The Sugar King of Havana: The Rise and Fall of Julio Lobo, Cuba's Last Tycoon
By John Paul Rathbone
Hardcover, 320 pages
The Penguin Press HC
List price: $27.95
Cuba has known many rich men since Christopher Columbus first introduced sugarcane to the island. At the start of the twentieth century, one Cuban sugar baron tiled the floors of his Havana palace with Italian marble bedded down in sand imported from the Nile. Tomás Terry, the most successful sugar planter of Cuba's colonial years, left $25 million on his death in 1886 — not bad considering that the then richest man in the world, William Backhouse Astor, left just $50 million. Yet Cuba does not have to look back a century or more to find extreme riches. In Havana today to have Croesus-like wealth is referred to as serrico como un Julio Lobo —to be as rich as a Julio Lobo. After almost five decades of communism, Lobo's fabled wealth has become folkloric, and he has become emblematic of a way of life that existed in Havana before the dictator Fulgencio Batista fled the island on New Year's Eve 1958. Julio Lobo was the richest man in Cuba before Castro's revolution did away with such things.
Every Cuban schoolchild knows Columbus's description of the island as being "more beautiful than any I have ever seen"; it is Cuba's first exaggeration. Yet the island has also suffered a commensurately cruel history, like so many beautiful tropical places. Lobo was born in 1898, the year that Cuba won independence after thirty years of fighting against Spain, and he left the country in 1960, two years after Castro's guerrillas came down from the hills. So his life tightly frames the sixty-odd years of the Cuban Republic. In his heyday, Lobo was known as the King of Sugar, not just of Havana but of the world, with an estimated personal fortune of $200 million, about $5 billion in today's dollars. Yet he was also a financier of such talent that Castro's government, which was Communist, asked Lobo, a full-blooded capitalist, to work for them after the revolution had begun. So Lobo captures the period's contradictions too.
I had been fascinated by those elegant, decadent, and whirligig years all my life. The curiosity was an inevitable outgrowth of my mother's exile. She was born in Havana and raised into a conventional world as a child of the Cuban haute bourgeoisie. Her father owned a department store in the center of town; her grande dame mother presided over the home. Her parents mingled in the same world as Lobo's, and my mother was a close friend of his younger daughter. Years later, when I was a child and couldn't sleep, my mother would stroke my hair and murmur descriptions of her life in Cuba with its balmy Caribbean beaches until I closed my eyes. The props for her stories of an almost dreamlike prerevolutionary life were the photograph albums that she kept on a bottom bookshelf in our living room in London. They had ragged brown leather spines, which creaked when you opened them. The stiff black pages inside were separated by tissue paper, which crackled as you turned them. Some of the photographs had slipped their bindings and stuck together. Then you could only glimpse croppings of a disappeared world: an empty table at a cocktail party, the back of someone's head, a man's ankle disappearing into a polished black shoe on a marble step. But most of the photographs had survived intact.
There she is in one faded polychrome, seventeen years old, beaming, dressed casually, sitting cross-legged on a wall, her loafers tucked under her shins. A later photograph, this time in black-and-white, shows her standing next to her first boyfriend. The handwritten caption underneath anticipates later boyfriends and later pages; Victor y Yo, Victor and I, soon becomes Antonio y Yo, and then Walter y Yo — the characteristic concerns of a Cuban debutante. One sequence of photographs shows her uncharacteristically demure in a white ball dress, walking down a spiral staircase at the Havana Country Club during a fashion gala. Turn the page, carefully, and there she is again, this time performing an elegant arabesque while ice-skating at Havana's Blanquita Theater on First Avenue and Ninth Street, since renamed the Karl Marx Theater. Another shows her with a group of friends standing in the shallow end of a swimming pool, cocktails in their hands, all laughing. It looks like a scene of bourgeois American life in the 1950s, perhaps in Connecticut. Only it is a photograph of a swimming pool at one of Julio Lobo's many estates outside Havana where my mother sometimes stayed. It is also the same pool that Lobo supposedly filled with perfume so that Esther Williams, the Hollywood starlet of Bathing Beauty, could practice her swimming routines when she visited the island. Such are the legends from which revolutions are made, and then justified.
