighbors to the west decimated the beet sugar industry in that region,
turning crop land into the desolate battlefields of the western front. Inevitably, as the war
continued, sugar production across Europe, from France to Russia, was devastated, and
the international supply of beet sugar declined. In 1914, 8.3 million tons of beet sugar
had been produced, with Germany exceeding Cuba in output.5 Two years later, that
figure stood at 5.8 million, and in 1918, it was down to 4.4 million tons.6
4 Prices for raw Cuban sugar taken from Ellis, 30.
5 For the figures on European beet sugar, see Louis A. Pirez, Jr., Lords of the Mountain: Social Banditry
and Peasant Protest in Cuba. 1878-1918 (Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh Press, 1989), 154. For Germany as a
sugar producer in 1914, see Thomas, 536.
6 Perez, 154.
Competition from European Beet Sugar
European beet sugar had represented a sizable portion of the world's sugar supply
since the mid-nineteenth century. In 1860, Europe supplied 20% of the world's sugar. A
decade later, 36% of it came from European beets, and by 1878, that source accounted
for almost one half of the international supply of sugar.7 That same year had also seen
the end of the Ten Years' War in Cuba. The rebellion had failed to achieve
independence, and the island remained a Spanish colony. Cuba's loss, however, was
Europe's gain, for during the armed insurrection, Cuban sugar production declined. It
decreased from 749,000 tons in 1868, to 547,000 tons in 1871, and to 520,000 in the final
year of fighting.8 Instead of Cuba, Germany was the world's largest producer of sugar
during the war.9 Europe's hold on the world sugar market continued after 1878, as
Cuban producers suffered further setbacks despite the ending of hostilities with the Peace
of Zanj6n. By 1884, European beet sugar represented 53% of the international supply of
sugar.'" Beet sugar completely supplanted Cuban cane sugar in the European market,
and by the final decade of the nineteenth century, Europe was no longer a net importer of
sugar, but a net exporter." Moreover, to Europe's advantage, the failure of the Ten
Years' War led to a second struggle for independence, which virtually destroyed the
Cuban sugar industry.
7 Muriel McAvoy-Weisman, Lion's TaiL Head of a Mouse: Mar ,el Rionda and the Fortunes of Cuba Cane
(Concord, NH), Chp. 1, p. 10.
8 Schroeder, 261.
9 Thomas, 272.
" Perez, 5.
In 1895, the year that the Cuban War for Independence began, the island's crop
yielded 1,004,264 tons of sugar, while during the following two years, each harvest
produced no more than 225,000 tons.12 Before the conflict, Cuba had supplied 12 to 13%
of the world's sugar. In 1900, two years after the war, the newly independent nation
produced only 3.5% of the world's sugar.13 The island had 1,100 sugar mills in operation
the year before fighting began and 207 at the start of the new century.'4 Overall,
agriculture had suffered heavy losses. Of the total 1.4 million acres under cultivation
prior to the war, only 900,000 resumed production after the armed conflict.15 In the
primary sugar producing provinces of Havana and Matanzas, less than 15% of the mills
that existed in 1894 survived the war.16
Cuba paid a heavy price for independence, from which European beet sugar
producers benefited. By 1902, when Cuba became officially independent, the island was
not as prosperous had it had been in 1895. Sugar prices were down, and in distress,
Cuban planters pressed the United States for help. Cuba's neighbor to the north
answered them with the passage of the 1903 Reciprocity Treaty. In lowering the tariff on
Cuban sugar by 20%, the treaty gave it preferential treatment over all other foreign
sugars. Cuba, in turn, gave U.S. imports preferential treatment and enacted stringent
immigration laws. As a result, U.S. refiners were able to obtain sugar more cheaply-at
12 Le Riverend, 474. For Cuban production figures, also see Schroeder, 261.
3 Jenks, 128.
14 Schroeder, 257
1 Ptrez, 61.
a lower cost than refiners in any other country of the world-and Cuban producers were
able to expand their production until they satisfied the U.S. demand for sugar from
When World War I broke out, the Cuban sugar industry reacted much in the same
way as its European counterpart had done during Cuba's struggles for independence. As
the world supply of sugar declined, its price increased, stimulating its production
elsewhere in the world to fill the void left by the wrecked European sugar industry. In
Cuba, production of sugar increased from 2,609,004 tons in 1914, to 4,011,831 tons in
1918, when the war ended.' On San Vicente, production rose from 74,646 bags at the
end of the 1913-14 harvest to 102,244 bags at the end of the 1917-18 harvest (the
approximate weight of a bag of sugar was 300 pounds).19
7 Jenks, 132-140. Also at the same time, according to Jenks, "the powers of Europe assembled at Brussels
to put an end to the export bounty system for their mutual advantage. The Brussels Convention, which was
to go into effect September, 1903, promised Cuba for the future a chance at markets other than those of the
United States, particularly that of Great Britain." According to figures on Cuba's trade with Europe
provided by Susan Schroeder, the Brussels Convention had little positive effect on Cuba. In fact, Cuba's
exports to Great Britain declined steadily after 1903, and did not begin a constant upward trend until 1912.
Germany supplied Britain with the majority of its sugar until the outbreak of the war. In addition, Cuba's
exports to other European nations (Spain, France, and Italy) also declined in the first years after the Brussels
Convention. The case of Italy was similar to that of Great Britain. Cuban exports experienced a steady
decrease until the war. See Cuba: A Handbook, 427.
18 Jose R Alvarez Diaz et al, A Study on Cuba (Coral Gables, FL: U of Miami Press, 1965), 234.
19 BBC, Series 10, Box 91, Subject File: San Vicente, Crop Restriction by Cuban Government. In some
instances, San Vicente produced bags weighing 325 pounds, but the norm was approximately 300 pounds.
Inside the Cuban Sugar Industry: Central San Vicente and Manuel Rionda
Central San Vicente was a middle-sized sugar mill in the western province of
Matanzas, not far from the town of Jovellanos (fig. 2-1). Sugar from the mill was taken
by public rail to the nearby port of CArdenas for export. San Vicente's location
represented the heart of the island's sugar production prior to its expansion, backed by
U.S. capital, to eastern Cuba after the war of independence (fig 2-2).20 When Placido
Alonso became the manager of Central San Vicente in 1907, Matanzas had one of the
most developed sugar industries on the island, with a well established railroad network
connecting the many estates and their canefields to factories and ports.2
Prior to becoming the administrator of the estate, Alonso was employed as a sales
agent in Havana for the Export Department of Czamikow, MacDougall & Company
(Czarikow-MacDougall), a sugar brokerage firm headquartered in New York. The
company was the U.S. affiliate of C. Czarnikow, Ltd., of London, considered to be the
world's largest sugar broker. His uncle by marriage, Manuel Rionda y Polledo, was the
director of Czarnikow-MacDougall. Hence, when Placido Alonso married Odelinda
Fanjul Rionda, daughter of Maria Rionda y Polledo and Alonso Fanjul, he also entered
into one of the largest sugar enterprises in the world. Manuel Rionda kept faithful to one
of his most valued and time-honored business practices, nepotism, in asking Alonso to
manage San Vicente which Rionda had acquired for Czarnikow, MacDougall & Co. in
20 Marrero, Geogafia de Cuba 3" ed., 210.
21 Van Ness provides biographical information in "Guide to the Braga Brothers Collection."
22 Ibid.; McAvoy-Weissman, Chp. 1, p. 2.
Port of Matanzas
t 'A /I
o- ,- -~ - s
( \ i / ,
Municioalites of Matanzas
.FIG. 2-1 CENTRAL SAN VICENTE'S LOCATION IN MATANZAS
Central San Vicente was located 5 miles east of the town of Jovellanos and approximately 14
miles southeast of Cdrdenas.
Map: Marrero, Georafia de Cuba. 2" ed., 423.
FIG. 2-2 THE MATANZAS SUGAR HEARTLAND
The above map illustrates the primary sugar producing area of Matanzas during the 1800s.
According to San Vicente's records, this area was still extremely important in the early twentieth
century. The numerous dots represent 19th-century ingenios no longer in existence by 1957 when
the book containing the map was published. Thus, according to the map's source, by the 1950s
San Vicente ceased operating as a central. The mills denote centrales in operation at the time of
publication. Although originally not labeled, the dot under San Vicente corresponds to its
location, as determined from information contained in the mill's records. In addition, the town of
Jovellanos--also not labeled in the original-is shown.
Levi Marrero, Geografia de Cuba 3"' ed., 210.
San Vicente was one of the 434 sugar mills that existed in Matanzas prior to the
Cuban War for Independence. It had belonged to Jose Sainz, of the town of Matanzas,
who according to Manuel Rionda, "was one of the largest sugar and molasses men of the
time." Between 1891 and 1893, Sainz built a railroad line connecting his factory to the
main line owned by United Railways at a point near the town of Jovellanos. Sometime
between 1901 and 1902, the property was transferred to the Landaluce Family, who were
heirs to some of Sainz's former partners in Matanzas. Under their ownership, the
property declined, and the foreclosure of some of its mortgages closed it in 1906.
Czarnikow, MacDougall & Co., which was a minor creditor of the estate for $20,000,
secured San Vicente at its bankruptcy for $169,083.80, "a very high price," according to
It must have seemed especially high, because the property was in very poor shape.
Manuel Rionda described it as "the worst place [he] had seen in Cuba or elsewhere,"
stating further that "the machinery was in deplorable condition."24 The estate had only
two mills, which were very antiquated and ineffectively located, for cane had to be
hauled from one end of the property to other. Nevertheless, Rionda must have been a
man of vision in purchasing San Vicente given the unfavorable state in which he found it.
23 BBC, Series 2, vol. 38, Manuel Rionda to Walter Ogilvie, August 20, 1915.
24 Ibid. On information relating to currency and the monetary system in Cuba, see Henry C. Wallich,
Monetary Problems of an Export Economy: The Cuban Experience. 1914-1947 (Cambridge: Harvard UP,
1950), 32-34. According to Wallich, prior to 1914, Cuba had three types of currencies: the Spanish centen,
the French luis, and the U.S. dollar. The dollar was primarily used in government and foreign trade
transactions, while the two European currencies were employed in local trade. Wallich further claims that
"various Spanish and French silver coins were used in small retail transactions and for wage payments ."
In 1914, the Cuban government created the peso. The Monetary Law of 1914 established the dollar and the
peso as the legal circulating currencies. Between 1914 and 1931, thepeso "was almost always at par with
the dollar . It had a gold content equal to that of the dollar.
If not, he certainly had the determination and strong will that characterized so many of
the hardworking, poor Spanish immigrants who came in large numbers to Cuba from the
northern regions of Galicia and Asturias beginning in the late nineteenth century. 2
The Rionda Sugar Empire
The Beginnings: The Rionda Family
Manuel Rionda was born on October 3, 1854, in Norefta, a village in Asturias, to
Bernardo de la Rionda y Alvarez and Josefa Polledo y Mata. He was one of eight
children. His siblings included his brothers Francisco and Joaquin and his five sisters,
Maria, Isidora, Gregoria, Ramona, and Bibiana.26 "I had no boyhood," claimed Rionda.27
Born into poverty, he tended the family goats and plowed the fields with his sisters until
the age of sixteen when he was beckoned across the Atlantic.2
His brothers, who were both several years his senior, had left Spain for Cuba
when he was still a young child. Both went first to join their maternal uncle, Joaquin
Polledo, who was a merchant with connections throughout Havana and Matanzas.
Jbaquin Polledo, as other merchants in Cuba, served an important and necessary function
within the Cuban sugar industry. Because Cuba lacked a modern banking system,
merchants many times functioned as local brokers, attending to the routine tasks of the
" BBC, Series 2, vol. 38, Manuel Rionda to Walter Ogilvie, August 20, 1915; Biographical information
found in "Guide"; Perez, 11.
