Review: Rice in the Time of Sugar: The Political Economy in Cuba

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Maya Simkin

Louis A. Pérez Jr. Rice in the Time of Sugar: The Political Economy in Cuba, University of North Carolina Press. 2019. xiv, 264 pp.

Rice in the Time of Sugar sets out to prioritize rice as a means of understanding Cuban history. Where sugar has been the focus of much research and policy, Pérez endeavors to correct the imbalance, identifying the inextricable link between the two crops and the way they have both been manipulated by foreign powers. Often, this came as a sacrifice for the well-being of the Cuban population, which at times faced hunger due to volatility in the global market. In Pérez’s account, shifting attention to rice production was a patriotic effort, eventually establishing Cuba as a self-sufficient rice-producing nation, much to the chagrin of U.S. rice producers. Spanning a near 150-year history, this book commemorates a battle between rice and sugar, two agricultural forces, and their implications for a nation.

Pérez begins chronologically, near the end of the Spanish colonial period in Cuba, during the middle of the 19th century. Particularly interesting is the way he writes about food culture functioning as a method of resistance to Spanish rule, unifying increasingly dissatisfied Cubans. Pérez details how shared preference for specific foods can unite people in vying for a “common destiny” – this “palate of politics” lays the groundwork for a nation. Within the country, Pérezwrites that criollos sought to distinguish themselves from peninsulares even in the way that they ate, vying for black coffee, white rice, and black beans over chocolate, chickpeas, and paella – “colonizer food” (12). Eventually, among other factors, these acts of culinary distinction culminated in revolution.

One particularly unifying and ubiquitous food was rice: if your meal didn’t include rice, it was as if you hadn’t eaten at all. Pérez describes at length the ways in which Cuban cuisine was built on rice, with newborns even being initiated with rice water. He proposes rice as a portal to another time and place, as something that connects people and ancestors through memory of the food. It’s interesting then, that despite the national salience of rice, Cuba grew little of its own, instead depending on rice imports from the U.S. and overseas, even though the country was capable of producing more than enough rice for itself. The fact that a national food culture was centered around a foreign product pinned Cuba under the thumb of international markets, most importantly that of the U.S. Technology in Cuba to process rice wasn’t as advanced as in the U.S. in the 19th century, which was able to produce perfectly white rice (highly coveted in Cuba) with fewer broken pieces than Cuban production. And while there were plenty of good roads from the ports inland for imports, the roads from Cuban farms to domestic markets were in bad condition, an their construction was put on the backburner while more resources were directed towards the lucrative sugar trade.

While sugar was perceived as a gold mine for Cuba by some, Pérez shows how the prosperity brought by the crop was concentrated in the pockets of a few who ran “monster mills,” foreign owned corporations operating on latifundios (75). In On Nonscalability,[1]Anna Tsing attributes this result to the very nature of sugar, because it is a crop that could be expanded “at scale,” with production demanding the take-over of vast amounts of land, enslavement, and continuous expansion to grow profits. Tsing points to the origins of sugar production when Europeans believed that sugarcane could not be bred, and that it was necessary to plant the cane stalk by stalk, as self-contained clones, making it a perfect fit for scalability. The harm in scalability, Tsing argues, is that this method results in a lack of diversity- everything must be geared towards expansion even at the expense of environmental degradation or people. Indeed, Pérez emphasizes these harms of sugar production in Cuba and chronicles how the diversion of the country’s attention and resources entirely to sugar, fostered a growing resentment towards the crop. The evolving sentiment surrounding sugar and rice, in its final form, was as a patriotic mission to emancipate Cuba from foreign ventures and the perils of scalability as illustrated by sugar production.

In its valiant effort to push rice to the forefront of how we engage with Cuban history, this book distinguishes itself from predominant literature and media concerning the history of sugar. For example, I am reminded of Kara Walker’s installation in the former Domino Sugar Factory,[2] a testament to the enslaved people who worked in harvesting and refining sugar, ultimately developing the taste for sweetness in the New World, in the form of a massive Mammy-Sphinx made entirely of sugar. This book, in contrast, brings rice into the spotlight, using the crop to explain the sugar industry at the periphery, something that at a policy level for Cuba was met with hostility and retribution. In some way, doing this is subversive in and of itself. When a deviation from sugar gave Cuba the impetus to provide its own rice for the first time, U.S. rice producers responded with threats and guilt trips, lobbying the government to punish Cuba by holding the sugar import quota hostage. Exposing this relationship between rice and sugar is unique in the face of projects and literature that put sugar in center stage.

Rice in the Time of Sugar is a culmination of ten years of research, and it shows through comprehensive economic figures, press from producers and lobbyists, and quotes from political leaders. Sidney Mintz describes sugar as something that moves people beyond borders,[3] which this book testifies to, as Cuban sugar production brought in people from Africa and Asia. Yet I would have liked to learn more about this, and how this influx of people altered rice dishes and recipes. It left me wanting more personal anecdotes from farmers and laborers impacted by the tumultuous relationship between rice and sugar. How did labor practices around rice differ from sugar and what stake did the enslaved and indentured servants have in the battle for rice versus sugar? Pérez’s detailed account of this story is nonetheless thorough and informative – a great read at the intersection of food, politics, and economy.

Biography

Maya Simkin is largely interested in migration and moved by the daily persimmon massages that result in hoshigaki. In the near future, Maya would like to tap a maple tree for syrup, build a sukkah and host meals in it, learn more about geopolitical surveillance, and stop putting sugar in their tea.


[1] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, “On Nonscalability: The Living World Is Not Amenable to Precision-Nested Scales,” Common Knowledge 18 no. 3 (August 2012): 505-24.

[2] Kara Walker, A Subtlety. Art Installation. (New York: Domino Sugar Factory, 2014).

[3] Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin Group Inc., 1986).