Debt peonage in Granada, Nicaragua, 1870-1930
Hispanic American Historical Review, 83, (3), . (doi:10.1215/00182168-83-3-521).
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The rise of coffee cultivation was a watershed in Nicaraguan history. Prior to the 1880s, most land was common property; thereafter, land in coffee districts was privately owned. Before coffee, peasants labored largely in household and communal production; afterward, many rural Nicaraguans worked on coffee estates for several months out of the year. In the past, historians viewed this revolution in land and labor as Nicaragua's capitalist transition. Notwithstanding major disagreements about how capitalism developed, they agreed that land privatization dispossessed the peasantry and promoted the spread of free wage labor. This interpretation fit the prevailing Central American historiography: namely, that the coffee boom was the region's great capitalist transformation. In the 1990s, Central American historians overturned part of this orthodoxy by demonstrating that the expansion of coffee cultivation did not separate most peasants from the land. However, on the dual issue of wage labor and the rise of capitalism, the earlier consensus largely retained its hold. For Nicaragua, there is mounting evidence that between 1870 and 1930 the production regime on coffee plantations was not a capitalist one. Recently, Jeffrey Gould argued that free labor did not prevail in the highlands coffee zone. My study of labor relations in Diriomo, a municipality in the department of Granada, reaches similar conclusions. In the southern coffee zone, debt peonage was a largely coercive production regime, more dissimilar than similar to free wage labor.
This history of upheaval in the countryside is told largely by the men and women of Diriomo. The words of peons, planters, and local officials who lived a century ago have survived in court records, official correspondence, estate papers, and the mountain of paperwork generated by Nicaragua's forced-labor regime. Alongside voices from generations past are contemporary Diriomeños' stories, handed down from the epoch of the great coffee boom to the present day. Their memories come from the oral histories I collected in the pueblo in the 1990s. The great diversity of voices, past and present, vividly describes the everyday lives of peasants, planters, and politicians who willingly and unwillingly found themselves drawn into the fabric of Nicaragua's debt peonage regime.
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