26 Van Ness, "Guide."
27 BBC, Series 2, vol. 70, Manuel Rionda to William S. Clarke, May 10, 1929.
28 BBC, Series 2, vol. 68, Manuel Rionda to Jose M. Clarke, October 29, 1928.
industry for plantation owners."9 They advanced money for the harvests and arranged for
warehousing, for shipping, and for credit. They provided the needed financial services
that the production of sugar required, and when sugar-the driving force of Cuba's
economy--did well, so did merchants like Polledo. Many became wealthy and obtained
their own sugar plantations.30
Francisco settled in Cuba and worked in his uncle's firm, becoming his partner in
the business that became Polledo, Rionda, & Company. He also worked on the family's
sugar plantations in Matanzas. Francisco was able to expand the family enterprise by
marrying Elena de la Torriente y HernAndez, who belonged to a family-owned sugar
empire that included plantations and the largest warehouse in Matanzas. Joaquin, on the
contrary, was sent to New York City to become skilled in the other part of the enterprise,
the buying and selling of sugar on the international market. There he formed a
partnership entitled Benjamin, Rionda, & Company with Lewis Benjamin, a
This was the world of sugar that Manuel Rionda encountered when he arrived in
Havana in 1870. It was a system founded on familial and business ties that stretched
throughout Cuba and beyond, encompassing an overseas network much larger than any
segment within the island's sugar industry. Sugar was Cuba's link to the world economy,
and it bound the island to forces that were not only physically beyond its domain but out
of its control as well. Rionda would rise to a position of importance and power in this
29 Fernandez, 49-51.
30 Van Ness, "Guide"; McAvoy-Weissman, Chp. 1, p. 3.
31 Van Ness, "Guide."
web of sugar, but even he was never completely independent of the forces that regulated
the world sugar market.
Manuel did not remain in Cuba long; he was soon sent to Portland, Maine. There,
under the auspices of George S. Hunt, a leading businessman of the city and manager of
the Eagle Sugar Refinery, young Manuel completed his education at the Abbott School.
Hunt was a business acquaintance of Manuel's uncle in Havana, from whom the Portland
merchant imported Cuban molasses. After finishing his formal education in Maine,
Manuel, at the age of twenty, went to New York to join his brother Joaquin in the firm of
Benjamin, Rionda, & Company. He remained in the United States until the mid-1880's,
when he departed for Cuba. Joaquin had left shortly before Manuel, and now, both
brothers joined Francisco in running the family's sugar estates on the island. The 1880's
were a difficult decade for the Rionda brothers. They lost virtually all their landholdings.
Nevertheless, they were able to purchase the Tuinucu Plantation near the town of Sancti
Spiritus, east of the sugar cane heartland. There, they built a modern raw sugar factory,
and the estate became Central Tuinucu.32
Manuel returned for good to New York in 1886, going into the sugar brokerage
business via a partnership with Juan M. Ceballos. He stayed with Ceballos until 1896.
With the co-partnership set to expire in December of that year, Rionda agreed to join
Czarikow, MacDougall & Company, the New York affiliate of the preeminent British
sugar brokerage firm, C. Czamikow, Ltd..3 He joined the company in May 1896 as a
32 Van Ness, "Guide"; McAvoy-Weissman, Chp. 1.
" BBC, Series 10, Box 5, Folder title: European Mail, C. Czarnikow, Ltd., 1911-1914, Manuel Rionda to
Lagemann, September 7, 1912.
commission agent, claiming, ". .. Czamikow made me very satisfactory terms."34 Indeed
they were satisfactory terms-perhaps more than satisfactory-for in May of that year,
fourteen months had passed since the start of the Cuban War for Independence. By then,
the conflict had produced much damage in western Cuba, causing sugar production to
decline to 225,000 tons-a quarter of the amount of the previous year. "The Cuban War
killed Cuban business," stated Rionda. In New York, the Ceballos firm met with ruin,
and in Cuba, Tuinucu was threatened by the torch of revolution. Czamikow-
MacDougall's offer could not have come at a better time.3
Central Tuinuci was in fact put to the torch by insurgents-its cane fields going
up in smoke-like so many other sugar estates throughout the island. Francisco Riondi
and his family, who were living on the property, abandoned the central before it was set
fire. Francisco feared execution by both sides in the conflict. He had been captured by
insurgents and then arrested by Spanish forces. Both parties had threatened to put him to
death if he did, or did not, harvest the cane. In the end, he left that decision to the forces
of war and escaped with his family to the United States. They left from a port on the
South coast of the island, making their way to Savannah, Georgia, and from there, to New
York, where they joined Manuel as refugees. With Francisco's death in the United States
34 Quotation taken from BBC, Series 1, Box 12, Folder title: Lewin, Jules, Manuel Rionda to Lewin,
February 16, 1897.
35 Van Ness, "Guide"; McAvoy-Weissman, Chp. 2. For quotation, see BBC, Series 1, Box 12, Folder title:
Lewin, Jules, Manuel Rionda to Lewin, February 16, 1897; On Rionda's gratefulness to C. Czarnikow,
Ltd., see BBC, Series 10, Box 5, Folder title: European Mail, C. Czarnikow, Ltd., 1911-1914, Manuel
Rionda to Lagemann, September 7, 1912.
in 1898, nine years after Joaquin had passed away, Manuel became the head of the
family's properties and businesses.36
Building a Sugar Empire
Although initially reluctant to continue in Cuba after the war, Manuel reinvested
in the Cuban sugar industry. He must have had faith that the island's rich soil and
proximity to the United States, its largest market, would secure a prosperous future for
sugar production in the long term. In the short term, however, repairing and rebuilding
Cuba was going to be a huge task, requiring capital and tireless effort. The devastated
fields had to be plowed, fertilized, and replanted and the ruined machinery replaced
along with the oxen that had been killed.3
Manuel arrived in Cuba before Francisco's coffin was embarked from New York
for the island in late January 1899. After committing the casket to the family tomb in
Matanzas, Manuel set out with his wife and two of his nephews to see what remained of
the family's lands. They found Tuinucil in disrepair, having been overtaken by weeds
and vines. Not a single living animal or a single piece of furniture was found. The mill,
however, was intact, but not in working condition. Rionda decided to revive the central
and was able to obtain the necessary funds to do so.38
36 Van Ness, "Guide"; McAvoy-Weissman, Chp. 2. Joaquin died at Tuinucu as a result of a horse riding
accident in 1889.
37 Ibid. On the prospects of Cuban sugar production after the war, Caesar Czarnikow, the head of C.
Czarnikow, Ltd., wrote Rionda in 1896, "You must be on the alert, as I foresee that Cuba once pacified will
be the great field for our action." See McAvoy-Weissman, Chp. 2, p. 18. Her original source for the
quotation is BBC, Series 1, C. Czarnikow to Manuel Rionda, May 21, 1896.
3 McAvoy-Weissman, Chp. 3.
From Tuinucu, Rionda and his nephew Bernardo Braga went further east to
inspect the lands that Francisco had purchased near the Gulf of Guacanayabo in the
province of Camagiey. They determined that the land was good for cane and chose a
site on which to build a mill. Rionda and Bernardo named the estate Francisco in honor
of the late patriarch, and in planning to build a central, the Riondas established
themselves as pioneers in the sugar industry, being among the first to expand production
to eastern Cuba. Rionda returned to New York to organize a new company for the
exploitation of Francisco, and Bernardo remained in Cuba with the task of rebuilding the
family's connections. He rode on horseback throughout Las Villas, Matanzas, and
Havana, and met with the owners of sugar mills and stores, establishing friendships and
business contacts for Czarnikow, MacDougall & Company.3
On March 1, 1899, in New Jersey, Rionda formed the Francisco Sugar Company
to develop his property in Camagiiey. George R. MacDougall, of Czarnikow,
MacDougall & Co., was elected president of the new enterprise. The principal investors
were the owners of the W. J. McCahan Sugar Refinery in Philadelphia; they would
essentially manage the business until 1909. In this manner, Czamikow-MacDougall,
with Rionda as its principal agent for matters relating to business in Cuba, became the
first U.S. firm to enter full force into the Cuban sugar industry immediately after the war.
It not only invested in property but also loaned money. Rionda claimed that his New
York firm advanced "money to the many needy Cuban planters. . when no one else
would lend money in Cuba. . 40
39 Van Ness, "Guide"; McAvoy-Weissman, Chp. 3.
4 Ibid. For quotation, see McAvoy-Weissman, Chp. 3, p. 8.
The practice of loaning money turned out to be a vehicle for the expansion of the
Rionda interests in Cuba, for when the planters failed to meet debt obligations, their mills
passed into the hands of Czarnikow, MacDougall & Co.. In this manner, between 1902
and the beginning of World War I, Rionda was able to considerably expand his
operations and holdings on the island. San Vicente and San Jose, which became Central
Washington, were two bankrupt sugar estates Rionda acquired during this time period.
In 1907, Rionda became president of the Stewart Sugar Company, a newly formed
business that succeeded the Silveira Sugar Company, which had failed in its venture in
Camaguey. C. Czarikow, Ltd. was the first to be approached for the investment of
capital in the new undertaking, to which it committed in exchange for the provision that
its first five harvests be sold through Czarnikow, MacDougall & Co.--essentially through
Manuel Rionda. By that time, Rionda must have established a reputation for himself as
an efficient and competent sugar man within Cuban, British, and American business
circles, for he was specifically requested by Sullivan & Cromwell, the distinguished Wall
Street law firm of which several partners had invested in the Stewart Sugar Company, to
head the new enterprise.4
Rionda was able to deliver for Sullivan & Cromwell. He carried the company
through its difficult initial phase of organization and its first harvest. His success became
the foundation of a lengthy and useful relationship with the renowned law firm-a
relationship characterized by subsequent business dealings.42 Rionda was building upon
41 Van Ness, "Guide"; McAvoy-Weissman, Chp. 15, p. 18.
42 Van Ness. "Guide."
the world-wide sugar network he had entered as a young man to ensure both his own
success and that of those for whom he worked. Success depended on expansion, and
expansion depended on capital. With practically no capital resources in Cuba, foreign
capital from North America poured into the island, attracted by the possibilities of
Rionda was not alone in Cuba; competition followed him closely. In 1899, within
months after the founding of the Francisco Sugar Company, the Boston Fruit Company
erected Central Boston, and Robert Hawley, Texas congressman and businessman,
incorporated the Chaparra Sugar Company after having acquired the Chaparra sugar
estate.4 Rionda pressed ahead in his endeavors. An important episode unfolded when
Caesar Czarnikow, the founding and senior partner of C. Czarikow, Ltd., passed away in
April 1909. Upon receiving the news of his employer's death, Rionda sailed to London
to meet with the remaining partners of the firm.45
Czarnikow was survived in the company by his four partners, Charles Lagemann,
Julius Charles Ganzoni, Hubert Nieburg, and Theodore Westrik. The five of them
together illustrated the international character of the sugar business, whose world-wide
network crossed nearly all borders, whether political, geographical, or cultural. In 1891,
Lagemann, a German, and Ganzoni, the son of a Swiss banker, joined Czarnikow,
43 Le Riverend, Chp. XXXI. Le Riverend discusses the financial crisis in Cuba resulting from the Ten
Years' War and the island's further debilitation during the War for Independence. The war, combined with
the lack of a modern banking system in Cuba during the colonial era, made native sources of capital virtually
non-existent. Although foreign investment in Cuba was not new prior to independence, it would become the
dominant form of capital in the new republic. Le Riverend estimates that in 1899, U.S. investments totaled
44 McAvoy-Weissman, Chp. 3.
45 Ibid., Chp. 5.
himself a Polish Jew and son of the Court Agent to the Prince of Schwartzburg.46 A
decade later, in 1901, Nieburg, also from Germany, and Westrik, a Belgian, became
partners in the firm.47 The four of them were now left to carry on the entire business
which meant dealing with each of its affiliates, including Czamikow, MacDougall & Co.
of New York, of which Rionda was now the chief representative.
At the time of Czamikow's death, George MacDougall, back in the United States,
was retiring from his New York company, leaving Rionda free to do as he thought best.
Rionda did not know what to expect from the four remaining partners of C. Czarnikow,
Ltd., since in all his previous trips to London, he had dealt almost exclusively with
Czarnikow. Nevertheless, he knew for sure what he needed-what he thought best.48 He
needed and desired that business continue with as much capital as possible.49
To Rionda's satisfaction, a new company was formed, the Czamikow-Rionda
Company. It was a private company formed by a contract between five men as
individuals, not as an agreement between C. Czarnikow, Ltd. and Rionda. The four
Londoners would hold $300,000 in common stock to be divided in the following manner:
$90,000 each by Lagemann and Ganzoni, and $60,000 each by Nieburg and Westrik.
