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Café, Azucar, Tobacco, Platanos, Y Goma: The 5 Crops That Define Our History

When you reflect on Latin American history, certain patterns emerge. There are strands that begin in the pre-Colombian past that stretch until today. When we consider the Spanish conquest, we tend to think about their unquenchable desire for gold. Though that may have been true at first, they soon learned that there was something far more valuable in Latin America: Agriculture. This is true even today. Our entire history can be reduced to the growing, trading, selling, and control of 5 crops: sugar, coffee, tobacco, bananas, and rubber. That’s it. In the end, most of us can trace our ancestors through one or more of these 5 agricultural products. Millions of people have died, governments have risen and fallen, revolutions have happened, people have been exploited, and fortunes have been made because of the 5 crops that define our history.


We associate coffee with Central America and Colombia but it’s not even from there. It’s from Ethiopia. Legend has it that a goat herder saw his goats eating the berries and then having a goat dance party, (that sounds awesome. I want to dance with goats!). The Spanish brought coffee over to Latin America in the 1600’s and discovered that the unique micro-climates that exist in the mountains of Central and South America are perfect for growing coffee. Unfortunately, coffee is a labor intensive product and it requires a large work force. Spanish and German coffee barons amassed ginormous fortunes by keeping the native people of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico, Colombia, and Costa Rica as virtual slaves. Alas, this isn’t a whole lot better today. That’s what the whole fair trade coffee thing is about, paying them what they deserve for their product. But overwhelmingly, most coffee is still picked by poor Indians getting paid crap. So, think about that over your next mocha frappuccino.


If you are a Black Latino, you probably owe your existence to sugar. Like all of these products, sugar became all the rage in Europe right after the conquest of the Americas. Europeans could not get enough of the stuff. So, an ever increasing work force was required to harvest the sugar cane. The Indians that were forced to cut cane died out quickly in the Caribbean and Brazil where most sugar was being planted. Where could they get cheap labor? The answer: African slaves! 95% of all Africans that were brought over the middle passage ended in Latin America. During the 1600’s, it was cheaper for a Brazilian sugar baron to work his slaves to death and buy more than properly care for them. If you are a Black Cuban, Puerto Rican, Haitian, Dominican, or Brazilian, chances are almost 100% that your ancestor was a slave on one of the vast sugar plantations in those countries. The very ethnic and racial fabric of Latin America is all thanks to fat European and American’s desire for sweets.


This is the reason that my ancestors came to Cuba. We tend to dismiss tobacco today, but as recently as 50 years ago most people smoked. Think “Mad Men” or your grandparents. Tobacco is a tricky crop to grow and cure properly and, once again, slavery was the answer. In Cuba, for example, the country’s slave population was divided regionally. Coffee in the East, fruit and sugar cane in the middle, and tobacco in the West. In Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, and Mexico the Indians worked the tobacco fields for little or no money. Most slaves that were brought to Virginia and the Carolinas also came to cultivate tobacco. My family owned a tobacco plantation in Pinar Del Rio, Cuba until the revolution. I’ve seen pictures of my great-grandmother sitting on the porch of her house like a Cuban Scarlet O’Hara. It’s messed up, but what can you do? Even with all the anti-smoking advertising, tobacco is still a multi-Billion dollar industry and most of it is still grown in Latin America.


What harm could a banana do? Lot’s. 50 years ago, the United Fruit Company held a virtual monopoly on banana production worldwide. They grew most of it in Latin America in places like Costa Rica, Panama, Cuba, Venezuela, the D.R., El Salvador and elsewhere. People in the U.S. and Europe love bananas and they eat them more than any other fruit. The United Fruit Company would buy huge tracts of land for pennies or they would simply be given the acreage by corrupt governments. The workers were kept in virtual slavery on the plantations. They weren’t even allowed to leave to visit a sick relative. Things got so bad that the United Fruit Company can be directly blamed for a lot of the unrest that led to the revolutions that happened in Latin America from the 50’s to the 70’s. In the mid-Seventies the United Fruit Company finally went bust and the company split into several smaller units. The last president of the company jumped out a window rather than go to jail. That s#it is bananas.


Good old rubber is comes from the sap of the rubber tree, which is indigenous to South America. The Indians have used it for a variety of things for thousands of years, but when it was discovered by Europeans they started cultivating it on a massive scale. Large parts of the South American rainforest were burned to grow and process rubber. Investors from North America and Europe made large fortunes with the sticky stuff in the 19th century. In 1839, Charles Goodyear developed the vulcanization process that made rubber harder and more durable. This increased demand which led to further deforestation and further exploitation of the Native populations. Nowadays, rubber is mostly cultivated in Asia because of a disease that regularly wipes out the rubber trees in South America. So, now people in Malaysia get to be exploited in order to make those giant tires that your annoying neighbor put on his pick-up truck.

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