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Record Group 2: The Papers and Financial Records of Manuel Rionda y Polledo, 1880-1951

 Record Group

Scope and Contents

Manuel Rionda's papers include more than 150 letterbooks and over seventy-five Linear feet. of subject files from his Wall Street office as well as documents kept at Rio Vista, his New Jersey estate on the palisades of the Hudson River. Manuel Rionda was the epitome of the hands-on industrial manager and demanded of his subalterns, many of whom were nephews and in-laws, detailed and regular reports. The magnitude and detail of his papers is, in turn, matched by a richness of opinions and convictions. He required prompt and detailed correspondence from each mill manager and company president. Rionda also responded personally to the entreaties of his colonos, the cane farmers who supplied cane for the sugar mills. Also included in this record group are Rionda's financial papers including records related to the execution of this estate. Of special note is Series 11 containing the correspondence of Aurelio Portuondo while he served as a negotiator for Cuba in the talks leading up to the Reciprocity Treaty of 1934.


  • Creation: 1880-1951


The collection is open for research.

Biographical / Historical

Manuel Rionda worked at the firm J. M. Ceballos and Co. from approximately 1886 to 1896. During that time, he established a sound reputation among Wall Street's sugar brokers and important links with Cuba's sugar producers. In 1896, he left Ceballos and became a commission agent in Czarnikow, MacDougall and Company (est. 1891). Czarnikow, MacDougall was the North American branch of the eminent London trading house C. Czarnikow, Ltd., one of the world's largest sugar traders.

While Manuel's star rose in New York business circles, his brothers continued to expand and modernize the family's sugar properties in Sancti Spiritus. Manuel's employer, Juan Ceballos, was encouraged to invest in the venture and the Central Tuinucu Sugar Cane Manufacturing Company was incorporated in New Jersey in 1891. (The company's name was shortened to the Tuinucú Sugar Company in 1903.) Tragically, though, Joaquín had died in a drowning accident while fording the Rio Tuinicú on April 7,1889. Francisco Rionda managed the cane fields and factory, and cane was ground at the new mill for the first time in 1895. No sooner had Tuinucu's new mill begun operations, but civil war in 1895 plunged Cuba into economic chaos. Cuba's sugar industry was devastated, and the Central Tuinucu was one of many plantations whose cane fields were put to the torch by Cuban insurgents. Francisco's letters to Manuel in Series 1 chronicle the turmoil of that period. Fearing execution by the insurgents, Francisco and other family members left Cuba in 1898. Before leaving, though, Francisco acquired a significant tract of land around the Bahía de Guayabal in Camagüey province.

Francisco died in New York City in November, 1898, leaving Manuel as the head of the family's properties and businesses. By this time, the United States' victory over Spain in the Spanish-American War had initiated a period of peace in Cuba under U.S. military occupation. Despite initial reluctance to continue in Cuba after 1898, Rionda decided to reinvest in the Cuban sugar industry. First, he was able to secure funds to revive Tuinucu. Then he organized a new company, the Francisco Sugar Company, to exploit the Camagüey land holdings acquired by his brother. Lacking capital of his own to build a sugar mill, Rionda sought out investors. The principal investors in the Francisco Sugar Company were the owners of the W. J. McCahan Sugar Refinery in Philadelphia. The McCahan group managed the company until 1909 when it relinquished ownership and control to the Riondas.

Cuba's war for independence also interrupted Rionda's work in Czarnikow, MacDougall and forced the firm to seek alternative sources of sugar. With the end of fighting in Cuba, however, Rionda plunged into the work he had been hired to do. Ironically, the war had removed or hurt many of his competitors. With the capital resources of C. Czarnikow behind him, Rionda financed old clients and aggressively sought new ones. By 1903, Czarnikow, MacDougall was the dominant company in the Cuban sugar trade. When the company's senior partner, Caesar Czarnikow, died in 1909, a new company was organized. The Czarnikow-Rionda Company was incorporated September 1, 1909, with Manuel Rionda as its president. The new firm was a private company and management of the company was vested in the common stock owned coequally by five individuals. Four of the common stockholders were the remaining partners in C. Czarnikow, Ltd.; the fifth was Rionda. Consequently, control of the company remained in London.

Rionda's relations with the other stockholders were never satisfactory. Rionda believed the Europeans were too conservative to effectively compete for the Cuban sugar market. The London stockholders, for their part, were wary of Cuba's political instability. Incidents such as the Guerrito de Agosto, which resulted in a second U.S. occupation of Cuba in 1906, and a racial conflict in 1912 further soured business interest in the island. In 1915, Rionda announced his intention to retire from Czarnikow-Rionda. His aim was to create his own brokerage house with his nephews, Manuel Enrique Rionda and Bernardo Braga Rionda, as his seconds and successors. Negotiations between the New York and London offices led, instead, to a new five year agreement that reduced British participation in Czarnikow-Rionda. Rionda continued to serve as the company's chief executive and chairman of the board.

Between 1902 and 1922, the Riondas expanded their operations and holdings in Cuba. When several mills passed into the hands of Czarnikow, MacDougall after their owners failed to meet debt obligations, the Riondas stepped in to acquire and manage the properties. In this manner, the Riondas acquired the Central San Vicente in 1907. Another foreclosed mill, the Central San José, was reorganized as the Washington Sugar Company in 1911. Other acquisitions included the Central Elia, a sugar mill adjacent to the Francisco Sugar Company, and the Central Céspedes near La Florida in Camagüey.