Rionda would hold $200,000.50 Manuel Rionda was now President of the Czarnikow-
46 McAvoy-Weissman, Chp. 2.
47 Ibid., Chp. 5.
4 BBC, Series 10, Box 5, Folder title: European Mail, C. Czarnikow, Ltd., 1911-1914, Manuel Rionda to
Lagemann, September 7, 1912.
50 BBC, Series 10, Box 5, Folder title: European Mail, C. Czarnikow, Ltd., 1911-1914, Lagemann to
MacDougall, July 30, 1912, and Manuel Rionda to Lagemann, September 7, 1912.
Rionda Company in addition to Director of Czarikow, MacDougall & Company, Ltd. of
London and New York, and Director of the Washington Sugar Company.51 Although C.
Czarnikow, Ltd. retained financial control of the new company, Rionda now had more
leeway to go about business, and as time passed, further negotiations would reduce
British participation in Czarnikow-Rionda.52
The founding of Czamikow-Rionda was not the only change within the Rionda
sugar realm that Placido Alonso and Central San Vicente had or would experience. In
1907, the same year that Alonso was asked to manage San Vicente, Rionda had replaced
Czamikow-MacDougall's Export Department with the Cuban Trading Company.53
Incorporated in Havana in July, it was headed by Victor Zevallos and essentially became
Rionda's head office in Cuba. From there, the entire operation on the island was
For Alonso, this meant that the mill he managed, San Vicente, belonged to its
holding company, the Cuban Commercial and Industrial Company, which was
headquartered in Rionda's office in New York. Rionda and various members of his
1 BBC, Series 10, Box 5, Folder title: European Mail, C. Czarnikow, Ltd., 1915-1916, Document 1909 C.
No. 3200 from the High Court of Chancery Division. This document states that Czarnikow-MacDougall
was being liquidated.
52 C. Czarnikow, Ltd. accommodated Rionda because he was absolutely essential to their sugar business.
He had basically built their operations in Cuba. See Van Ness, "Guide." Also, on Rionda's importance, see
Manuel Moreno Fraginals, "Plantations in the Caribbean: Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic in
the late Nineteenth Century," Between Slavery and Free Labor. 12. He writes, "merging with the New
York-based Cuban broker Manuel Rionda in 1909 as the Czarnikow-Rionda Company, within a few years it
[C. Czarnikow, Ltd.] had so dominated the market that it could act as sole broker for the Cuban crops of the
war years (1914-18) and for some 80 percent of both Puerto Rican and Dominican crops of the same
5 McAvoy-Weissman, Chp. 5.
family, including Alonso, were the primary stockholders in this company.54 The Cuban
Commercial and Industrial Co., in turn, was affiliated with Czamikow-Rionda, having
been previously affiliated with Czamikow-MacDougall until 1909. Czarnikow-Rionda
itself looked to C. Czamikow, Ltd. as its parent company. In addition, Alonso had to
consider the Cuban Trading Company, a subsidiary of Czamikow-Rionda, since often
times company orders came from there-from the "Havana Boys."s5
Manuel Rionda and Foreign Capital
The international sugar web was far from static. It was always changing, being
shaped by the men within the industry and taking its cues from the world sugar market
For Rionda, providing work and a livelihood for his many nephews, just as his Uncle
Joaquin had done for him, was a primary motivating factor.6 To do so, he needed to
keep abreast with the changes in the market, ensure he had the needed capital, and act
accordingly at propitious moments. One month prior to the founding of Czamikow-
Rionda, sugar market analysts of Willet & Gray stated in The Cuba Review that all
indications strongly suggested "a large increased consumption" of sugar in the United
States and elsewhere.57 Rionda's desire that the supply of capital continue unhindered
after Czamikow's death in 1909 was simply good business sense. Two years later, in
54 McAvoy-Weissman writes that essentially since the company's creation, the Riondas owned a majority of
the stock. For a list of company stockholders, see BBC, Series 10, Box 91, Folder title: Working Papers of
Manuel Rionda, List of Stockholders in San Vicente, September 23, 1932.
" Manuel Rionda often referred to Victor Zevallos and Higinio Fanjul, both of whom worked at the Cuban
Trading Company office in Havana, as the "Havana Boys." BBC.
56 McAvoy-Weissman, Chp. 8, p. 15.
7 The Cuba Review, March 1909, 30.
June 1911, Rionda wrote in a letter, "there is great demand now for sugar plantations in
Cuba."8 A sharp rise in the price of sugar on the New York market during the middle of
1911 had caused this demand.59 Responding to this increase, Rionda turned his attention
to easternmost Cuba to erect his next central.6
Until the summer of 1911, Rionda had purposely avoided expanding business
operations to that part of the island. He had referred to the area as "the wilds of Cuba,"
as recently as that spring, and had stated that he had no intentions of expanding business
that far eastward. C. Czarnikow Ltd., however, had advocated extending operations in
that direction to take advantage of "virgin soil and cheap labor."61 Rionda, nonetheless,
objected. Although he disagreed on the profitability of going east, by 1911, he
recognized that western lands were being depleted.
In a letter to lawyer and business partner Alfred Jaretski, of Sullivan & Cromwell,
Rionda expressed his preoccupation with the poor yields of his properties west of
Oriente, Cuba's easternmost province. He made his concern known that money was
being wasted and that land was being used at a faster rate than necessary to grow more
'ane to produce the same amount of sugar.62 "If present capacity ... is increased and the
" BBC, Series 2, vol. 28, Manuel Rionda to Walter E. Ogilvie, June 19, 1911.
59 In 1911, prices for 96* centrifugal sugar, duty paid in New York, rose from 3.860 cents per pound in May
to 3.928 in June, to 4.372 in July, and to 5.009 in August. See Ellis, 105.
6 Mark J. Smith, Nature and Profit: A Cubsn Suar Plantation in the Early Twentieth Century these U of
Florida, 1993, 43. Smith claims, "The strengthening of an already robust sugar market apparently convinced
Rionda to reconsider his position on an eastern plantation."
61 BBC, Series 5, Box 2, Folder title: December 1910 March 1911. London to NYC, C. Czarnikow to
Czarikow-Rionda, February 25, 1911.
62 BBC, Series 2, vol. 30, Manuel Rionda to Alfred Jaretski, March 27, 1912.
same methods are pursued, it naturally follows that the depletion of our lands will
follow," Rionda wrote.63 He added that it was perhaps time to begin an operation in
Oriente "before lands became scarce in the district and, consequently higher [in price]."64
Encouraged by the auspicious changes in the market for Cuban sugar and by the
availability of virgin soil in the east, Rionda decided that a central in Oriente would
prove profitable. As a result, Central Manati was erected on the Bay of Manati in Cuba's
easternmost province. It was incorporated in the United States as the Manati Sugar
Company on April 30, 1912.65 This mill serves as a prime example of Manuel Moreno
Fraginals's description of the process of technological innovation within the Cuban sugar
industry that began in the latter part of the 1800s and continued into the twentieth
The installing of this new machinery required an
extremely large economic investment and the
scrapping of the existing production line and even of
most of the buildings constructed under the previous
system. Consequently, the new enterprise cannot be
considered an old mill that had been modernized (as
was the case with the introduction of the first steam
engines into the sugar mills); rather, the old sugar
mill was demolished, and in its place-or
elsewhere-new buildings were erected to house the
new machinery .... The only holdovers of the old
sugar mill complex were, in general, certain
structures for social use,...."
65 McAvoy-Weissman, Chp. 6, p. 9.
66 Moreno Fraginals, "Plantations in the Caribbean," 4.
In contrast to Central Manati, San Vicente, like the other centrales of Matanzas,
represented the case of establishing a modern central on the site of an old ingenio.67 In
the same year that Manati was erected, to the credit of the 1903 Reciprocity Treaty,
"Cuban sugar had driven out all European, West Indian or other unfavoured sugar from
the U.S. market."6" Rionda had good reason to be optimistic in the spring of 1912.
Manati was begun, and in the U.S., domestic costs for sugar production were much
greater than the costs in Cuba. Therefore, Rionda reasoned that higher cost producers in
the United States would inevitably go out of business.69 To Rionda, this signaled that
Cuba would have an even larger market to the north and, hence, could confidently go on
If for Rionda ensuring his family's prosperity was a driving force in doing
business, for the large investors whom he attracted to Cuba in what would be his largest
endeavor, the impetus to put forth the capital was the expectation that WWI would raise
sugar prices, generating large profits.71 By the start of the war, San Vicente was one of
five plantations that belonged directly to the Riondas. Their other four properties were
67 Marrero, Georafia de Cuba. 3" ed., 210. Writing in 1957, Marrero states, "The present centrales of the
province of Matanzas are old ingenios rebuilt and modernized,.. ." Translated by B. Fraga. In 1946,
Marrero reported that the province's 24 mills were founded between 1805 and 1902. Not one had been
erected after 1902. See Geoafia de Cuba 2" ed., 414.
4 Thomas, 536.
69 McAvoy-Weissman, Chp. 6, p. 15.
70 Ibid.. On the topic of the Reciprocity Treaty of 1903 and the price of Cuban sugar, see Thomas, 536-537.
He discusses that in the long run the treaty did not prove beneficial to Cuban producers, since the price paid
for Cuban sugar in New York essentially became the world price with the Cuban duty added to it.
Combined with over-production in Cuba, this resulted in relatively low prices in 1913-1914.
71 Carl Van Ness, conversation, University of Florida, September 9, 1997.
Tuinucu, Francisco, Washington, and Manati. In 1915, the five would become six with
the construction of Central Elia, also in Camaguey, adjacent to Francisco (fig 2-3).72
FIG. 2-3 THE RIONDA PLANTATIONS
Map: Nufiez Jimenez, 2.
The family properties were later joined by several other estates as part of the
entire sugar enterprise in which Rionda played a significant role. The new business
venture was the Cuba Cane Sugar Corporation (CCSC), which Rionda incorporated on
December 31, 1915. At the time, it was the largest U.S. investment scheme in Cuban
2 The Rionda family owned the majority of the shares in each of these estates. See BBC, Series 2, vol. 34,
Manuel Rionda to Placido Alonso, April 1, 1914; BBC, Series 10, Box 91, Folder title: Working Papers of
Manuel Rionda, List of Stockholders in San Vicente, September 23, 1932. Also see McAvoy-Weissman,
Chp. 15, p. 25 and Chp. 16, p. 18. On a related topic, McAvoy-Weissman reports that Francisco, Tuinucu,
and San Vicente "contributed nearly $100,000 in yearly profits to Czarnikow-Rionda in commissions." See
Chp. 8, p. 15. Her original source is BBC, Series 4, Manuel Rionda to Lagemann, May 17, 1915.
sugar.3 It was definitely his most ambitious undertaking, surpassing Manati.74
Financially supported by the Morgan trust, the new corporation brought together the
resources of several prominent and wealthy individuals and businesses. They represented
investors whom Rionda had courted for some time and with whom he had spent several
years building commercial alliances. Three years prior to the founding of Cuba Cane, he
successfully combined Cuban investors with American capital in the Manati Sugar
Company. The foreigners included Sullivan & Cromwell, the financial house of J. & W.
Seligman, Edmund Converse, head of the Bankers Trust who also held a position on the
Executive Committee of U.S. Steel, Monsieur Hartjes of Morgan, Hartjes & Co. of Paris,
and Captain DeLamar, the largest stockholder in the International Nickel Company.
These men would reappear in the CCSC, essentially forming a syndicate.7
The new corporation invested $50,000,000 in the purchase of Cuban sugar mills.
