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"Coffee and Power", by Jeffery Paige

The book “Coffee and Power” by Jeffery Paige has been regularly praised by Chris Blattman (here, here and here), so I thought it might be worth a read and I’ve not been disappointed. And it has one of the best book titles I know.1

  • In his book, Paige describes how an agro and agro-industrial elite took hold of most of the Central American countries in the second half of the 19th century. Their riches were based mainly on coffee, so hence the title.

    After World War II, cotton, cows and sugar became more important. These were more capital intensive and gave more power to the agro-industrial part of the elite which were more friendly towards democracy:

    The coffee export economy created the oligarchic political structures of Central America; cotton and cattle destroyed them. (p31)

    Paige explains the tension between the conservative coffee growers and more progressive coffee processors. In the uprisings in the 1930s these elites held together, but in the 1980s they did not. What makes the experiences of these countries (El Salvador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua) interesting is that they started out from similar initial conditions, then diverged economically and politically and converged again on a similar path.

    After a period of revolutionary turmoil, the three societies seem to be converging on a common model of electoral democracy and neo-liberal economic policy, but they took very different routes to arrive there.

    The divergence in the political system of these three countries was even more striking given their underlying similarities.


    The choice of El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua for this study maximizes the divergence in political outcomes while minimizing the underlying variability among the cases. (p6)

  • Sociologists use a different vocabulary from that used by economists. Some examples:

    Sociology Economics
    subordinate classes workers
    revolution institutional change
    neo-liberal market-based
    world capitalism globalisation
    positivist positive/optimistic
    commercial and military empire powerful state
    class/labor relations wage bargaining, IO, ?
  • The author identifies the narratives people told themselves on what was happening and why.

    They [the elite] made sense of the 1980s crisis by telling themselves and me stories about themselves, their families, their enemies, their countries, and their histories – their pasts, their presents, and their futures. (p48)

    And people shared their stories very willingly:

    Although my intention was to conduct an open-ended but structured interview, it soon became evident that most of those interviewed had a message they wanted me to hear and managed to tell it no matter what the specific questions. For the most part, these stories were told with considerable feeling and urgency. Sometimes they became almost confessional. […]. In the end [my different views] seemed to matter less than a willingness to take seriously what they had to say. (p50)

  1. Just after this great title I came across 2012 in Yangon: “History of Rice Marketing in Myanmar”.