In Cuba, tourists can take a 50th anniversary tour and see all the historic sites and explore the the benefits and disadvantages of 50 years of Cuban Revolution– if Hawaii were to embark upon a 50th anniversary tour, where would the tour buses stop? Departing from Waikiki, a tour might beeline for the State Capital and work backwards on a timeline: it might give attention to the historic advancements made: a drive up to Punchbowl to look at all the development that has ensued since statehood; a lunch stop at Ala Moana, coincidentally, also celebrating their fiftieth anniversary with consumer confidence at historic lows; perhaps a drive through Sand Island or Waiahole/Waikane to document the victories of state sanctioned evictions; and then drive down King St. past ‘Iolani Palace, to Kawaiahao Church where Abraham Akaka gave the Statehood invocation in 1959.
From Hawai’i perspectives, there are many similarities between our two islands, and I think it is appropriate for an “Aloha Havana” shout out. One similarity are our two great harbors:
Pearl Harbor/Honolulu Harbor and the Port of Havana: Both harbors were valuable to United States military and commercial interests and in 1898, both countries were annexed.
Although there are a lot of differences between Cuba and Hawaii, one of the major similarities is sugar. During the later 19th and early 20th century, the sugar industry in both Cuba and Hawaii were dominated by U.S. interests, and one of the ways in which the sugar prices– as commodities– could be maintained during territorial crises like bad weather, labor strikes and uprisings, was by controlling the tariffs between the sugar colonies, primarily Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Hawaii.
“Big Sugar,” as Stanley Mintz writes in “Sweetness and Power,” asserts that it was the sugar industry of the mid-1800s that opened the door to the idea of an international capitalist world market. The history of the sugar trade or Big Sugar defined a systemic world market which opened the doors to what has become “Big Oil.”
Briefly, before sugar was established as a true capitalist model, its production followed a different model, slavery. The sugar plantations of the roughly 200 years before capitalism, was slave based.
In order for consumers on the European continent to sweeten their tea and cookies, and to meet the demand for the addiction to sugar that was taking place, a trade developed: in a nutshell, the transatlantic slave trade
- European ships carried manufactured goods to Africa in exchange for African slaves;
- who went to the Caribbean or the South to trade slaves for commodiites like sugar, rum, tobacco, cotton and other spices;
- which it delivered back to Europe to the hungry demands of consumers.
Other routes existed as well, (in China the commodity was opium; in India, spices; in Hawaii, whaling and sandalwood), but in the mid-1800’s commodity market, sugar– like today’s oil– was the big one. Marx argued that slave plantations, although driven by motives of bourgeois production, was not truly capitalist because it was based on free-labor. In order for the plantation to be capitalist, there needed to be a working class, a proletarian with income in which they can invest the result of their labor.
In other words, in a free-labor economy, workers are separated from commerce by not being able to buy anything. Free-laborers cannot, as paid laborers do, go to Walmart, Burger King, subscribe to cable, purchase gasoline, or pay the fees on their maxed-out credit cards.
Since the mid-1800s, sugar had found its way into all foods, and what before the 16th century was a scarce commodity used only by royalty, was now available to all, and the demand never ceased since.
In the case of Hawaii, as sandalwood disappeared and the whaling industry shrank, new commodities were being experimented with. Mercantalism in Hawaii was based almost entirely on ships moving in and out of Hawaiian ports. When whaling disappeared, which it did shortly after 1859, whale oil began to be replaced with manufactured crude oil, many merchant’s investments in Hawaii were lost.
By the mid-1860s, sugar cane was being grown and by 1893, the year of the coup by white plantation owners, the Hawaiian sugar market had dominated the islands and was primarily serving the west coast of the United States, serving the westward rush.
The U.S. continent was joined by railroad between the east and west in 1869, and before the union of the railroad lines, transport to the west coast– particularly the northwest– was difficult. The sugar boom in the sugar growing colonies occurred shortly after the end of slavery and the civil war in 1865, when the cost of sugar production grew too high for southern beet-sugar growers, as well as the destruction of the southern sugar manufacturing base during the war. The sugar growing colonies were, because of its climate– primarily cane based, rather than beet based, and it didn’t take long for sugar growers in Hawaii to take advantage of the climate, the land, shipping, and imported cheap labor. Besides, cane sugar was preferable to beet sugar.
After the civil war, the southern ex-plantation/sugar growers controlled the sugar market and Cuba was the primary trading partner presumably because that is where the southern sugar growers held most of their investments. Because of these sugar lobbyists and the powerful Southern Democrats in Washington, they were able to control tariffs from Hawaii.
When Hawaii was “annexed” by the United States in 1898, and the Organic Act ratified in 1900, expectations by Hawaii sugar growers were that they would be able to export their sugar to the United States tariff-free (or at least at a lower tariff rate), and that was the case, at least for a short while. Because sugar was traded as a commodity, speculation was such that a glut of sugar would undermine the profits of shareholders and because of the quantity of production in Hawaii and the Philippines, tariffs were imposed to keep the Cuban sugar trade at peak volume.
At times however, there were uprisings in Cuba which resulted in a drop of Cuban sugar production. During those periods, tariffs on Hawaiian sugar also dropped, which resulted in higher short-term profits for Hawaiian sugar manufacturing and shipping. The interconnectedness of events across oceans, between labor and manufacturing were substantial, with Hawaii and Cuba having a very tangible relationship that affected both development in Hawaii as well as migrant labor and immigration.
It is arguably more than a coincidence that those who opposed statehood most in the 1950s were the Southern Democrats whose constituency were the dominant ex-sugar growers with interests primarily in Cuba. Cuba’s revolution occurred on January 1st 1959, and the Admissions Act was passed by Congress in March of 1959. The Southern Democrats sugar constituency had lost Cuban sugar while still retaining Puerto Rican sugar which had become a Commonwealth of the United States, by Constitutional Convention in 1952.
It was the change of vote by the Southern Democrats that allowed the Admission Act to be passed on March 12, 1959, and signed into law by Eisenhower on August 12th, 1959.
Dismissing the conventional Johnson/Rayburn Tennessee Plan that allowed the Democratic Territory of Alaska to enter the Union before the Republican Territory of Hawaii, an alternative reading as to the why the Southern Democrats suddenly changed their position to vote in favor of Hawai’i Statehood, is simply that the Southern Democrats had lost their control of Cuban sugar and were afraid that the communists were going to take control of Hawaii and dominate the sugar industry there as well. It only took three months from the time of the Cuban Revolution for the Southern Democrats to change their vote, and from where the anti-communist sugar producing lobbyists sat, it looked like the unions were part of the so-called communist conspiracy.
This fiftieth anniversary of our statehood can be seen as a testament to the history of U.S. interests from 1898 onwards, as well as the result of our addiction to sugar. Although Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Hawaii have all attained a different kind of post-colonial governance, it is interesting to note that the strength and solidarity of labor, especially on the international shipping ports have helped to create the kind of internationalism and global trade that we see today.
In Hawaii, this internationalism was best represented by the ILWU, which along with Cuba, was represented by the WFTU– the World Federation of Trade Unions– well into the 1970s. In 2009, while Cuba celebrates it 50 years of independence, let’s hope that Obama lifts Cuban trade sanctions soon.