The amount was nearly three times the capital of the Cuban-American Sugar Company,
at the time the largest U.S. company in the Cuban sugar industry. The investment money
was raised by selling securities for the amount on the stock market, 500,000 shares of 7%
cumulative preferred stock. On Wall Street, J. P. Morgan & Co. played a crucial role in
the entire organization as the share underwriters along with J. & W. Seligman as
syndicate manager. Meanwhile, in Cuba, Czarnikow-Rionda and its close associates
managed and directed the corporation's activities. The new giant was created on
3 McAvoy-Weissman, Chp. 9; Jenks, 179.
74 Van Ness, "Guide."
75 McAvoy-Weissman, Chp. 6; Van Ness, "Guide"; Jenks, 179-180.
December 31, 1915, and the day after, Rionda left for Havana to oversee the final
decisions on purchases and to begin operation of the CCSC.76
All in all, Cuba Cane bought eighteen sugar mills, acquiring them in one month.77
The purchases, totaling $45,270,000, comprised not only the sugar mills and canefields
but also "machine shops, stores, workmen's houses, offices, residences for the managers,
cane carts, oxen and about 369 miles of railway, together with 83 locomotives and 2,234
cane cars" along with all the sugar being harvested.78 In Cuba, the Cuba Trading
Company functioned as the corporation's purchasing agent, and Czamikow-Rionda
handled all the sugar from the newly acquired mills.79
The last sale closed on February 11, 1916, and about a month later, on March 15,
the last share of common stock of the CCSC was sold. That day, the Wall Street Journal
No new industry was ever introduced into Wall
Street with as solid an investment foundation under it
as that which entered last year under the name of the
Cuba Cane Sugar Corporation.
Never before in an industrial flotation were the
leading technical talent and the leading investment
talent combined upon the buying side. . The
financial men who went into this enterprise under the
leadership of Manuel Rionda were not promoters
underwriting an enterprise upon prospects for
disposing of the same investors on a rising market.
They were the absolute buyers of the properties and
put in their $50,000,000 in cold cash, of which
76 McAvoy-Weissman, Cp. 6; Jenks, 180.
77 The Cuba Cane Sugar Corporation later sold one of the eighteen mills that it initially had not intended to
purchase but had bought as part of a sale's agreement. Carl Van Ness, conversation, University of Florida,
September 9, 1997.
78 McAvoy-Weissman, Chp. 9, p. 14.
79 Jenks, 180; McAvoy-Weissman, Chp. 9.
$7,000,000 was for working capital and $43,000,000
was for the purchase of going plantations. .. .s0
The Wall Street Journal's admiration of Cuban Cane reflected the fact that giant
operations were not the norm in Cuba. In 1915, a total of 183 centrales were operating
on the island. Of these, only eight had the capacity to produce at least 300,000 bags of
sugar. The remaining 175 centrales accounted for 73% of Cuba's total sugar output, and
of these, only eleven had the capability to produce at least 200,000 bags.8' The Cuban
sugar industry still belonged to individually owned mills, not to foreign corporations.82
Yet this was changing, as Cuba Cane demonstrated in buying essentially Cuban owned
and Cuban managed estates.83
Central San Vicente was one component in Manuel Rionda's extensive empire
He essentially functioned as the mill's link to brokerage firms in New York and London,
to foreign refineries, and to the governments of Cuba and the United States. Within this
setting, San Vicente experienced two of the most consequential events in the history of
the Cuban sugar industry during the first half of the twentieth century: World War I and
the Great Depression. For Cuba, the era of economic hardship that was experienced
worldwide after 1929 actually began earlier in the decade. The war and the economic
crises of the 1920s and 1930s affected Cuba in markedly different manners. The first
event brought a time of economic prosperity, while the latter signaled an era of limited
resources and economic contraction. Each, however, impacted the sugar industry
" The Wall Street Journal March 15, 1916.
8' Figures taken from McAvoy-Weissman, Chp. 9.
8 For figures on sugar mills in Cuba based on the nationality of owners in 1915, see Schroeder, 258.
83 Jenks, 180.
through the changes it caused in the world price of sugar and thus also affected the
relationship between mill and cane farmer. Central San Vicente illustrates several of the
nuances contained in Cuban history as pertains to central-colono relations during the first
half of the twentieth century.
CENTRAL SAN VICENTE DURING WORLD WAR I
On the day Germany declared war on Russia, the correspondent in Cuba for The
Louisiana Planter reported, "In Havana there is ample evidence that warlike preparations
are going on in Europe as the harbor is full of fighting ships of half a dozen nationalities,
these vessels having come here within the past few days for coal and for orders from their
respective governments."' It was quite fitting that, in Havana, the day which marked the
start of the war that ushered in a sugar boom for Cuba was characterized by bustling port
activity. The ships came to Cuba primarily for sugar. While European customers
canceled their contracts for tobacco products, causing some factories on the island to
curtail output and others to close, the prospects for the sugar industry were promising.2
Higher prices were anticipated. Although World War I disrupted the transatlantic flow of
capitall and the shipment of goods, the war also produced an increase in the demand for
Cuban sugar and a subsequent increase in its price.
On Central San Vicente, the war years were a period of expansion and
procurement, with the ever present, but now more vital, purpose of obtaining cane. With
' "News Letter From Our Havana Office," The Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer. August 8, 1914,
2 The Louisiana Planter reports that five to six thousand workmen from tobacco factories were laid off on
August 1, 1914, as a result of factory closures. See "News Letter From Our Havana Office," August 8,
the demand and price for Cuban sugar on the rise, no central wanted to forego the
opportunity of producing and selling large quantities of sugar. The favorable market
condition represented a chance at maximizing profits. To ensure the utmost gain, the
mill required access to even greater amounts of cane from colonos. As manager of San
Vicente during World War I, Placido Alonso would experience the impact of the war on
the estate, and he-himself- would play a role in the changes that took place there.
Before World War I
Alonso arrived at the plantation from Havana in 1907. He was optimistic about
the estate, describing its location as a good area that should be exploited, and he set out
to accomplish his tasks as mill manager.3 His new position within the vast Rionda sugar
empire required him to closely follow the instructions of Tio Manuel, as the sugar
magnate was affectionately known. Among his other duties, Alonso had to inform
Rionda on the mill's condition and progress through daily correspondence. Thus, the
manager kept track of his own work and the every day activities of the central over the
course of eleven years.
Alonso's work began with his first instructions-to prepare the mill for operation,
begin negotiations with the colonos, and extend the mill's railroad lines. The year before
Alonso's arrival, San Vicente had contracts with seventy colonos and had obtained a total
of four million arrobas of cane.4 The manager needed to increase that amount for the
BBC, Series 14, vol. 2, Placido Alonso to Pedro Alonso, August 18, 1907.
4 BBC, Series 14, vol. 2, Placido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, November 14, 1907.
upcoming harvest if he was going to make the mill a success. He began meeting with
colonos at the same time that he began dismantling the old machinery. Alonso described
the farmers he met as being "algofuertes," or "somewhat strong," based on the amount
of cane they claimed to have. Nevertheless, the manager felt he would have no problems
in obtaining letters of contract from them stipulating a price of 6 to 63% arrobas for every
one 100 arrobas of cane.5 The rate would vary depending on the specific terms of each
contract negotiated with each colono. For instance, the manager paid Juan Domingo
Larrea, a colono of the mill, more for his cane than the other farmers of the central
because it did not have to provide him with machinery.6
Larrea was able to obtain a better price essentially because he was less dependent
on the mill than his peers. In the case of San Vicente, Larrea's example illustrates one
aspect of the deals worked out between the central and the colono. Each employed the
negotiating tools he had to his advantage. For the colono, it was the quality and amount
of his cane; the farming resources he had; the size of his colonia; and his relative wealth.
For the central, it was, obvious and foremost, the mill, which turned the cane into profit;
its capital resources; and success in business. A successful mill that sold all its sugar at a
good price and was able to purchase new machinery and implement its use effectively
was more attractive torcolonos, since their livelihood depended on the sale of their cane.
In general, the more sugar a central could sell, the more cane it purchased. In turn, the
greater amount of cane it bought, the better the colono fared. Furthermore, Larrea's
example illustrates the complexity of classifying cane farmers. He grew cane on land
5 BBC, Series 14, vol. 2, Placido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, June 28, 1907.
6 BBC, Series 14, vol. 2, Placido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, November 14, 1907.
that he rented from San Vicente. Thus, he was a colono of the central-and was listed as
such in mill records. Therefore, according to the widely accepted claim that is made
about farmers of the mill, he should not have been able to negotiate a higher price for his
cane. Nevertheless, he did.
Competition Among Mills
For Placido Alonso, working in the cane heartland of Cuba, his dealings with
colonos were also a function of the plentiful number of centrales in the area and the
relatively large number of independent colonos. Cane farmers used the competitive
environment to their advantage as best they could to obtain higher cane prices. They
knew that they had some degree of control, or bargaining power, as the producers of a
product that was in much demand.
During the first month of his first grinding at San Vicente, Alonso quickly
discovered the meaning of being in a competitive environment. Colonos could not be
counted on, and he must "tie them down," he claimed to Rionda.7 Some with whom he
iad made agreements had decided-even at the moment that grinding was underway-to
take their cane elsewhere. A better price was awaiting them at another central.
Better prices were also awaiting colonos for the next harvest. Within two months
of complaining about their unreliability, Alonso had to start negotiating anew with the
cane farmers. He noted that there was much competition among the sugar mills and thus
could not even consider offering less than 6 arrobas, as Tio Manuel desired. Three other
7 BBC, Series 14, vol. 2, Placido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, February 2, 1908. Translated by B. Fraga
mills in the area, including Nueva Luisa, San Vicente's primary rival, were offering
colonos from 634 arrobas to 7 arrobas. Alonso would rely on his established business
relationships and negotiate contracts quickly so that the colonos and their cane would not
go elsewhere. To do this, it was imperative that he have money readily available so that
he could offer cash advances to the cane farmers. Alonso requested between $15,000
and $20,000 from Rionda, claiming that this amount, properly distributed at the right
time, would secure much cane for San Vicente. "At the right time" meant when the
colonos were without cane-that is, with nothing to sell-and, thereby, in a relatively
difficult financial situation.9
Alonso realized that with the central's capital resources, which in general were
superior to those of any colono, agreements with cane farmers were best arranged when
they were low on money. Therefore, he had to wait until they were no longer in a
positive financial situation, but instead were needy for cash, to lock in the good deals.'0
Alonso considered "locking the colono in," or "trancarlo," along with "amarrar," "tying
up," as part of the special politics of dealing with colonos." For their part, the colonos
often employed a wait-and-see approach when negotiating with the mill, observing and
judging their neighbor's outcome from an agreement made with the central.'2 These
particular maneuvers that characterized the cane buying business also included the
8 BBC, Series 14, vol. 2, Plicido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, April 16, 1908.
9 Ibid., May 1, 1908.
10 Ibid., July 12, 1910.
" Ibid., May 12, 1908 and May 1, 1910. Translated by B. Fraga
1 Ibid., July 28, 1907.
colonos'cane reports, in which Alonso believed cane farmers exaggerated the amount of
cane they actually had in order to work out a better deal.13
In some instances, the colonos played centrales against one another, knowing that
each mill kept a close watch on the other. The Riondas' purchase of San Vicente
worried many of the other centrales in the area, fearing that with the new capital that
Rionda represented, San Vicente would expand and drive the other mills out of the
industry. Rionda instructed Alonso to spread the word that they did "not want to become
a colossus."'4 Rionda hoped that this would placate the centrales' fears of one another.
San Vicente's rivals did in fact have reason to worry, as Rionda had also expressed to his
manager the desire that their mill have all the cane in the district." Naturally, Rionda
and Alonso did not inform their rivals of their plans. Instead, the colonos did. They
informed rival mills on the business deals that their corrivals were offering and
In seeking the greatest amount of cane, San Vicente needed to attract the big
colonos of the area. Again, Central Nueva Luisa was San Vicente's primary rival. That
central was offering the highest prices for cane and, in so doing, was attracting many
farmers. If before Alonso could not even consider offering less than 6 arrobas, in the
summer of 1908, he had no choice but to pay 61V arrobas, especially to those colonos
'3 BBC, Series 14, vol. 2, Plkcido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, January 7, 1908.
14 BBC, Series 2, vol. 23, Manuel Rionda to Ptacido Alonso, July 29, 1908. Translated by B. Fraga
'5 San Vicente's competition was in the form of five centrales: Nueva Luisa, Cuba, Union, Progreso, and
16 BBC, Series 2, vol. 23, Manuel Rionda to Placido Alonso, July 29, 1908.
who were declining offers from San Vicente to take advantage of contracts with Nueva
Nueva Luisa was frustrating San Vicente's efforts to make contracts with the
main cane growers of the area, and Rionda was made aware of this situation. He
instructed Alonso to bid higher for the cane belonging to a colono by the last name of
Vergara, who would remain one the most sought after colonos in the area for several
years.18 Other independent cane farmers, besides Vergara, also had much leverage in
their negotiations with mills in the area. Alonso had to accept a contract with Pedro
Arenal on the latter's terms, claiming that he had no choice "but to accept the conditions
of he [Arenal] who can impose them, or be left without those canes, as would have been
the case had the contract not been made."19
San Vicente was not alone in its competition with Nueva Luisa. A mutual
distrust, or perception of a business threat, existed between Central Aire and Nueva
Luisa.20 If San Vicente was worried about losing colonos to its primary rival, Aire was in
particular danger of being crowded out from the industry as a result of Nueva Luisa's
efforts in obtaining cane.21 Rionda felt that Alonso had to prevent this from happening.
