During the stages of the origin and development and consolidation of the world-economy (1492-1815), sugar was developed as an important raw material for export. “The search for gold and silver was, without doubt, the central motor of the conquest. But on his second voyage, Christopher Columbus brought the first roots of sugar cane from the Canary Islands, and he planted them in lands that today are located in the Dominican Republic. . . . In a little less than three centuries after the discovery of America, there was for European commerce no agricultural product more important than the sugar cultivated in these lands" (Galeano 2004:83; 1997:59).
The Portuguese colony of Brazil was the first to develop sugar production on a large scale, developing it on the coastal northeastern region of the colony. By the middle of the seventeenth century, Brazil was the principal producer of sugar in the world, and it was the largest market for African slaves. The financing of sugar production in Brazil was undertaken by Dutch capital, and Dutch companies owned the sugar mills and managed the importation of African slaves (Galeano 2004:85-88).
The production of sugar in the Caribbean islands became so extensive that they came to be known as the “Sugar Islands.” Barbados was the first Caribbean island to establish sugar plantations on a large scale, and the Dutch were the first to develop them on the small British colony. The sugar plantations on the island displaced the production of a variety of agricultural and animal products by small-scale producers; and it devastated the dense forests and exhausted the soil. Sugar production also was developed on the Caribbean islands of the Leeward Islands, Trinidad-Tobago, Guadalupe, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Santo Domingo, Cuba, and Jamaica as well as Guyana on the South American coast (Galeano 2004:90-91).
By the second half of the eighteenth century, one of the leading producers of sugar was the French colony of Haiti. In 1791, a slave revolution erupted. The insurrectionist slaves pushed the French army to the sea and burned the sugar plantations, leaving sugar production paralyzed. The newly independent nation, under the leadership of insurrectionist General Toussaint-Louverture, immediately suffered a blockade imposed by an international coalition of global powers, facilitating the end of the revolutionary process launched by the slaves, although the nation remained formally independent (Galeano 2004:91-92).
The destruction of sugar production in Haiti led to the rapid expansion of sugar production in Cuba, which became the world´s leading sugar producer. The expansion of sugar production in Cuba led to an expansion in the importation of slaves and the displacement of other land use patterns, including production by small farmers of tobacco and vegetable products. The extensive sugar plantations reduced the forests and the fertility of the soil (Galeano 2004:92-95).
Sugar production promoted development of the nations of the core, where it was marketed and consumed, and underdevelopment for Brazil and the Caribbean, where it was cultivated. Galeano writes: “Sugar not only produced dwarfs. It also produced giants, or at least, it contributed intensely to the development of giants. The sugar of the Latin American tropics gave great impulse to the accumulation of capital for the industrial development of England, France, Holland, and also the United States, at the same time that it mutilated the economies of northeastern Brazil and the Caribbean islands and sealed the ruin of the history of Africa” (2004:106).
As Augusto Cochin has written, “The history of a grain of sugar is above all a lesson in political economy, politics, and morality” (quoted in Galeano 2004:106).
Galeano, Eduardo. 1997. The Open Veins of Latin America: Five centuries of the pillage of a continent, 25th Anniversary Edition. Translated by Cedric Belfrage. Forward by Isabel Allende. New York: Monthly Review Press.
__________. 2004. Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina, tercera edición, revisada. México: Siglo XXI Editores.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, independence, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, capitalism, peripheralization, open veins of Latin America, Galeano, sugar