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A Coffee Frontier: Land, Society, and Politics in Duaca, Venezuela, 1830-1936.

By Doug Yarrington (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997. xiv plus 267pp.).

Doug Yarrington has written an important addition to the literature on coffee in Latin America with A Coffee Frontier: Land, Society, and Politics in Duaca, Venezuela, 1830-1936. This study is especially strong in showing the direct links between political and economic power, and in demonstrating the role of peasants as actors in the shaping of their history.

Yarrington does not contend that Duaca is typical of coffee zones throughout Latin America, or even in Venezuela, and this community may be quite an unusual case. One of the most striking aspects of the region is that most coffee producers, including the rich "hacendados," were not landowners until circa 1916, when privatization was completed in the indigenous resguardos and national tierra baldia. Instead, they owned only the improvements on the land.

Indeed, Yarrington gives us the unexpected view of members of indigenous communities fighting for the enforcement of privatization laws, which favored community members over creole landholders in the region. Though not entirely successful, the resguardos were largely protected because prosperous indigenous families formed part of the local elite.

Yarrington paints an intriguing picture of Duaca. The region's coffee boom began in the 1860s under the auspices of migrating peasants, who successfully resisted largeholder domination because of their continued access to public lands. Though motivated by commercial production for the market, they formed a peasant society, characterized by settlement in family clusters and cooperation among households for credit and labor. A limited local financial system sometimes led peasants to seek work on haciendas, but virtually unlimited access to land made it impossible for the hacendados to impose onerous conditions. Large cash advances then, according to Yarrington, show not the power of hacendados to enforce debt peonage but the power of the peasants to demand more for their labor.

The scenario changed, however, in the twentieth century. Consolidation of the central state did not occur until the regimes of Cipriano Castro (1899-1908) and Juan Vicente Gomez (1908-1935). The Duaca elite allied themselves with these governments, and rather than losing power to the center, the local elite consolidated their power base and were then able to use that power to finally privatize the bulk of the land, taking away the peasantry's power to resist elite domination.

Yarrington elegantly presents this transformation, with examples of peasants successfully protecting their rights in the nineteenth century and elites enforcing their rights in the twentieth. Elite power was directly linked to the coffee economy, which precipitated the construction of a railroad in Duaca, the defense of which became crucial for both the Castro and Gomez regimes.

The linkage between economic and political power, center and region, is further illustrated by a peasant uprising in 1936. Taking advantage of the political opening after the fall of Gomez, the peasants invaded land, destroyed property, and even brutally killed a local hacendado seen as a particularly vile example of elite exploitation of the peasantry.

The vivid portrait of peasant resistance also illustrates one of Yarrington's central contentions: that even a "precipitate peasantry" formed in the context of a world market can develop peasant traditions that constitute the basis of a "moral economy" that they will defend. In this way, Yarrington positions his study within the theoretical frameworks of E.P. Thompson (moral economy) and William Roseberry (precipitate peasantry). The Roseberry connection is a particularly important one, since his landmark work on peasant coffee production also is set in Venezuela, in the Andean region of Bocono (Coffee and Capitalism in the Venezuelan Andes, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983). Yarrington makes good use of these approaches and provides an important modification to Roseberry's model.

This excellent book is not without its flaws. While Yarrington provides a great deal of detail on political developments, the economic portrait is painted in more sweeping strokes, and the endnotes give us the location of the sources but not much information. For example, he tells us on page 68, "Lenders demanded a formal, registered mortgage only when a client's debt reached a certain amount." How much? How many producers borrowed that much money? How do we know the significance of debt for the peasantry? Similarly, Yarrington also discusses the limits of landlord power over tenants and cross-class alliances among tenants; but the significance is questionable, if most land was held by simple possession and not owned and rented out. He uses the telling anecdote well, but often it's not clear how representative these cases are. Yarrington could also give more precise definitions of elite and peasant - particularly important with his theoretical focus - and more of a sense of peasant differentiation. If classes and class alliances are important, as he contends, then we need more information about them.

Nonetheless, this is a significant study, showing a fascinating model of coffee production and adding to our understanding of the varied and complex arrangements that arose in Latin America's coffee boom.

Whitman College
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Charlip, Julie A.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:3VENE
Date:Sep 22, 1999
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