He reasoned that in the long run it was better for the colonos and for San Vicente that all
mills remain. If Nueva Luisa succeeded in locking a sizable number of colonos in
'7 BBC, Series 2, vol. 23, Manuel Rionda to Placido Alonso, Jul 4, 1908.
'1 BBC, Series 2, vol. 23, Manuel Rionda to Placido Alonso, August 4, 1908.
19 BBC, Series 14, vol. 2, Placido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, October 11, 1908. Translated by B. Fraga
20 BBC, Series 2, vol. 23, Manuel Rionda to Plicido Alonso, July 29, 1908.
21 Ibid., August 4, 1908.
contracts, thus forcing Aire out of the industry, Nueva Luisa would be able to push cane
prices down.22 Although lower prices benefited San Vicente, they were no good if it did
not have access to the crop, which would be the case if Nueva Luisa succeeded in having
a virtual monopoly on the cane of the district.
Rionda instructed Alonso to persuade the colonos not to sell to Nueva Luisa and
to explain to them that it was not in their best interest to do so because they would then
be tied to that central. Basically, they would be at the mercy of Nueva Luisa if they sold
their product almost exclusively to that central. Rionda also told Alonso to spread the
word that Aire's production capacity was not that high-essentially that it was not a
threat. In the end, according to Rionda, if any central should be viewed as a threat, it
should be Nueva Luisa. He suggested that Alonso make Nueva Luisa out to be the
common enemy of San Vicente and the colonos.3
Central San Vicente was also worried about Nueva Luisa's plan to build a
railroad line in its direction to access more cane. If built, the proposed rail line would cut
off San Vicente from the majority of its cane.24 Alonso attempted to block Nueva Luisa
in its project on two fronts: in Cuba and in London. As expected, he wrote Rionda to
inform him of the "trouble" that Nueva Luisa was causing. In addition, he wrote a
formal letter to the Cuban Commercial and Industrial Company, San Vicente's holding
company headquartered in Rionda's office building in New York. He petitioned them to
request that C. Czarikow, Ltd., in London, take action to thwart Nueva Luisa's plan. In
22 BBC, Series 2, vol. 23, Manuel Rionda to Placido Alonso, August 4, 1908.
23 BBC, Series 2, vol. 23, Manuel Rionda to Placido Alonso, August 4, 1908.
24 BBC, Series 14, vol. 2.Plicido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, July 14, 1908.
Cuba, he negotiated with Lorenzo de Ibarra, an independent colono, to persuade him not
to allow the proposed rail line to pass through his property. Nueva Luisa's rail project
benefited Ibarra in two ways. On the one hand, if it were constructed, his property would
appreciate in value, and on the other hand, it gave him greater leverage in negotiating
with San Vicente.'2 Ibarra made use of this opportunity and submitted a proposition to
Of the two general types of cane farmers, independent colonos were in a position
to move freely within the colonato and thus were able to take advantage of the
competition among mills. Nevertheless, colonos who did not own their land outright also
benefited, although to a lesser extent. Within this group, arrendatarios (renters) also
enjoyed relatively unhindered movement. The term arrendatario usually referred to the
farmer who paid his rent in cash and was not confined to selling his cane exclusively to
one central. As regards colonos de lafinca, more than once within a two year period,
Alonso paid them more than the price they had agreed to in the contract.27 Alonso
claimed that giving them a higher price had a positive effect on both the dependent and
independent colonos.2 In effect, it was a good public relations tactic and, therefore,
good for business. Rionda agreed and actually encouraged Alonso to ensure that the
2 BBC, Series 14, vol. 2.Placido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, July 10, 1908; Ibid., July 19, 1908; Ibid., July
23, 1908; BBC, Series 2, vol. 23, Placido Alonso to the Cuban Commercial and Industrial Co., July 1908,
26 BBC, Series 14, vol. 2, Placido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, October 6, 1908.
27 Ibid., June 29, 1910; Ibid., July 31, 1912. In 1910 and 1912, Alonso paid San Vicente's colonos del
central a of an arroba more for their cane. The base price in 1910, for their cane was 5 %, while in
1912, it was 6 V2.
28 BBC, Series 14, vol. 2, June 29, 1910.
colonos were content and satisfied." He advised his mill manager to go out into the
countryside and become more aquatinted with the land and with the colonos, highlighting
the importance of building a rapport with them and even becoming popular among
them.3" Competition among centrales necessitated this.
In their efforts to please colonos, Alonso and Rionda often made concessions to
them, waiving certain costs from time to time at the mill's expense. For example, in
signing a contract with Roberto Bannatyne, a colono de afuera, Alonso agreed that San
Vicente would pay the 5,000 in Spanish gold he owed to a warehouse in the port of
Matanzas. Alonso assured Rionda that he would keep a close watch on Bannatyne and
that he would have a lawyer in Havana look over the contract, claiming "the law always
protected those who were tied too tightly, setting them free in the end."31
In another instance, with two colonos del central, San Vicente paid the cost that
traditionally and according to the contract was borne by the cane farmer. In his response
to Alonso's complaint on the matter, Rionda wrote, "I would not, for the sake of a few
thousand dollars, have them grumbling and going on about how we treat them
29 BBC, Series 2, vol. 34, Manuel Rionda to Placido Alonso, November 28, 1913. Rionda reveals his
concern on several occasions that San Vicente maintain good relations with colonos.
30 BBC, Series 2, vol. 22, Manuel Rionda to Placido Alonso, April 10, 1908.
31 In justifying the contract, Alonso claimed that Bannatyne was a hard worker who was planting new fields
and needed some help, which San Vicente should offer thereby ensuring that he grew an abundant amount of
cane. See BBC, Series 1, Box 1, Folder title: Alonso, Plcido 1914-1915, Placido Alonso to Manuel
Rionda, June 22, 1914. Translated by B. Fraga. In reference to Spanish gold, the use of the term "oro
espaiof' is found throughout the archive. On Spanish gold, see Wallich and Thomas Lismore, Las Monedas
de Cuba (1860-1953) (La Habana: Editorial LEX, 1955). In their respective works, Wallich and Lismore do
not specifically mention Spanish gold among the three different types of currencies circulating in Cuba prior
to 1914. Both, however, report that various Spanish and French silver coins were used. In a list of values
for the different currencies in 1914, Lismore includes "Spanish twenty-five peseta gold pieces" as one of the
currencies. It was equivalent to 5.34 Spanish silver dollars then. See Las Monedas de Cuba. 63.
unfairly."32 Both Alonso and Rionda sought other ways in which to also gain the
cooperation of colonos, such as acquiring more land with the idea of giving it to colonos
they knew well in order to both satisfy them and have more cane for San Vicente.33
Competition among mills for cane characterized the relationship between mill
and farmer in Matanzas before World War I and would continue to do so throughout the
war. This feature was associated with landownership. Rivalry for land had preceded and
led to the rivalry for cane. As such, land tenure represented another dimension in colono-
Despite the seeming inability to obtain cane at prices he desired due to
competition, Alonso was successful in developing Central San Vicente as a prosperous
mill. San Vicente increased its sugar production by 37% between its first and fourth
harvests.34 This expansion in output was a result of its improved grinding efficiency and
ability to access more cane. Within his first year as manager, Alonso increased the
number of colonos who supplied cane to San Vicente from seventy to over a hundred.35
Thus, as one might expect, the quantity of cane ground by the central also increased.36 In
32 BBC, Series 2, vol. 33,Manuel Rionda to Placido Alonso, November 14, 1913. The two colonos in
question are Juan Larrea and Manuel Rubio.
33 BBC, Series 14, vol. 3, Plicido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, September 21, 1911.
34 BBC, Series 14, vol. 3, Placido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, May 1, 1910.
35 Ibid., November 14, 1907.
6 Ibid., May 1, 1910.
securing additional cane, the central inevitably entered into a complex web of relations
with colonos characterized by a convoluted landholding situation.
San Vicente was not unique in this regard. By the early twentieth century, land
tenure had become an intricate matter throughout the western provinces of Cuba.37 The
reasons, however, are rooted in the previous century. As before discussed, the presence
of many individual landholdings with their mill, or ingenio, characterized this region
prior to the Ten Years' War. The centrales and colonies of the early twentieth century
emerged from these ingenios as a result of the reorganization of the sugar industry
following the conflict.
The greater concentration of both centrales and independent colonos in the west
as compared to the east, gave rise to the complicated nature of land tenure that San
Vicente experienced.3 Initially, centrales were limited in size by the ox cart, then, after
the advent of cheaper rails, by a neighboring central or colonia. Consequently, as
centrales began to expand in size, they came into competition with one another for cane
land. Once this resource became scarce, rivalry among the sugar mills centered on
obtaining cane from the colonos. Because of this competition, some farmers-those with
greater resources-were able to profit considerably, and they too acquired land.
According to Laird Bergad, in about 1890, in Matanzas, "more than 60 percent of
all colonos worked tracts of land less than five caballerias in extension, but controlled a
mere 8.9 percent of the 14,004 caballerias in the hands of colonos." On the contrary,
7.9% of the cane farmers owned over forty caballerias, which "accounted for 52.7
37 Lauriault, 366.
percent of all colono land".39 Although Bergad is unclear on whether or not he is
discussing only landowning colonos, it is obvious from his report that within the
classification of colonos, there existed much disparity by the end of the nineteenth
century. The diversity among cane farmers continued into the twentieth century, so that
when Placido Alonso began negotiating with colonos as mill manager the dissimilarities
in their respective circumstances became apparent in the terms of agreement.
Under Alonso's management, San Vicente obtained its cane from different
arrangements with colonos. Some of the farmers were strictly either independent colonos
or dependent colonos, while others had both their own properties and rented additional
land from San Vicente, and still others farmed land that San Vicente, itself, rented. In
some instances, the land the central leased actually belonged to colonos. Furthermore,
some colonos rented property to fellow cane farmers.40 The First World War and the
drive it spurred to obtain more cane land and extend rail lines accentuated the existing
complexity of land tenure in western Cuba. Before the war, during Alonso's first years at
the mill, Central San Vicente owned approximately 101 caballerias of land. Of these, 65
caballerias belonged to San Vicente proper. The remaining amount was listed as part of
the finca Gratitud. In addition, the mill controlled 59 caballerias in the form of the
fincas Sandoval and Toscano. 4
39 Laird Bergad. Cuban Rural Society in the 19 Century: The Social and Economic History of
Monoculture in Matanzas (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990), 278.
40 Records from Series 14 and 10 of the BBC reveal that this was the case.
41 Information taken from BBC, Series 14, vol. 4.
The case of Gratitud specifically illustrates the intricate nature and relative
fluidity that characterized land tenure in Matanzas. Measuring thirty-six caballerias,
Gratitud belonged directly to San Vicente prior to World War I. By 1915, however, after
a sequence of negotiations, San Vicente lost ownership of the finca and became its
tenant. During the summer of 1911, as sugar prices rose on the New York stock market,
Alonso was busy in planning the extension of the mill's railroad lines. In order to access
a certain group of colonies, a new line would have to be laid, in which case the tracks
would have to pass through thefinca Rolando belonging to Jos6 Lezama and Juan Larrea.
The two had acquired that property by inheritance. Lezama was the owner of five
plantations in Matanzas, and Larrea was a colono who farmed land belonging to Sag
Vicente.2 In addition to Rolando, Lezama owned Carambola, a property he had bought
in 1910, for $35,000.43
At the time of purchase, Carambola was being leased to Alfredo Fernandez, the
owner of nearby Central Soledad.44 Fernmndez's lease would expire at the end of one
more year, and although he wanted to continue renting Carambola, Lezama actually
desired that San Vicente lease thefinca. Alonso claimed that the property was not worth
renting. He had made his opinion clear to Rionda previously when he wrote that
Carambola was overvalued at the price of $35,000.45 Nevertheless, for the sake of the
42 In her work, McAvoy-Weissman writes that Lezama owned four plantations in Matanzas. See Chp. 11, p.
12. Alonso makes reference to another mill that Lezama owned. See BBC, Series 14, vol. 6, Placido
Alonso to Manuel Rionda, June 19, 1917.
