The espresso culture of Miami has become central to the city’s identity. The third of March has become an unofficial holiday: 3.05 day, commemorating the traditional time for an afternoon cafecito or café con leche from the numerous coffee carts and café windows (ventanitas) that have spread from Little Havana to the rest of the city.
This highly localized consumption culture is nonetheless the result of numerous forces that have shaped the global history of coffee and much more: slavery, revolution, natural disasters, communism, migrant entrepreneurs, and… air conditioning!
This history begins with the introduction of coffee cultivation by European powers in their Caribbean colonies. Cuba was one of the first, but the French dominated coffee cultivation in the eighteenth century.
Saint-Domingue, the French colony on the western part of the island of Hispaniola, became the world’s leading producer by importing massive amounts of slave labor to work on its sugar plantations and coffee farms. However, an uprising among slave populations resulted in the abandonment of more than 1,000 coffee farms, and the Haitian republic that was eventually established in 1804 was unable to regain its position as a leader in the global coffee economy.
Many plantation owners fled to Cuba, where they established so-called cafetals in the Sierra Maestra at the eastern end of the island and a second belt of farms in the hills surrounding Havana.
In 1790, only ten cafetals existed in Cuba; by 1843, there were 582. Taking advantage of the collapse of Haitian trade and the Spanish government’s liberalisation of the slave trade at a time when other powers, notably the British, were abolishing it, the island became the largest coffee exporter in the Caribbean.
In the 1840s, however, a series of severe hurricanes devastated many of the mature coffee plantations in Cuba. Farmers could not justify the reinvestment required to replant them because yields were already relatively low due to soil exhaustion, and international prices were falling as a result of Brazil’s rising coffee production. The remaining output from the cafetals was almost entirely consumed within Cuba.