From The Sugar King of Havana: The Rise and Fall of Julio Lobo, Cuba's Last Tycoon by John Paul Rathbone. Copyright 2010 by John Paul Rathbone. Excerpted by permission of the Penguin Press HC. All rights reserved.
Even as a schoolboy growing up in London, I knew that prerevolutionary Cuba with its perfumed waters had indisputable failings. Everyone in 1970s England told me so; the message seemed to be in the very air I breathed. The red double-decker bus that I took to school each day passed a fashionable clothes shop on Kensington High Street called Red or Dead, which later became Che Guevara, and when that shop finally closed down a restaurant opened opposite, called Bar Cuba. Not only was that distant island ruled by one of the world's longest-serving heads of state — whose accomplishments in health and education I was perforce quick to recognize — everybody seemed to revere him too. It was embarrassing. Even as a British schoolboy wearing shorts, a cap, and scuffed black shoes, I wondered if Cuba's failings had been so exceptional as to have nurtured a revolution that had once brought the world to the brink of nuclear war and had dispersed my mother's family and so many others around the world. It was so at odds with the stories that my mother and her family told me, even though I recognized them as tales of privileged, upper-class Cuban life.
I held the question inside me for many years, teasing away at its contradictions in only a tangential way. After college, I left England and worked as a journalist and economist in Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela. I was searching, of course, for echoes of my mother's family's past: the music, some of the food, the fast almost slurred Spanish, the mixture of social casualness and Latin formality, the beauty of the mornings before the heat burnt away their color, and the unforgettable smell of guavas rotting in the sun that always draws one back to the Caribbean, as Gabriel García Márquez once put it. Yet while I spent a decade living around the Spanish Caribbean, I never visited Cuba. One reason I stayed away from the island, I told myself, was to inoculate myself against tropical lyricism. When I eventually traveled to Cuba, I wanted to be able to see through its vehement sunsets, palm trees and romantic colonial past, in the same way that I wanted to see beyond the glamorous life captured in my mother's photographs. More important, I avoided Cuba because I feared that I wouldn't recognize the island from her stories. Worse, I feared that it wouldn't recognize me.
Finally, I began to make short trips. For a while, in the 1990s, I even ran a newsletter out of a London basement that described the travails of the Cuban economy and what it meant for the island's future. It was a confusing time. The collapse of the Soviet Union had ended Moscow's thirty-year patronage of Fidel Castro, and many exiles hoped that his revolution would finally end too. In Miami, expectations swelled of an eventual return and, among the older generations, maybe even something of those glorious prerevolutionary days as well. In Havana, Castro deftly turned those expectations in on themselves. Even as the Cuban ship of state seemed to be sinking beneath him, he conjured up a mythic image of prerevolutionary Cuba, only it was an abject vision rather than golden. There can be no going back, he exhorted. ¡Socialismo o muerte! I objected to Fidel; I objected also to the feverish hatred of many exiles' anti-Castroism. From England, the vehemence of their passions, their bitterness and rage, sometimes had the feeling of a flat earth society. Publishing the newsletter, I became briefly what others called an expert. I gave talks in Europe and the United States, at universities and in government departments. Yet the more expert I became, the less truth I recognized in much of what I read or heard. Even the best commentary from the island was driven by a government-sponsored sleuthing that aimed to uncover a malignant force — usually capitalism. Yet neither did I recognize a rounded picture in the sugar-coated memories told to me in Miami. In time I came to see that exile imposed a kind of selective censorship, a critical numbing that might otherwise tarnish glorious memories, which can be all that is left when everything else is taken away.
Then I became interested in Julio Lobo. His life and business empire helped shape the troubled years of the Cuban Republic, the very era I was interested in. If any story could reveal how Cuba worked in the prerevolutionary years and disentangle the questions that I held inside me, I thought, it would be his. Remarkably, there was no biography. Even the best history books only mentioned Lobo briefly. Such fragments were tantalizing; they suggested a richer and more complicated life, lived on a bigger canvas.