43 BBC, Series 14, vol. 4, Placido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, July 2, 1911 and October 1, 1910.
" Alonso wrote that Fernandez still had two years left in his contract when Lezama purchased Carambola in
the fall of 1910. See ibid., October 1, 1910.
45 BBC, Series 14, vol. 4, Placido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, October 1, 1910.
proposed rail line, leasing Carambola would probably be worthwhile. Alonso felt he
could work a deal with Lezama that would be to San Vicente's advantage, yet that which
actually transpired was an arrangement in Lezama's favor.46
Lezama and Larrea negotiated jointly as co-inheritors with San Vicente. In his
letter to Rionda on the their proposition, Alonso initially rejected it. Yet, he made it
clear that he did not care to "fight" the two on the matter and that he would carry out the
decision that Rionda gave.47 In the contract between the two parties, the mill agreed to
lease Carambola from Lezama for the same amount that it agreed to rent him Gratitud,
which Larrea farmed by contract with San Vicente. Essentially, the two estates, San
Vicente and Rolando, tradedfincas, and for the sake of legality, wrote the exchange as a
property lease agreement. In addition, the contract stipulated that San Vicente had to pay
Lezama $1,000 annually for the passage of its railroad line through Rolando.48 Finally,
the central would have to also purchase Rolando's cane at seven arrobas-a high price
for cane. Nonetheless, since San Vicente desired to hold on to Gratitud, the central
actually ended up renting it back from Lezama through another deal.49 In later discussing
Rolando, Alonso would claim that Lezama purposely acquired that property with the
premeditated idea to do San Vicente the greatest harm possible.,5
6 BBC, Series 14, vol. 4, Placido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, July 2, 1911.
47 Ibid. Translated by B. Fraga
4 Contract found in BBC, Series 14, vol. 4, p. 40.
49 BBC, Series 14, vol. 5, Plicido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, October 14, 1915.
50 BBC, Series 14, vol. 5, Placido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, 14 October 1915. Later documents reveal that
Lorenzo Ibarra, a colono, was the proprietor of Gratitud and Aguas Nuevas during the 1920s. San Vicente
paid him for leasing the twofincas.
Despite the loss of direct ownership over Gratitud, San Vicente would own a total
of 125 caballerias by 1916-17. The mill had begun to acquire additional land after the
start of the war. The central itself continued to measure 65 caballerias. To the central's
domain, Alonso added the fincas Toscano, with its 32 caballerias, and Gay, measuring
28 caballerias. In addition, the mill rented 107 caballerias and was negotiating the
acquisition of another finca, Herrera, comprising 64 caballerias. The land San Vicente
now rented was in the form of four separate properties, or fincas, Gratitud, Aguas
Nuevas, Sandoval, and Panchita.51 As a result of the acquisitions made during the war,
San Vicente owned and controlled more land than before 1914.52
San Vicente obtained the majority of its cane from land that it owned and rented.
However, in the four-year period before the war, the percentage of cane supplied to the
mill from lands outside its control increased dramatically. In 1911, 18.71% of its cane
came from farmers other than colonos del central. That figure increased to 39.78% in
1913 and to 42.6% in 1914, just before the war. At the same time, San Vicente's
production capacity increased, which stimulated a rise in the mill's demand for cane.
Unable to obtain sufficient amounts of cane from lands it controlled, San Vicente relied
more and more on colonos de afuera. Some of these owned the lands they farmed, while
some rented their properties from other cane farmers or from a party other than the mill.
51 BBC, Series 14, vol. 5, Plicido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, Jun 18, 1916 and Jun 10, 1917.
52 According to the 1922 Annual Report, San Vicente owned 65 cabs. between 1911-12 1914-15, which
corresponds to the loss of Gratitud in 1911. That figure increased to 97 cabs. In 1915-16 and to 125 cabs.
In 1916-17. Original figures given in acres. See BBC, Series 10, Box 91, Folder title: Compafiia San
Vicente, working papers of Manuel Rionda.
San Vicente's increasing dependence on colonos de afuera for its cane testifies to the
competitive environment about which the mill manager constantly wrote in his reports.53
World War I: High Prices and Expansion
The direct impact of the war on the Cuban sugar industry was the increase in the
commodity's price. From this effect, stemmed almost all the other outcomes produced in
Cuba during the conflict. The higher price of sugar enriched both central owners and
colonos. "Colonos became almost as rich as mill owners," claims Hugh Thomas, adding,
"Many successfully cleared their debts to the mills-though as often running into greater
obligations through receiving advances to plant a larger crop next year.""5 The Cuban
sugar industry's income rose from $163,400,000 in 1914, to $347,100,000 in 1918. In
the five years previous to the war, the average had been $109,980,00-less than one third
of both the 1917 and 1918 figures.55
The higher price of sugar also enriched the Cuban state. Although the
government's expenditures had been increasing, the treasury accumulated $8,000,000 in
surplus during 1916-1917." In addition, the increased price and the promise of greater
profits lured new foreign capital investments, such as the Cuba Cane Sugar Corporation,
" Percentages calculated from figures given by Placido Alonso in his letterbooks, BBC, Series 14. As
regards administration farming, the only mention found in San Vicente's records pertains tofinca Herrera.
In his letter describing the property at the time of its acquisition by the Riondas, Alonso wrote that of the
one million arrobas of cane it had, between 400,000 to 450,000 arrobar were "por administracion." See
BBC, Series 14, vol. 5, Plicido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, May 25, 1917.
54 Thomas, 540.
" Figures taken from Schroeder, 259.
'6 Jenks, 184.
to the island, especially to the eastern portion. By 1918, Cuba Cane was the largest sugar
enterprise in the world.7 Although it did not establish any new centrales, the
corporation was involved in the reconstruction and upgrade of existing mills. Thirty-nine
mills had been rebuilt, newly erected, or were being installed throughout the island by
1918. In the first year of the war three new centrales were founded in eastern Cuba. A
year later, twelve new mills were added in that region. Between 1907 and 1919, a total
of twenty-one new mills were constructed in Oriente.58
At San Vicente, in the west, during approximately the same time period, over
$700,000 had been spent, and over a hundred caballerias had been cleared. Eighty
percent of its cane grew on land that was not in cultivation prior to 1906. The mill's
production capacity was increased to 125,000 bags and it had access to over 12,000,000
arrobas of cane.59 World War I brought no major changes to central-colono relations on
San Vicente. Competition for cane continued, and the intricate nature of land tenure
remained in intact. The war, however, intensified these factors distinctive to sugar
production in western Cuba.
On August 4, 1914, Rionda wrote to Regino Truffin, a business partner, that while
it was true that the war was increasing the price of sugar, it was also interrupting
financial operations. Nevertheless, if the war continued, it was only natural to expect
higher prices for the upcoming harvest.60 Rionda's primary worry regarding the sugar
57 Thomas, 538.
5 Ibid., 538-539.
'9 BBC, Series 2, vol. 38, Manuel Rionda to Walter Ogilvie, August 20, 1915.
60 BBC, Series 2, vol. 35, Manuel Rionda to Regino Truffin, August 4, 1914.
industry at the outbreak of the war was the question of financing the Cuban crop. To
Victor Zevallos in charge of the Cuban Trading Company in Havana, Rionda wrote, "I
am afraid if the European war should spread, it will result in the curtailment of credits."6
Cuba needed S30,000,000 from Europe to finance its upcoming harvest, and it seemed as
if the island would be left alone to cover that amount.62 Nevertheless, while preaching
caution to his "boys" in Cuba, Rionda also made plans and gave instructions to expand.
After all, prices were high, and as long as they refrained from reckless speculation, the
Riondas and their associates could do well in the current situation.63
Rionda instructed Zevallos to buy more rails for San Vicente if the central
required them. San Vicente did in fact require additional rails. The year the war started
the central built a railroad line northward to access cane that had previously been
arriving to the mill in ox carts. It was too expensive for colonos to cultivate in that area
without an efficient method to transport their cane. In 1915, the Riondas discovered that
San Vicente needed to extend its railroad to the town of Contreras to connect with the
main line belonging to United Railways in order to increase its output. Doing so, would
give the mill access to new lands that had begun cultivating cane.6 The mill expanded
61 BBC, Series 2, vol. 35, Manuel Rionda to Victor Zevallos, July 30, 1914.
62 BBC, Series 2, vol. 35, Manuel Rionda to Victor Zevallos, August 3, 1914.
63 On Rionda's business conservatism, see ibid., August 5, 1914. Credit did arrive from Europe to cover the
upcoming harvest the end of August 1914. See McAvoy-Weissman, Chp. 8, p. 4.
64 BBC, Series 2, vol. 38, Manuel Rionda to Walter Ogilvie, August 20, 1915.
its railroad lines from 6.21 miles in 1913-14 to 11.5 miles in 1914-15, 16.76 in 1916-17,
and 17.4 in 1917-18.65
The conflict was having a positive impact on San Vicente. The mill did
especially well during the harvest of 1914-15. During the war, it had attained its largest
profit ($319,176.36) and had produced its greatest quantity of bags (97,584) at the end of
the 1915 crop.66 Rionda praised Alonso for a job well done despite competition from
rival centrales Nueva Luisa and Olimpo.67 "Now everyone wonders at [its] success,"
remarked Tio Manuel about San Vicente to his nephew Jose Rionda.68 In spite of
Alonso's accomplishment, Rionda wanted him to continue expanding northward where
there was less competition, which during the war was also largely in the sale of land.69
Several properties were now being sought and offered for sale and rent. Alonso was kept
occupied with determining which ones to acquire.70
San Vicente decided to buy thefinca Gay, which it had been renting, after Alonso
became aware that a third party wished to purchase the property. Alonso felt that after
having invested in developing the property, they could not afford to lose it to someone
65 BBC, Series 10, Box 91, Folder title: Compaflia San Vicente, working papers of Manuel Rionda, Annual
Report for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1922.
67 BBC, Series 2, vol. 38, Manuel Rionda to Placido Alonso, August 20, 1915.
68 BBC, Series 2, vol. 38, Manuel Rionda to Jose Rionda, July 26, 1915.
69 BBC, Series 2, vol. 40, Manuel Rionda to Placido Alonso, May 29,1916.
70 Alonso, like Rionda's other nephews, was also engaged in the establishment of the Cuba Cane Sugar
Corporation. He was instructed to search for properties that the CCSC could also purchase. For his work,
he was rewarded with 75 shares in the new corporation. See BBC, Series 14, vol. 6, Plicido Alonso to
Manuel Rionda, July 6, 1916 and August 3, 1916.
else, especially now that Cuban sugar was in high demand.71 He turned down the
acquisition of San Juan de Peraza because he felt its price was too high.72 Whether or not
Alonso entered in negotiations for a property, he kept a close watch on the buying and
selling of properties in the area to determine the degree of competition they could
A high price did not keep San Vicente from acquiring thefinca Herrera. In 1917,
San Vicente decided to take an eight-year lease on Herrera for $35,000 with an annual
interest of seven percent. Six years before, however, Alonso had terminated negotiations
for that property because he felt its owners were asking too much in wanting between
$16,000 and $17,000 for the property. Measuring sixty-four caballerias, the property had
approximately one million arrobas of cane, of which between 400,000 and 450,000 were
farmed through administration. The rest was grown by "colonos pequefios" (lesser
colonos). The year before the contract was signed, San Vicente had obtained about
100,000 arrobas from this group of cane farmers. In the lease, the colonos on Herrera
were offered an eight-year contract for cane at a price of 6% arrobas under the same
conditions that applied to the colonos of San Vicente (colonos de lafinca).74 Before the
contract was signed, Alonso was aware that many of the lesser colonos were going to
71 BBC, Series 14, vol. 6, Placido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, July 27, 1916.
74 BBC, Series 14, vol. 5, Placido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, May 25, 1917.
take their cane elsewhere; however, he was certain that others would come attracted by
the prospects of doing business with San Vicente.75
To attract and keep colonos, Alonso and Rionda continued their efforts at
pleasing them. For instance, in advancing money to the colonos on Herrera for the dead
season, San Vicente did not charge them interest.76 The competitive environment within
the sugar industry in western Cuba continued throughout the conflict, and for the most
part, several independent cane farmers were able to use the situation to their benefit. The
experience of Central Washington, one of the two Rionda estates in the province of Las
Villas, also serves as an example illustrating colono success in negotiating higher prices
Rionda blamed the poor performance of Central Washington at the end of the
1914-15 harvest on the high price it paid colonos. A lesser reason was the poverty of the
soil, as his nephew Jose Rionda, administrator of the estate, claimed.78 For example,
Pedro Alvarez, described as an important colono of the area, was able to obtain a higher
price for his cane than the Riondas had desired. His colonial was important to the mill's
production. Referring to this specific case in a letter to Jos6, Tio Manuel expressed his
particular dislike for situations in which colonos were in an advantageous position vis-a-
75 BBC, Series 14, vol. 5, Placido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, June 10, 1917. The only mention of
administration cane in San Vicente's records is found in the case of Herrera.
