Review of "Raising Cane in the 'Glades: The Global Sugar Trade and the Transformation of Florida"

Gail Hollander’s book Raising Cane in the ‘Glades: The Global Sugar Trade and the Transformation of Florida assesses the various historical and market forces that converged such that the Glades area came to be conceptualized and actualized as the American Sugar Bowl. Sugar, the first non-luxury commodity to be widely consumed that was not sourced locally, became more than just a sweetener. During the lead up to and during World War I sugar came to be used in explosives, ammunitions and soldiers food rations. The need for a dependable supply of sugar was thus seen as intimately connected with national security. This theme would later wane in importance however it would also transform in a different context. In the late 1990’s, when there was a potential for disruption of crude oil supplies in Venezuela following the ascension of Hugo Chavez to the presidency. At this point sugar, the base component for ethanol, was considered as one of the primary vegetable products that could provide a modicum of energy independence. As such, the importation of sugar from sources domestic and abroad, the need to maintain a certain degree of price stability to prevent vast market fluctuations, and the ecological and political economy of regions as close as Cuba and as far away as Hawaii and the Philippines became enmeshed in a large bureaucratic regime in America tasked with managing the sugar market. As Hollander shows, the free-market system was strictly aspirational, and often influenced by political rather than economic consideration. Thus while the black cane workers in Glades fields were the only ones with sweat on their brows and sap on their hands, they were only ale to find such employ as there also existed a significant network of political advocates mobilized to grip, grease and dirty hands for the benefit of the sugar plantation owners, America’s modern barons.

Following America’s takeover of Spanish colonies after the Spanish-American War, capital investment in Cuba increased exponentially. Despite the clear endogenous advantages, however, regionalist boosters in Florida advocated for massive publicly financed programs that would benefit a small class of planters. In the imagination of many a local politicians, such as Governor Broward, if the swampy, miasmic Everglades were not turned into a sugar producing region it would be sinful. Surely the only sub-tropical region in the United States could not be allowed to support only the creatures and native population that had lived there for thousands of years! That would be a waste! As such domestic capitalists began advocating for assistance to tame their newly purchased holdings by drainage, canals and levee barriers as it was impossible for small, private owners – the class then appealed to due to the influence of the Populists – to be able to do this profitably on their own. They appealed for assistance at the state and Federal level, with the latter obtaining price guarantees because, they claimed, their labor was better treated. While this may have been true, it was only so by a difference of degree, as many sugar operations were not able continue were it not for the enforcement of Jim Crow policies.

While the Cuban Revolution was a traumatic loss for many Cuban and American capitalists with heavy investments in the country some, such as the Fanjul family, were able to capitalize on the new geo-political situation. Importing their knowledge of the industry and their trans-national connections while simultaneously exploiting the Cold War context that would soon mean the cessation of trade relations with Cuba, these new South Florida cane growers exponentially increased their holdings in anticipation of the new sourcing percentages they were advocating. In a five-year period, land devoted to growing sugar cane in South Florida expanded five-fold while the number of companies involved fell due to consolidation. The effect that this had on other domestic suppliers was swift. Beets grown for processing into sugar had always been an option that was maintained as it was faster growing, not requiring a two-year investment cost, it had the support of the “Sugar Czar,” House Committee on Agricultural Chair Harold D. Cooley, and had the support of was soon priced out while other international suppliers soon petitioned for a large share of what was once Cuba’s contribution of imports.

It is in this institutional analysis of US sugar policy’s origins and delineation of the various actors involved that Hollander focuses on throughout the text. While the workers and their conditions do concern her, they are often not considered in the text except to point out their low wages and, with the H-2 Visa controversy following the large influx of Haitian immigration to Miami, their precariousness. I do not think that this is necessarily a fault of her for their struggle is not the main issue when it comes to the American Sugar Kingdom. Without seeking to minimize those workers sufferings, the battles for quotas amongst what are basically regional fiefdoms for quotas. This play amongst financial groups and policy discontinuity amongst the government in the end created a lot of problems. While no one is quite willing to say that sugar definitively caused the Cuban Revolution, it’s clear that the United States helped to exacerbate a bad situation there at the cost of the Glades so that a few well-connected, generous to political party capitalists could be made wealthy. While Hollander doesn’t delve into this per se, I find behind her presentation of sugar’s political economy and the numerous negotiations it entailed a number of chilling considerations.

Finally, I want to add to this that while Hollander uses quantitative data throughout the book in order to illustrate developments, such as the expansion of acreage devoted to sugar cane in Florida compared to Louisiana during, the costs of various Army Core of Engineers projects or the net imports from various countries, the accounting of the sugar trade is absent. This is understandable as her concern is not with this but connecting the various political and economic actors involved in the sugar industry such that their global assemblage is outlines. However, in closing, I wanted to suggest a future avenue of research related to the Hollander’s research: an analysis of the profitability of the Florida sugar industry were it actually subject to market forces. A cliometric assessment of the sugar industry would make an interesting case study as it speaks to the relationship between government disbursements of financial aid to private enterprise and, I would imagine, hints at the essentially unprofitable nature of the industry were it not given significant subsidies in a variety of forms. Hollander hints at this throughout her book in the numerous examples of the high costs of the dredging and canalization, the disproportionate payment for use and maintenance of water management, scientific research into soil and secondary uses for cane, downstream cleanup, avoidance of paying a sectoral wage averages by using black prison labor or labor imported from the abroad via domestic political influence, price competition were Cuba and later Brazil not respectively barred and limited from competition. Thus the American sticker price for sugar is artificially low, as collectively already a significant amount of money has gone into subsidizing the prices. While recognizing the need for a degree of market management at times to keep the price stable, the interrogation of the economic feasibility of government intervention evokes thoughtful consideration on democracy and how it was that what was potentially a losing enterprise was supported simply because it was politically expedient. As Hollander points out on page 269, “although it accounts for only 1 percent of U.S. farm receipts, sugar is the single largest agricultural donor to political campaigns.” Considering the above, I would expect to find that the greatest rate of return for investments made by the sugar industry would not be from equipment that creates the best practices but in the donations they’d funneled from the collected surplus-value of cane-cutters into the pockets of politicians setting quotas and supporting various sugar-industry specific infrastructure assistance.