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Review of John Paul Rathbone's biography of Cuban sugar tycoon Julio Lobo

By Ann Louise Bardach
Sunday, August 15, 2010; B06

THE SUGAR KING OF HAVANA

The Rise and Fall of Julio Lobo, Cuba's Last Tycoon

By John Paul Rathbone

Penguin Press. 304 pp. $27.95

"To be as rich as Julio Lobo!" goes the refrain, still heard in Miami and Havana, usually with a sigh of envy or nostalgia. And while the list of Fidel Castro's enemies is long and storied, few can lay claim to a more fabulous tale than the legendary Lobo. Consider that Castro's revolutionary government ejected the fabled sugar czar from Cuba in 1960, dispatching him into exile with only "a small suitcase and a toothbrush." Not long before, Lobo had an estimated fortune (in 2010 dollars) of $5 billion.

In "The Sugar King of Havana," John Paul Rathbone, an editor at the Financial Times, has pulled off a splendid trifecta. He has produced a long overdue biography of Lobo along with a perceptive and unsentimental rendering of pre-revolution Cuba as well as Rathbone's own family story -- tracing his mother's trajectory from dazzling Havana debutante to toy store clerk in London. Rathbone's nuanced blending of familial and national history lends this work poignancy and depth. (Castro -- not one to be outdone -- made his first public speech in years -- albeit a mere 12 minutes on August 7 after being sidelined since 2006 following botched intestinal surgery. He published yet another tome of his memoirs -- 833 pages! -- to mark his 84th birthday on August 13.)

Curiously, early in his life, Lobo was exiled by another Castro. In 1900, his parents, a Sephardic Jewish self-made businessman and his Venezuelan-Basque wife were expelled from Caracas by its newly installed tyrant, Cipriano Castro (no relation) and arrived in Havana when Lobo was 1 year old.

Later, Lobo -- backed by his banker father -- invested his capital and his genius in the indispensable commodity of sugar. Very quickly, he dominated not only Cuban sugar but often the world market. And while Lobo was ruthlessly competitive (his name means "wolf" in Spanish), he also implemented progressive worker reforms in an industry once synonymous with slavery.

He was a renaissance man, boundlessly curious, with a command of business, politics, history and culture. He assembled a priceless collection of art, most notably Napoleonic memorabilia, and he courted movie stars, including Joan Fontaine and Bette Davis. He was reputed to have filled the swimming pool at one of his estates with perfume for swim diva and film star Esther Williams. "Such are the legends from which revolutions are made," Rathbone dryly notes, "and then justified."

Contrary to popular myth, many of Cuba's business elite were appalled by the slavishly corrupt government of Fulgencio Batista, and none more so than Lobo. While other sugar barons sensed trouble in Castro's fiery speeches (the powerful Falla-Guti?rrez family stowed $40 million in foreign banks on the eve of the Revolution), Lobo, ever the Cuban patriot, made a fateful miscalculation. He stayed put and continued to invest in the country's sugar business, maintaining his vast holdings, art collections and properties in Cuba. After all, he had outwitted his rivals for half a century, survived an assassination attempt that took out a piece of his skull and reasonably believed he could do business with Castro. Indeed, Lobo had generously aided the rebels.

It was none other than Che Guevara who disabused him of this quaint notion. "It is impossible for us to permit you, who represent the very idea of capitalism in Cuba, to remain as you are," the rebel commander informed Lobo after summoning him to a midnight meeting. But in recognition of Lobo's savvy and indispensability, Che made him an offer: Though his properties and assets would be seized in a matter of days, Lobo could stay on and run his sugar mills for the revolutionary government for a modest monthly salary. Though Lobo wondered at the time if his refusal "had consigned him to prison or worse," he opted to leave -- with nothing.

Rathbone offers nicely etched portraits of Lobo's two daughters, who endured a lifelong adversarial relationship with each other. Leonor, the eldest, scaled Pico Turquino, Cuba's tallest peak, as a young woman, while the more intellectual Mar?a Luisa, a friend of Rathbone's mother, became an art collector in Miami. It was Mar?a Luisa who began to visit Cuba in 1975, seeking some rapprochement with the Castro regime, as well as the return of some of the family's confiscated art. She was bitterly disappointed in both pursuits.

In exile, Lobo had occasional successes as a sugar trader working out of his New York office, but he never replicated his past triumphs. He was, after all, a sugar king who had been divested of his sugar mills. Still, he remained an impulsive Romeo, even proposing to Bette Davis. When he died in Madrid in 1983, his fortune had dwindled to $200,000.

Rathbone's own family never regained the status they enjoyed in Cuba. "Indeed, very few . . . prospered in exile," he writes. His grandparents lived in a cramped two-room apartment near the airport in Miami, and some of his cousins settled in Queens.

Only one omission in this book strikes me as significant: the fact that the finca (property) of the Castro family abutted two famous foreign-owned sugar conglomerates, United Fruit and the West Indies Sugar, both Lobo rivals. Certainly, the irony that the Bush family were major shareholders of the latter (George Herbert Walker Jr., uncle of George H.W. Bush, served as a director of West Indies Sugar until its confiscation in 1959) -- and thus Lobo competitors, merited mention.

In another stroke of historical irony, Lobo's forced exile turned out worse for Cuba than for him. Fifty years after his departure, the Cuban sugar industry, regarded as the backbone of the country's economy, is in a shambles. Less than one third of its mills are operational, and those that do produce, do so at a fraction of their previous productivity.

As it turns out, the fates of sugar and Cuba appear to be the same.

Ann Louise Bardach, a reporter for the Daily Beast, is the author of "Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Washington and Havana" and "Cuba Confidential." She is a member of the Brookings Institution's Cuba Study Project.

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