76 BBC, Series 14, vol. 5, Placido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, May 25, 1917.
" Central Washington was located in the western part of Las Villas.
78 BBC, Series 2, vol. 38, Manuel Rionda to Jos6 Rionda, July 26, 1915.
vis the central.79 Yet, that was an inherent feature of the industry in the western sugar
In the summer of 1917, Alonso stated that all of San Vicente's cane farmers were
being treated well and was certain that they did not have any complaints. According to
him, they were helped with their needs in every way possible. The manager claimed that
no other mill in the area looked after its colonos as well as San Vicente, and for the most
part, the cane farmers were thankful." Rionda was pleased that Alonso attended to the
colonos, and stated that the only thing he expected from the upcoming harvest of 1917
was that they be satisfied.81
Labor Shortage and the Increase in Wages
The harvest of 1917 was Cuba's first harvest since declaring war on Germany.
Cuba did so on April 7, 1917, a day after the United States had announced it was entering
the conflict as an Allied nation. Thus, as Leland Jenks writes, "Cuba became the first
nation to follow the lead of the United States in entering the war which had engulfed
'Europe for nearly three years... sugar and geography had made Cuba a participant in the
World War.'"8 Beginning in 1917, Cuba experienced the other effects of the war to a
more noticeable degree. According to John Dumoulin, "The war, as a global conflict,
interrupted the flow of international commerce, [creating] shortages that did not exist
9 BBC, Series 2, vol. 36, Manuel Rionda to Jose Rionda, May 11, 1915.
s8 BBC, Series 14, vol. 5, Plicido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, June 10, 1917.
81 BBC, Series 14, vol. 5, Manuel Rionda to Plicido Alonso, June 6, 1917 and June 15, 1917.
before,... it could not avoid creating an inflationary tendency, perturbing the mercantile
mechanisms that regulated the economy."83 Just as the price of sugar increased, the cost
of production did also.
For colonos throughout the island, that meant continuous and larger debts. After
the harvest of 1915, all of San Vicente's colonos had cleared their debts with the mill.
Yet, as noted earlier by Hugh Thomas, farmers "often [ran] into greater obligations
through receiving advances to plant a large crop next year."8 In 1917, some of the more
prominent colonos with whom San Vicente had contracts were in debt-all due to having
made "ampliaciones" (enlargements).85 Lorenzo de Ibarra wrote directly to Rionda to
request that he not be charged the amount he owed in interest; Rionda conceded.8
Manuel Rubio was in debt for $30,000 for the purchase of Sandoval. "Even the Larreas
do not have any money left over .. and, in those conditions, we do not have to fear
them." 87 It seems as if the colonos' being in debt was a paradox for San Vicente, for
while it kept them tied to the mill, the debt represented money that the central did not
" John Dumoulin, Azicar v Lucha de Clases 1917 (La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Socialesm 1980), 7.
Translated by B. Fraga; The inflationary tendencies produced by the war actually began to be felt in Cuba as
early as the autumn of 1914. According to The Cuba Review, food prices in Matanzas were steadily rising
by October of that year. Meanwhile, laborers, mill employees, and cane farmers were being "paid the same
old price." October 1914, 12.
84 Thomas, 538.
85 BBC, Series 14, vol. 5, Plicido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, June 11, 1917.
86 BBC, Series 14, vol. 5, Placido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, June 22, 1917 and July 9, 1917; BBC, Series
2, vol. 42, Manuel Rionda to Plicido Alonso, June 22, 1917 and July 2, 1917.
87 BBC, Series 14, vol. 5, Placido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, June 11, 1917. Translated by B. Fraga.
The shortage of labor was the primary reason that the cost of production had
increased. The demand for Cuban sugar that had led to the proliferation of centrales also
stimulated an increase in the demand for laborers. Subsequently, wages increased, and
the colono now had to pay workers more. "While it is true that the cost of production has
increased very much, that increase is more in the share of the colono than that of the
factories," wrote Rionda.88 According to the sugar magnate, "He [the colono] has to
pay much higher wages for cutting, lifting, and carting all the cane and also for
weeding."89 Furthermore, labor was unreliable. Securing labor was one of the
difficulties with which the cane farmer had to contend. Many times, he had to go to
Havana to find and hire the necessary fieldhands. The cane farmer would engage about
twenty or thirty men and pay them a certain amount in advance. Many would leave after
only a brief stay at the colonial, and the colono essentially lost the money he had spent on
Rionda's solution to the labor shortage was the importation of Haitian, Jamaican,
Chinese, and European laborers. He claimed, "If the Cuban government made the effort
to import 200/300,000 Chinese, the labor problem would be resolved; or, if it passed laws
as in West Virginia requiring all males between 16 and 60 to work at least 36 hours per
week."91 Although Alonso does not give any information on the use of foreign laborers
88 BBC, Series 2, vol. 42, Manuel Rionda to Victor Zevallos, May 22, 1917.
9 BBC, Series 2, vol. 42, Manuel Rionda to Victor Zevallos, May 23, 1917.
on San Vicente, he nonetheless agreed with Rionda, claiming they essentially would be a
cane cutting machine that would not break down easily.92
Having smuggled laborers into Cuba in 1916, by June 1917, Rionda was counting
on the fact that the United States and Cuba were now at war to resolve the labor
shortage.93 Although Cuban President Menocal was in favor of importing Chinese
workers, Rionda was aware that Cuba had to first obtain the consent of the U.S.
government, claiming, "it would be better to put the matter up to the U.S. and say we
cannot produce sugar in Cuba unless we have coal, tonnage, and labor."94 Shortly
thereafter, Cuba passed a law allowing non-white immigration, and Rionda imported his
International Regulation of the Sugar Industry
On each of the "five home plantations" belonging to the Riondas, the cost of
production had increased considerably.9 Assessing that cost was necessary not only for
their own records but also for the International Sugar Commission. On May 22, 1917,
Rionda made it known that he was aware that a commission would be formed in New
York to regulate the buying and selling of Cuban sugar. Although he believed that it
would initially confine itself to handling only the purchasing of sugar for Great Britain,
9 BBC, Series 14, vol. 5, Pltcido Alonso to Manuel Rionda, June 10, 1917.
93 BBC, Series 2, vol. 42, Manuel Rionda to Jose Rionda, October 16, 1916; BBC, Series 2, vol. 41, Manuel
Rionda to Victor Zevallos, June 1, 1917.
94 BBC, Series 2, vol. 42, Manuel Rionda to Victor Zevallos, June 14, 1917.
95 BBC, Series 2, vol. 43, Ibid., August 2, 1917.
96 BBC, Series 14, vol. 42, Manuel Rionda to Victor Zevallos, May 26, 1917.
Rionda was mindful that the commission might extend itself to buying sugar for the
United States. "Much against my wish," as Rionda claimed, competition would be
"There is absolutely no doubt that the United States government is going to have
some control over prices of foodstuffs. ... The President will appoint Mr. Hoover as
Food Administrator," Rionda stated. Given the likelihood that the price of sugar would
be fixed, Rionda would try to get on the commission. He felt that someone with his
extensive knowledge of the cost of production-aware of the differences between
western and eastern Cuba-was needed on the commission to "look after Cuban
interests." The increase in production cost would have to be demonstrated in company
books, for already F. J. Sheridan, of the Department of Commerce's Bureau of Foreign
and Domestic Commerce, was traveling throughout Cuba collecting data on production
costs of sugar.98
On August 31, 1917, Herbert Hoover, who was appointed as Food Administrator
on May 10, wrote the British Food Controller, Lord Rhondda, about establishing a joint
five-man commission in New York to set the price for raw sugar and apportion the
Cuban crop." Great Britain had been regulating its purchases of sugar and had been
handling the purchases of sugar for the Allied nations of Europe since the outbreak of the
war through the Royal Commission.100 Britain bought raw sugar directly from Cuba, and
91 BBC, Series 2, vol. 42, Manuel Rionda to Victor Zevallos, May 22, 1917.
" McAvoy-Weissman, Chp. 11, p. 8.
'10 Thomas, 537.
when the United States entered the war, Hoover desired put a stop to the competition that
existed between U.S. refiners and their fellow allies in the purchase of sugar.101
Hoover wanted to keep the price of sugar down; it had been skyrocketing
throughout the summer months. On June 1, 1917, it was 5.89 cents per pound. A month
later, sugar sold for 6.52 cents per pound and for 7.02 on August 1. By the end of the
week, on August 7, the price had risen to 7.52 cents per pound.102 To essentially control
the price of sugar, Hoover appointed Earl Babst, William A. Jamison, and Mr. Rolph
from the United States to the International Sugar Committee (ISC). Great Britain sent Sir
Joseph White-Todd and John Ramsey Drake. Only refiners were represented on the
committee-no sugar producers or sugar brokers.
For its part, Cuba formed its own committee, the Cuban Committee. On
September 12, 1917, President Menocal appointed Jose M. Tarafa, Jose I. Lezama, and
Carlos Miguel Cespedes to a committee to negotiate with the ISC. They proposed a price
of 4.75 cents per pound free on board (f. o. b.), which they considered fair.'03 Fair to the
Cuban producer was defined as the cost of production plus a reasonable profit. The
Cuban Committee was not successful.14 Rionda took advantage of this failure to get
himself assigned to the committee by having prominent sugar men in Cuba lobby
101 BBC, Series 14, vol. 42, Manuel Rionda to Victor Zevallos, June 21, 1917. According to Jenks, Hoover
felt that "Great Britain and the Allies had to be dealt with, too. For they were bidding for Cuban sugar
against the United States." See Our Cuban Colony. 198.
102 Joshua Bernhardt, Government Control of the Suear Industry in the United States: An Account of the
Work of the United States Food Administration and the United States Eualization Board. Inc. (New York:
The Macmillan Co., 1920), 8. The prices listed by Bernhardt are for raw sugar, duty paid in New York.
103 Dumoulin, 46 On price definitions, see Ellis, 23-25. The free on board (f o. b.) price was the price of
sugar before the cost of freight was added to it-essentially, the price before the sugar left a Cuban port.
104 Dumoulin, 46.
Menocal for his appointment on the basis that he could better negotiate with Hoover. 10
Consequently, Menocal established a new committee composed of C6spedes, Rionda,
and R.B. Hawley-the Cuban ambassador to the United States and the two largest
producers of Cuban sugar. Menocal insisted that they advocate a price of 4.75 cents f. o.
b.. Nevertheless, the ISC set the price at 4.60 f. o. b.. Rionda and Hawley agreed, but
most of the Cuban producers did not. Colonos were also not satisfied with the price. 06
Rionda felt that the fixed price would ensure a substantial profit to at least all the
efficient producers. Furthermore, he felt it was best to deal with the ISC, as the United
States would not allow Cuba to sell refined sugar to Spain or to South America because
then U.S. refiners would lose part of their foreign trade.'07 Essentially, Cuba had n6
choice. Nevertheless, Cuba did not agree to the price, and no sugar was sold. The year
came to a close and the sugar that had been milled in November remained in Cuba. In
response, the United States kept its shipments of coal and flour bound for Cuba in U.S.
ports.'08 "It will be necessary . to call attention of Mr. Hoover and all the other
government authorities concerned to the fact that without coal, Cuba cannot make a
crop," Rionda claimed on January 18.'09 Late in January 1918, Hawley and Rionda
signed contracts and the sugar trade resumed its activity at a price of 4.60 cents a pound.