Some writers believed Lobo was Dutch and his name a Hispanicization of "Wolf," which lent him the ruthless air of a restless egoist, the evil speculator of Communist lore. Others praised his philanthropy. I look at his jowled hound's face in an old photograph, glowing like white stone, and see the look of a solitary man who loved reading and books. In another I examine his stilled gaze, focused on an event taking place outside the frame. Unfreeze and rewind these single images, though, and Lobo's life has the explosiveness of a Hollywood movie, one that might have screened in a Havana theater in the days when the city had 135 cinemas — more than New York. Lobo swam the Mississippi as a young man, fenced in duels, survived assassins' bullets, was put against the wall to be shot but pardoned at the last moment, courted movie stars, raised a family, made and lost two fortunes, and once told Philippe Pétain, Marshal of France (perhaps apocryphally but also in character): Je veux dire un mot: merde, shit.
Yet more than all this is how Lobo's life mirrors, in extreme Technicolor, the repeating rises and falls of the Republic. This is more than a literary conceit because Cuba, as is often said, constantly relives its past. Certain events and themes—bewitchment, prosperity, decline, revolution, exile and return—repeat themselves in recurring cycles that are as old as the island itself. Telling are the first words of the memoir that the Condesa de Merlin, "Cuba's Scheherazade" and a Havana-born ancestor of Lobo's first wife, wrote 170 years ago as she watched the island appear on the horizon from the poop deck of her sailing ship: "I am enchanted!" Yet telling too, for me, was the apprehension she felt disembarking again in Havana after a long absence. The condesa, whose father's house survives in the Plaza del Mercado, feared she might not know the city after living in Paris for forty years. Worse, she was anxious that it might not know her.
When I began to write this book, Castro was still strong enough to stand in the midday sun and give two-hour-long speeches. As I finished it, he had vanished from view, suffering from a severe intestinal disorder, having handed power over to his then seventy-six-year-old younger brother, Raúl. "The Revolution is stronger than ever," Raúl had proclaimed in 2009 on the occasion of the revolution's fiftieth anniversary. "Glory to our heroes and martyrs." News photographs of the event showed Raúl dressed in military uniform, addressing an invited audience of elderly army officers under the hot Caribbean sun. It was a significant symmetry: half a century before, a young and charismatic lawyer had taken power in Havana, displacing a corrupt dictator, while an old general, President Eisenhower, sat in the White House. Now, fifty years later, a young, charismatic, and black lawyer was in the White House, while an aging white general sought to maintain the dream of a flawed revolution in Cuba.
Far too much, whole libraries, has already been written about the revolution. As the island limps toward the end of the Castro brothers' rule, what interests me more are the events that preceded and caused it. A famous historian once suggested to me that recovering a better knowledge of this history could play as crucial a role in the country's future as it did in Russia before the fall of the Soviet Union. If so, thinking about Cuba's "before" therefore also meant thinking about its "after." In Havana, a wise friend counseled me that this was a vain and preposterous task. Better, he said, to ponder something else, as so many people had been proven so wrong over so many years. I only half took his advice, though, as it is impossible not to wonder about Cuba's future even if I have done so through the lens of its past.
I think of a speech that Winston Churchill gave in the House of Commons when Neville Chamberlain died in 1940. The great British wartime prime minister — who first saw action in Cuba as a young man, where he began to smoke large cigars — described to Parliament how history, "with its flickering lamp, stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days." So it is that my concern here is with the flickering myths, untold stories, and simple facts that surround the life and businesses of Cuba's once-richest man, and the Cuba in which he lived. Sometimes I have turned to my mother's family to help reveal these half-hidden times. This is not out of any sense of vanity. Rather it is because they also formed part of a prerevolutionary way of life that supposedly heaped so many inequities on the island that civil war, the exile of a tenth of the population, and the enduring struggle of those who remained were somehow inevitable. Shrunken, their stories form part of a calumnious revolutionary narrative that diminishes Cuba's past — sometimes inglorious, but not always. Expanded and brought back to life, they also suggest happier futures.