Front Door to Cuba

Excerpt from
"Our Cuban Colony: A Study in Sugar"
By Leland Hamilton Jenks

Vanguard Press, New York, 1928
- PG. 31-33

What is the Colono System?

The “colono” system decentralized the management of large sugar estates and facilitated the brining of new areas under cultivation. It usually arose from contracts which bound the colono to plant cane on a certain amount of the land and to deliver the product to the hacendado, or mill-owner. The latter made advances to the colono to cover his expenses during planting, cultivation and harvest, and deducted the advances in settling for the crop. The colono took the responsibility for the agricultural operations, under the supervision of inspectors from the mill, employing the necessary field hands, and assuming entirely what may be termed the “agricultural chances” of drought, fire, hurricane or excessive moisture. Frequently the colono owned his own land. He was supposed at first to provide oxen and carts. In the western part of Cuba the class was made up largely of the sitiero, the small countrymen, and of plantation foremen. It was an economic category, however, more than a class. For the planters who ceased to grind their own cane became tied to the central by contracts of precisely the same terms. They too were called colonos.

The loss of social status which this involved was compensated for to a degree by the scheme of payment which came to be adopted. At the outset the central had paid cash to secure its cane, and had sold the sugar produced on its own account. Heavy loses, however, were met on this basis in years of falling prices. Accordingly, contracts were arranged, stipulating payment in kind. A fixed proportion of sugar was to be delivered to the colono for every ten of cane turned over to the central. The exact amount of this varied according to the bargaining power of the parties. Thus the risks and prospects of the sugar market came to be divided between the central and the tributary colonos. It enabled the latter to be persons of importance in the community, for they were holders of sugar. Warehouse men, sugar brokers, provision merchants, above all, merchant bankers, would, in consequence, accord them recognition which would not accrue to the mere manager of an agricultural unit. For this colonos willingly assumed a share in the risk of speculative changes in the market, as well as all the direct agricultural risk.

The problem of financing, however, was a crucial one. Most colonos were, as a result of their ventures, in a chronic state of debt. It was necessary for them to sell their sugar as rapidly as it was made, to meet the demands of creditors and laborers. And in most cases instead of delivering the actual sugar, the central came to settle with its colonos on the basis of its market value. A fortnightly system of reckoning came into vogue, by which the promedio or average price of sugar in the port through which the mill shipped, was used as the basis of paying the colono for cane delivered in each period.

By 1887 it was believed that from 35 to 40 percent of Cuba’s crop was gathered and manufactured under the “colono” system.

The reorganization of the Cuban sugar industry thus described gave it the chief characteristics which it possesses today. It checked the threatened decline in the output of Cuban sugar, rescued the industry from impending ruin. But it brought social malaise. It bound the interest of the population more inextricably with the fortunes of the sugar industry. It tied the Cuban market more closely to the concentrated demand of the American sugar trust. It brought American capital into the producing end of the sugar industry.

Bitter Memory of Cuban Sugar, Part 1 of 2 |
Cane and the Cuban Soil | The Economic Seasons |
On the Colono System

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