10o McAvoy-Weisman, Chp. 11, p. 18.
06 Dumoulin, 53.
107 BBC, Series 2, vol. 43, Manuel Rionda to Victor Zevallos, December 17, 1917.
108 Jenks, 198-199.
'09 BBC, Series 2, vol. 44, Manuel Rionda to Victor Zevallos, January 18, 1918.
As Jenks writes, "Thus the United States, made use of an economic sanction to bring a
dependent ally to agree to a price for the principal crop of her citizens.""10
On the effect of the fixed price of sugar on the colono, Rionda wrote:
While the present profits in Cuba are not to be
despised, I must confess that our cost of production
has also increased materially, especially in the cost
of the cane to the cane farmer and I do not see a
great deal of enthusiasm on the part of the farmer to
increase his production. A great many are selling
their colonies because being in actual possession of a
fortune which they never expected to attain, they do
not want to jeopardize it by planting cane with labor
so high that it makes the cost of planting double what
it was in former times, and then run the risk that
when it comes to cutting the cane two years hence,
the farmer may have to sell the sugar at a sacrifice. "'
Rionda's passage reveals that during the latter part of the war the colonato had
functioned as the centrales intended. As the cost of production increased, the colono was
expected to bear the brunt of it. The records researched pertaining to San Vicente did
not disclose information on the colonos' condition regarding labor. Nevertheless, it is
reported that after having cleared their debts in 1915, colonos at San Vicente-at least
the more prominent ones-went into debt in 1917. Furthermore, as cited previously,
Rionda acknowledged that the increase in labor wages was "more in the share of the
colono" than of the mill.112
11 Jenks, 199-200.
I" BBC, Series 10, Box 6, Manuel Rionda to Julius Ganzoni, March 14, 1918. On the topic of the
regulation of sugar prices, see Thomas, 539. He writes, "The agreed fixed price was high in relation to the
pre-1914 average, but prices, especially of imports, were also high, and the handling of the crop caused
difficulties with the settlement of what was due to colonos."
"2 BBC, Series 2, vol. 42, Manuel Rionda to Victor Zevallos, May 22, 1917.
After the Great War, prices shot upward as soon as the price fixing mechanisms
employed during the conflict were removed. During the brief period 1919-20, Cuba
reveled in "The Dance of the Millions"-millions were made as the price of sugar
reached 22.5 cents. Conversely, when the sugar market settled after the frenzy of
deregulation and Cuban sugar was no longer in such high demand as during the war
years, Cuba experienced its first in a series of economic recessions in the post-war era.
As central-colono relations were affected by the increase in sugar prices during WWI, so
too would they be affected by a world market characterized by low sugar prices. "Don't
let us be tempted by the enormous profits the colonos make now, for the lean years are
bound to come," foreshadowed Rionda before the war's end."3
"3 BBC, Series 2, vol. 42, Manuel Rionda to Leandro Rionda, May 15, 1917.
CENTRAL SAN VICENTE DURING THE 1920s AND 1930s
World War I ended with an armistice on November 11, 1918, but the regulation
of sugar continued for a brief period thereafter. In that summer, the United States had
established the Sugar Equalization Board, Inc., "for the purpose in part of equalizing the
distribution and selling price of sugar, and ... to purchase domestic or foreign raw sugar
in such quantities, at such prices... as it may deem advisable, and to resell said sugar in
its discretion at, below or above cost... ."' In short, the corporation was the sole agency
with the authority to buy the entire Cuban crop outright and to make allocations to the
Allies.' Almost three weeks prior to the cessation of hostilities, the Equalization Board
had finalized the purchase of the Cuban crop for the 1918-19 harvest at the price of 5.88
cents per pound.3 According to Leland Jenks, the United States made a profit of
$42,000,000 from that transaction.4
SAgreement as to Cuban Sugars 1918-1919 Crop. Between United States Sugar Eaualization Board
(Incorporated) and A Commission of the Republic of Cuba and Agents of Cuban Producers printed in
Czarnikow-Rionda, Co., The Cuba Sugar Croo. 1918-1919: Negotiations Regarding Sale. Etc. (New York
Czarnikow-Rionda, Co., 1920), 33.
2 BBC. Series 10, Box 6, Folder title: European Mail, Ganzoni to Manuel Rionda, September 17, 1918.
3 Agreement as to Cuban Sugars. 35; Jenks, 215.
SJenks. 203 According to Jenks, Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States, was the principal
shareholder of the Sugar Equalization Board. Inc., and Herbert Hoover was chairman of the board of
directors Also see BBC, Series 2, vol. 45, Manuel Rionda to Victor Zevallos, September 20, 1918. In his
letter. Rionda wrote that the United States Treasury would be the sole owner of stock in the Equalization
In January 1919. the Equalization Board deregulated the refining and
manufacturing of sugar in the United States and permitted Cuba to sell "directly to Spain.
France. Canada, and other countries, to keep open marketing relations."' Full
deregulation of tb" ugar trade came in autumn when the agency instructed U.S. refiners
to buy raw sugar at whatever prices they could obtain. Ironically, Cuban sugar producers,
who had initially opposed price controls, were against the lifting of fixed rates, for they
had come to appreciate the stability that regulation afforded them by ensuring profits."
They offered to sell the entire 1920 crop at 6.5 cents per pound, but the Wilson
administration was too absorbed in the post-war projects for the reconstruction of Europe
and the establishment of the League of Nations to fully consider the Cubans' proposal.7
While both U.S. refiners and Cuban producers awaited a decision from President
Wilson, news spread in Cuba that the Equalization Board was reselling Cuban sugar at a
price higher than the one at which Cubans were required to sell. Cuban producers
retaliated by withholding some of their sugar from delivery to the United States.
Consequently, U.S. refiners, fearing potential shortages, urged the Equalization Board to
S'force the Cubans to deliver their raw sugar. The corporation decided to free itself from
the dilemma in which it found itself and terminated its control of the international
5 For quotation, see Jenks, 215. The Food Administration had the set the price of refined sugar on the New
York Exchange at 9 cents per pound. See Jenks, 201-202.
6 Republic of Cuba, Statement Issued to the Planters. Colonos and Merchants of Cuba (Havana: The Sugar
Finance Committee, 1921), 1.
supply of sugar. As a result, refiners quickly began bidding for sugar, and prices soared
like never before.8
The Dance of the Millions
The refiners' frenzy in buying sugar pushed the pnce steadily and rapidly upward.
Between the fall of 1919 and May of 1920, it rose from 6.5 to 22.5 cents a pound. In
Cuba, this dramatic increase triggered "the dance of the millions."'0 Excessive
speculation marked the period 1919-20, as central owners, colonos, bankers, and just
about anyone eager to make a substantial profit engaged in the expansion of sugar
production." Unfortunately, this interval of exorbitant profit-making was short-lived, fr
the price of sugar began tumbling downward after mid-May-not even a year after it had
begun spiraling upward.'2 Nevertheless, the mania that reigned in the Cuban sugar
industry during the brief period of "the dance of the millions" was widespread and far-
While U.S. refineries had triggered the inordinate expansion of sugar production
,'in Cuba, banks on the island, both domestic and foreign, fueled it by providing the
necessary credit. They financed the improvements and additions to sugar mills made by
central owners and the cultivation of more land by colonos. They too were caught up in
8 Jenks, 217-218.
' [bid.. 218.
o1 A Havana journalist coined the term "The dance of the millions" to describe the period of excessive
speculation during the 1919-20 harvest. See Jenks, 206.
" Republic of Cuba, Statement Issued. 2.
J Jenks, 219
the excitement of the moment and encouraged speculation. According to Jenks. banks in
Cuba were not very cautious in their lending practices during 'the dance of the millions.
Cuban farmers, who had borrowed of one bank all
that they needed to harvest their crop, were begged
by rival managers to borrow more. They might build
a bigger house with the money, buy a car, send their
families abroad! Cuban. American. Spanish, British-
all were the same. This was the prevailing spirit of
the banking business carried on in Cuba. Wall Street
beamed upon it. .. It was a cloudburst of bank
credit which struck Cuba. 3
In effect, bankers advanced money to almost anyone willing to use it. They did
so primarily in the form of loans against mortgages on sugar properties or loans secured
upon sugar in warehouses and crops in the field. With credit and extremely high prices,
Cuba entered another phase in the sugar boom originally caused by World War I. In
1919 and 1920, due to their rapid increase, sugar prices substantially surpassed the cost
of production which had risen due to the inflationary tendencies during the war.
"Colonos benefited proportionately with the advancing price of sugar," writes Jenks,
It was an unambitious [colono] who did not incur
fresh indebtedness upon advances made to enable to
him plant a larger acreage of cane. Large colonos
were rich. . There were millionaire colonos in
Cuba. Some of them purchased mills from
European or North American owners, or went into
partnership to do so. Small colonos knew a degree
of unwonted comfort. . The more well-to-do
erected palatial homes in the Vedado and sent their
families upon summer tours to Europe and the
14 Ibid. 222
" Jenks. 213
Rionda had wntten before the war's end that the unwontedd comfort" which was
occasioned by the relatively high prices during the conflict had stimulated colons
unaccustomed to such fortunes to sell their properties. The sale of colonias, although not
onl by cane farmers, continued during "the dance of the millions." So profitable had the
sugar industry become that many throughout Cuba became eager to supply cane to the
sugar mills." Lino Diaz, a colono who sold his cane to San Vicente, wrote directly to
Manuel Rionda in 1919, requesting the acquisition of Colonia Aguas Nuevas for his son
and Colonia Gratitud for his brother-in-law.16 Approximately during the same time,
Rionda received another solicitation for a colonial, and he instructed Placido Alonso to
handle the matter. The solicitor, W. H. Ramsay, was hired as second administrator in
one of the mills owned by the Cuba Cane Sugar Corporation, and his brother was placed
in charge ofa colonia in thefinca Las Alegrias.'7 Motivated by the profits being made in
real estate during the height of "the dance of the millions," the owner in proxy of the
finca Herrera decided to place the property on the market. San Vicente, which rented
Herrera at the time, declined the offer to purchase it, leaving the door open for Tomas
belgado, a cane farmer, to buy the property instead. 8
J1 lenks, 181.
16 BBC, Series 2, vol. 47, Manuel Rionda to Placido Alonso, September 6, 1919.
" BBC. Series 2, vol. 47. Manuel Rionda to Placido Alonso, October 17,1919; BBC, Series 2, vol. 48,
Manuel Rionda to Placido Alonso, November 19. 1919
1' BBC. Series 2. vol. 48, Manuel Rionda to Placido Alonso. May 10, 1920. Herrera was being sold by
Alberto Santurtun. As the agent for the Santurtin family inheritance, he was owner in proxy of thefinca.
Manuel Rionda instructed Placido Alonso to decline its purchase since they were in the process of trying to
sell San Vicente.
Colonias were not the only properties being sought after or offered for sale.
Sugar mills were also changing hands. Fifty centrales, or roughly one quarter of the
sugar factories in Cuba, were transferred from one owner to another at the height of the
sugar boom in 1920.1 The sale and purchase of mills was induced by the push toward
integration within the industry. If the proliferation of centrales had been the
distinguishing characteristic of the Cuban sugar industry during the war years, then
integration was the primary feature during "the dance of the millions." According to
Hugh Thomas, "companies involved in one stage of sugar production sought to gain
control of the remaining stages."20
Refiners and food processors in the United States were especially concerned
about securing control of the other steps in the entire process of the manufacture of sugar.
As Michael Marconi Braga explains, their success depended on the competitiveness of
the price of their final product in the market. If their price was too high, owing to the
increased cost of raw materials, they risked losing customers and seeing their sales and
profit margins drop. Therefore, they were specifically susceptible to the dramatic rise in
sugar prices, which they themselves had induced, and to the accessibility of its supply. If
they failed to obtain the amount of raw sugar they needed, they faced the possibility of
losing clients to their competitors within the industry.21
'9 Jenks. 219.
20 Thomas, 541.
: Michael Marconi Braga No Other Law But Supply And Demand: Institutional Change and the Cuban
Sugar Economy, these U of Texas, 1993, 15.