Cocaine’s Rise and Fall: A New Global History


Coca Plantation, Madre de Dios, Peru, Benedicte Desrus 

by Elaine Carey

Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug,
by Paul Gootenberg,
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 442 pp.

As someone who also has become interested in the scholarly analysis of the commodity flows of miracle powders, tinctures, and plants, I would rank Paul Gootenberg’s Andean Cocaine as an outstanding contribution to the history of narcotics and to the new global history. A prolific scholar, his writing on Andean cocaine (as well as other commodities) captures the historical contradictions of coca. By examining those contradictions, Gootenberg enriches our understanding of the material world of coca and its place in geopolitics, culture, society, and economics. He opens his book by juxtaposing the tales of two Peruvian men who were connected by the coca leaf: scientist Alfredo Bignon and Eduardo Balarezo. The former saw his work with cocaine as a path to scientific glory and riches for his country. Seventy years later, the latter saw cocaine as a vehicle to acquire personal riches without the complexities or hard work of science. The two men represent the promise and compromise of one of the most important and controversial commodities of the Andean region and the world.

This important book challenges previous sensationalist accounts with a detailed historical analysis that positions coca and cocaine as a miracle plant, medicine, and ultimately vice. Gootenberg avoids the pitfalls of many earlier studies that succumbed to a simple picture of a nation-state involved in a valiant struggle against vice. Gootenberg’s analysis is far more complex. In the introduction, he states that his research benefited from an unprecedented accessibility to materials. He spent years compiling diverse forms of evidence, far more extensive and comprehensive than laid behind previously published works. Like cocaine, his methodology took him across numerous borders, truly creating a global history. He conducted research in countless archives and collections in Bolivia, England, Germany, Mexico, Peru, and the United States. He sought evidence from government documents, industry collections, and private archives. From his research, we gain a global perspective of cocaine that traveled from its Andean roots in various forms and for an array of purposes to all parts of the world. This book represents the best practices within the discipline of history.

Gootenberg’s work clearly demonstrates an evolving approach to the history of narcotics. His global analysis compliments those works that more narrowly focus on a particular drug in a particular place, such as Joseph Spillane’s Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States (2000). Moreover, Andean Cocaine expands our knowledge of the commodity chain and global markets, and describes how over time a successful product evolved into a global vice. In turn, Gootenberg’s Andean Cocaine provides the historical background that connects to the historical inquiry of William Walker III and the contemporary analysis of Peter Andreas and Ethan Nadelmann, all of whom have explored the rise of policing in response to processes of illegalization that resulted in increasing transnational narcotics control.

Early in the book, Gootenberg makes an important distinction between coca and cocaine. Europeans and Americans never widely consumed coca in its traditional form (similar to khat), but readily embraced the more potent, and toxic, cocaine. Cocaine was a modern-day miracle–a treatment for all that ails whether menstrual cramps, alcoholism, or chronic neurasthenia. Proponents declared that it had the same remarkable healing properties as morphine and later heroin; moreover, medical researchers argued that it could even treat those afflicted with morphine addiction. Peruvian scientists and entrepreneurs saw economic opportunity in the miracle drug and formed the Coca Commission to foster the mass-market appeal of coca leaf that was being exported to be processed. Gootenberg effectively argues that coca was a classic export commodity that engendered national and international backing. He relates how the local coca market and production intersected with the global, such as pharmaceutical companies, both reputable and not, and later with Pemberton’s Coca Cola.

Throughout the book, Gootenberg presents a host of diverse actors with ties to the commodity chain, giving it an international flair and offering a complex analysis of the multiplicities and intricacies of the coca and cocaine industries. Numerous people came to cocaine through research, production, and distribution, from German and Austrian immigrant communities and leading scientists to French and American manufacturers as well as European colonists who introduced coca into their colonies, producing other successful markets, such as Dutch Java. Peruvian politicians squabbled over control of the emerging coca markets, but faced ruthless, well-financed international competition.

Gootenberg traces coca and cocaine’s phenomenal rise from 1890 to 1910. After 1910, the perfect export commodity encountered greater competition from Asia; moreover, the lack of technological and agricultural improvements further marginalized the crop. The biggest shift, however, arrived with the antidrug policies that emerged in the early 1910s and led to a decline in the appreciation of cocaine’s “miracle” medicinal properties. The United States, joined by other nations, sought greater controls of “illicit” substances, resulting in the decline of a successful export commodity that had more than simply one use. The local market survived into the 1940s; however, as Gootenberg recounts, the global and more lucrative international market suffered, destroying Bignon’s dreams of a modern Peru. Gootenberg’s final sections capture the reemergence of cocaine as an illicit transnational drug. Here, the  scope of cocaine in the 1950s looks remarkably similar to that of the 1980s, except that New York City was the leading port of entry rather than Miami. Lastly, he demonstrates the Pan-American involvement in trafficking of cocaine in which Bolivians, Brazilians, Chileans, Mexicans, and Peruvians played key roles in supply and distribution.

Gootenberg’s Andean Cocaine is an essential work for any scholar or student of the histories of narcotics, Latin America, and economics. Gootenberg readily embraces the dramas of transformations as coca flowed north, south, east, and west. For scholars of the present, this work complements the research of anthropologists and sociologists who study illicit flows because it provides a much-needed and detailed historical analysis of the political, social, cultural, and economic intricacies of cocaine. For teaching purposes, Andean Cocaine is an excellent example of the new global history for graduate students and advanced undergraduate students. It may be difficult to use at a general undergraduate level. That being said, because of the way Gootenberg has written and organized the book, separate chapters may be read as essays, since all contain brief explanations of previously discussed material. With a proper introduction, the individual chapters surely would find an interested audience in undergraduate classes.

Piece originally published at H-Net Reviews  |  

About the Author:

Elaine Carey is Associate Professor of History at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. Her research and teaching into feminist history are ongoing.