Among the financial backers of the Washington Sugar Company was Walter E. Ogilvie, a North American businessman and a major stockholder in the United Railways of the Havana and Regla Warehouses. Rionda and Ogilvie would collaborate on other business ventures. Together, they organized the Regla Coal Company in 1911 and broke the Berwind White Coal Company's monopoly on coal distribution in Cuba. For a brief period in the early 1920s, Ogilvie served as Czarnikow-Rionda's president and attempted a reorganization of the company's operations. When the reorganization failed to bring the desired results, Rionda returned to his position as president.

In 1907, Rionda began a long and beneficial relationship with the law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell. Several partners of the firm invested in the Stewart Sugar Company that operated a large sugar factory in Camagüey province. Rionda served as president during the construction of the mill and the company's initial harvest. His success prompted further business collaboration with Sullivan and Cromwell, and Sullivan and Cromwell

Sullivan and Cromwell also invested in the largest sugar mill constructed by the Riondas. In 1911, Rionda brought together a group of investors that also included Claus Spreckels, Edmund Converse, Regino Truffin, and the financial house of J. and W. Seligman to exploit extensive land holdings around the Bahia de Manatí. The Manati Sugar Company was an immense undertaking and presaged Rionda's most ambitious business venture, the creation of the Cuba Cane Sugar Corporation in 1915. Backed by the financial resources of the Morgan trust, Cuba Cane was able to acquire the properties of seventeen mills that controlled over sixteen percent of Cuba's annual sugar production. Rionda served as president of Cuba Cane from 1915 to 1920.

The organization of the Cuba Cane Sugar Corporation in 1915 was encouraged by the rise in sugar prices brought on by the war in Europe. The entry of the United States in that conflict, however, produced demands at home and abroad for market controls. To achieve price stability and insure supplies of sugar at the same time, various national and international regulatory bodies were created. In recognition of Czarnikow-Rionda's influence in the sugar industry, Rionda was appointed by Cuban President Mario G. Menocal to the Cuban Commission. The Commission, which included Carlos Manuel de Céspedes and Robert B. Hawley, represented Cuba in international negotiations on sugar prices and allocations. Members of Czarnikow-Rionda also served on the Cuban Adjustment Committee, the Cuban Allotment Committee, and the Committee on Compensation to United States Brokers. Market prices for Cuban sugar were tightly regulated during the war, and Rionda played a prominent role in determining the price of Cuban raw sugar.

Despite protests from Rionda and others in the sugar trade, the United States lifted price restrictions on raw sugar in 1919. The result was a frenzy of market speculation known as the "Dance of the Millions." In the space of a few months, the price of raw sugar rose and fell dramatically ruining hundreds of planters and merchants in the process. In response to the market collapse, President Menocal named Rionda and several other sugar merchants to the Sugar Finance Committee. The Committee's task was to assist in financing and marketing the unsold portion of the 1920 Cuban harvest.

The committee's efforts were largely unsuccessful, and Rionda's presence on the committee led to complaints of favoritism and charges of illegal business practices. Other attempts to control the marketing of Cuban sugar followed. In 1929, the Compañía Exportadora Nacional del Azucar, or Vendedor Unico as it was often called, was organized as a single cooperative agency for the sale of Cuban sugars. Rionda exerted influence in Vendedor Unico and its successor, the Cooperative Export Agency.

Efforts to regulate sugar production and marketing on a world-wide scale were also made and Czarnikow-Rionda participated in all of the early international marketing agreements. The company's representative at many of the sugar conferences was Aurelio Portuondo, a Cuban lawyer and a vice-president in the Cuban Trading Company. Portuondo later represented the Cuban government in tariff negotiations with the United States in 1933 and was the company's principal liaison to the Cuban government for many years. In addition to Portuondo, Manuel Rionda corresponded with Thomas Chadbourne, the architect of the 1929 Chadbourne Plan. Rionda also carried on a lengthy correspondence with Viriato Gutierrez and José Miguel Tarafa. Both were prominent Cuban businessmen and important figures in international negotiations.

The 1920s and 1930s marked a slow and steady decline in the Rionda business fortunes. The sugar industry had barely recovered from the effects of the 1920 collapse when the Great Depression brought new economic difficulties and crippling tariff protection. The Francisco, Cespedes, and Manati sugar companies were forced into receivership and reorganized. Cuba Cane, in which the Riondas invested heavily, was a serious drain on the family's resources and was dissolved in 1938. By the mid-1930s, Czarnikow-Rionda's market dominance had been supplanted by its major competitor, Galban, Lobo and Company. Although it continued to play a significant role in Cuba's economic life, Czarnikow-Rionda never regained the influence it enjoyed during the first three decades of the twentieth century.

In his last years, Rionda was preoccupied with keeping his various businesses afloat. Despite losses in its market share, Czarnikow-Rionda escaped dissolution and Francisco, Manati, and Cespedes passed through receivership still under the control of the Riondas. San Vicente and Washington, however, were sold. As the years progressed Rionda's participation in industry affairs waned, but he was active until his death, at 89, on September 2, 1943. Rionda was succeeded as president of Czarnikow-Rionda by his nephew, Bernardo Braga Rionda.


From the Collection: 375 Linear feet (531 boxes, 507 volumes)

Language of Materials

From the Collection: English

Existence and Location of Copies

Much of Record Group 2 is available on microfilm in Latin American History and Culture, Series 7 and 8: Cuba and the American Sugar Trade: The Braga Brothers Collection. Thomson Gale, 2006.

Repository Details

Part of the Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida Repository

George A. Smathers Libraries
PO Box 117005
Gainesville Florida 32611-7005 United States of America