In This Review

From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000
From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000
Edited by Steven Topik, Carlos Marichal, and Zephyr Frank
Duke University Press, 2006, 384 pp

Fifteen reputable economic historians debunk the myth that international trade in raw materials has served only to exploit and impoverish Latin America. On the contrary, over five centuries Latin American governments, producers, and traders actively and intelligently molded international commodity chains to their advantage, successfully extracting significant returns from global markets. Although the volume does not dwell on issues of local distribution and growth, readers may well conclude that where these massive revenues failed to spark sustainable development, the blame lies in large part with developing-country policies; today, Latin America is again enjoying a commodity price boom, and some countries are wisely squirreling away the bonanzas, while others are spending like there is no tomorrow. Separate historical essays expertly trace silver, indigo, cochineal, tobacco, coffee, sugar, cacao, bananas, guano and nitrate, rubber, henequen, and cocaine (alas, not petroleum, copper, or meat) and are replete with intriguing paradoxes -- for example, how an expansion in the supply of stimulants such as coffee, chocolate, and sugar altered rich-country consumption patterns, transforming exclusive luxuries into everyday diet items for factory workers and soldiers.