Blazing Cane

Sugar Communities, Class, and State Formation in Cuba, 1868–1959

Blazing Cane

American Encounters/Global Interactions

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Book Pages: 416 Illustrations: 35 photographs, 3 tables, 3 maps, 1 figure Published: November 2009

Caribbean Studies, History > Latin American History, Latin American Studies

Sugar was Cuba’s principal export from the late eighteenth century throughout much of the twentieth, and during that time, the majority of the island’s population depended on sugar production for its livelihood. In Blazing Cane, Gillian McGillivray examines the development of social classes linked to sugar production, and their contribution to the formation and transformation of the state, from the first Cuban Revolution for Independence in 1868 through the Cuban Revolution of 1959. She describes how cane burning became a powerful way for farmers, workers, and revolutionaries to commit sabotage, take control of the harvest season, improve working conditions, protest political repression, attack colonialism and imperialism, nationalize sugarmills, and, ultimately, acquire greater political and economic power.

Focusing on sugar communities in eastern and central Cuba, McGillivray recounts how farmers and workers pushed the Cuban government to move from exclusive to inclusive politics and back again. The revolutionary caudillo networks that formed between 1895 and 1898, the farmer alliances that coalesced in the 1920s, and the working-class groups of the 1930s affected both day-to-day local politics and larger state-building efforts. Not limiting her analysis to the island, McGillivray shows that twentieth-century Cuban history reflected broader trends in the Western Hemisphere, from modernity to popular nationalism to Cold War repression.


Blazing Cane is a welcome contribution to several fields of scholarly inquiry. Historians of Cuba and Latin America alike will appreciate McGillivray’s international contextualization, reminding readers that caudillismo and populism were experienced across the Americas.” — Frances Pearce Sullivan, Caribbean Studies

“Gillian McGillivray’s stimulating, well-written overview of Cuba’s political and socioeconomic history from the late Spanish colonial period to the 1959 revolution addresses the process of class organization among sugar workers, colonos (cane farmers), and sugar mill owners. . . . Her histories of two mill communities, with contrasting socioeconomic settings and managerial styles, are particularly rewarding, as is her shrewd portrayal of local and national figures who accumulated wealth and power under US protection.” — Brian Pollitt, Agricultural History

“McGillivray complements extensive research in the private corporate archives of mill companies with local and national government archives and personal interviews to provide a solid scholarly foundation for her work.” — Matthew A. Redinger, Ethnohistory

“McGillivray's well-written book is enhanced with dozens of period photos and an excellent collection of detailed and easy-to-read maps. . . . Blazing Cane is a finely-crafted blend of political, economic, social, and cultural history that should be of interest to all students and scholars interested in class and state formation in Latin America.” — Michael R. Hall, The Latin Americanist

“Showing the continuity between nineteenth-century struggles and the 1959 revolution, passing through the complex shifting of power and protest following independence, at all times marked by the cane fields and their burning, McGillivray’s account of Cuba’s development may contribute to Latin American history in general, standing as an illuminating case for the processes of twentieth-century state formation, clientilism and populism.” — Jonathan Curry-Machado, Bulletin of Latin American Research

“This detailed and well-written account will prove useful to anyone interested in the textured politics of sugar in twentieth-century Cuba. In addition, and importantly, it contributes a great deal to discussions of the middle class and state formation not just in Cuba, but throughout Latin America.”
— Alejandra Bronfman, World Sugar History Newsletter

Blazing Cane is in the finest tradition of Cuban rural history, while at the same time clearing a new interpretative path. . . . Blazing Cane is well suited for a general audience. The section on the Chaparra sugar mill includes 14 photographs from the mill archives, which are of such high quality that one can almost taste the sugar being processed.”
— Frank Argote-Freyre, European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies

“Lucidly written, sophisticated, marvelously nuanced, and meticulously researched. . . . This is simply superb history. Summing Up: Essential. All levels/libraries.” — F. W. Knight, Choice

“McGillivray’s insistence on embedding the history of the two sugar communities within the broad sweep of Cuba’s historical development makes this book especially attractive to teachers as well as researchers. Indeed, Blazing Cane could profitably be used as the core text for courses dealing with Cuban history in the one hundred years preceding the 1959 Revolution, and as a model for how to study the interactions between local, regional, national, and transnational forces.” — Barry Carr, Hispanic American Historical Review

“McGillivray’s research has been terrific. . . . She has wisely combined archival documents, a considerable number of newspaper articles, and interviews, broadening her analysis and cementing her conclusions. Overall, Blazing Cane constitutes a courageous take on this aspect of the history of twentieth-century Cuba. . .” — Manuel Barcia, A Contracorriente

“This book offers a new understanding of Cuba’s sugar politics. It will prove essential to anyone interested in pre-1959 Cuban history or in the relationship of the middle class to state formation in Latin America.” — Aline Helg, American Historical Review

“With Blazing Cane, McGillivray has given Cubanists — and Latin Americanists in general — a treat: a book both accessible to undergraduates and meaty enough for a graduate class, one that offers convincing answers to many questions and at the same time suggests new avenues of research. In so doing, Blazing Cane provides a fresh vision of Cuba in the twentieth century, tying the nation into larger regional trends rather than separating it from them. In the end, like the cane fires that flare up throughout the book to signal moments of change, Blazing Cane may itself be a marker, lighting a new path in the study of Cuban history.” — Joshua H. Nadel, Labor

“Gillian McGillivray offers a new and original understanding of the history of Cuba from the mid-nineteenth century to the Cuban revolution by reading it from the perspective of two sugar communities. She stresses the agency of workers in sugar communities, who asserted demands and engaged with, as they helped shape, the rhetoric of the state and state formation. Blazing Cane is an important contribution to modern Cuban history, and a compelling case for the impossibility of separating the local from the national and transnational in any study.” — William French, author of A Peaceful and Working People: Manners, Morals, and Class Formation in Northern Mexico

“We know very little about the lives of sugar workers and their interactions with the managerial personnel of the mills in which they worked. McGillivray goes deep into documentary archives to address this vital shortcoming of the historiography of Cuba, to look at Cuban society and politics through two sugar communities. Blazing Cane gives an insightful look at how ordinary people coped with the complex and uncertain circumstances that surrounded them in the Cuban republic.” — Alejandro de la Fuente, author of A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Gillian McGillivray is Associate Professor of History at Glendon College, York University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface and Acknowledgments xi

Chronology of Major Political Events xiii

Introduction 1

1. The Colonial Compact, 1500–1895 13

2. Revolutionary Destruction of the Colonial Compact, 1895–98 37

3. U.S. Power and Cuban Middlemen, 1898–1917 63

4. The Patrons' Compact: "Peace," "Progresss," and General Menocal, 1899–1919 86

5. Patrons, Matrons, and Resistance, 1899–1959 118

6. From Patronage to Populism and Back Again, 1919–26 145

7. Revolutionary Rejection of the Patrons' Compact, 1926–33 188

8. The Populist Compact, 1934–59 226

Conclusion 272

Appendix. Selections from the 1946 Chaparra and Delicias Collective Contract 279

Notes 287

Glossary 345

Bibliography 349

Index 367
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Choice Outstanding Academic Title, 2010

Shortlisted, 2010 Wallace K. Ferguson Prize, presented by the Canadian Historical Association

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4542-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4524-4
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