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Steve Striffler, In The Shadows of State and Capital: The United Fruit Company, Popular Struggle, and Agrarian Restructuring in Ecuador, 1900-1995 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002). American Encounters/Global Interactions series. xi, 242 p. Paper (0-8223-2863-1) $18.95.

Review by Marc Becker, Truman State University (March 2002)

In The Shadows of State and Capital examines the shift in agricultural production on the Tenguel hacienda on the southern Ecuadorian coast from cacao in the early twentieth century to banana production under the United Fruit Company during mid-century to contract farming in the last part of the century.  Based largely on oral life histories, local "popular" archives, and company records, Steve Striffler examines how peasant and worker struggles contributed to capitalist transformations and historical changes that brought an isolated part of Ecuador from the margins to the center of a global economy.

This book does for our understanding of peasant struggles in Ecuador what E.P. Thompson's classic study did for our interpretations of the English working class.  Rather than placing class struggles and political organizations at the center of the study, Striffler provides a historical and ethnographic analysis of agrarian restructuring in Ecuador through the lens of "politically engaged human actors" (5).  Such transformations are never smooth or one dimensional, but must be understood in the context of how these political and economic forces interface with each other.

Rather than discounting the United Fruit Company as a negative force in Ecuador, Striffler (as well as the subjects of this study) recognize the advantages that the company brought–including better wages and better benefits (47).  In popular memory, the period of economic growth in the 1950s was contrasted with the cacao period which was a "time of slavery" and the subsequent modernizing agrarian reform programs which for the peasants led to debt, disorganization, and the loss of land to local capitalists (138).

This is not a triumphalist history of oppressed peasants overcoming the odds of state and capitalist repression to emerge victorious at the end.  Peasant invasions of United Fruit Company land in the 1960s led to the multi-national corporation's departure from Ecuador, but the subsequent failure of cooperatives and the emergence of contract farming actually left the workers worse off than before.  Yet, Striffler insists that "we must, in short, begin to understand how the failed (yet conscious and organized) struggles of subordinate groups shape historical processes" (17).  "To stop the historical narrative at just the moment when subordinate groups have achieved some long-sought-after goal," Striffler writes, "is not only populist, and dangerously so, but bad history" (110).

Indeed, the book is organized into two parts which, simplistically, could be labeled as the rise and fall of popular organizing efforts in Ecuador.  "If the first half of the book demonstrated how popular organizations transformed a particular system of production," Striffler writes, "the second half outlines the opposite: namely, how a new system of production, backed by the state, transformed popular organizations and struggles" (127).  Striffler's sophisticated interpretations of the interactions between government officials, international corporations, local capitalists, and subaltern actors make this a landmark book which will earn it a place in leading studies of a new peasant history.

This well-written and compelling book crosses many borders between history, anthropology, sociology, and political science.  It will be of interest to anyone interested in ethnographic, labor, economic, and international relations issues during the twentieth century not only in Ecuador, but throughout Latin America.