'The Sugar King Of Havana,' Cuba's Last Tycoon Few people have heard of Julio Lobo, but his history is intertwined with that of his home country. Lobo was Cuba's richest businessman until the revolution drove him into exile.
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'The Sugar King Of Havana,' Cuba's Last Tycoon

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'The Sugar King Of Havana,' Cuba's Last Tycoon

'The Sugar King Of Havana,' Cuba's Last Tycoon

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Around midnight on October 11, 1960, the Cuban revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara summoned Julio Lobo to his office at the Central Bank in Havana. It was 22 months after the communist takeover, and Lobo knew his luck would soon run out.

He was Cuba's richest businessman, an avowed capitalist. And so, when he arrived to meet the young revolutionary - Guevara was just 32 years old at the time - he didn't quite know what to expect.

Mr. JOHN PAUL RATHBONE (Author, "The Sugar King of Havana"): (Reading) Guevara leaned forward in his chair, still formally polite, firm and clear. In so many words, he told Lobo that the time had come for him to make a decision. The revolution was communist, and he as a capitalist could not remain as he was. Lobo could either stay and be a part of it or go.

RAZ: Guevara wanted Lobo to run Cuba's newly nationalized sugar industry. The story of what happens and what led up to that moment is told in a new book by John Paul Rathbone. That was his voice you just heard. His book is called "The Sugar King of Havana," and it's part biography and part history of Cuba's main cash crop: sugar.

John Paul Rathbone is in London.

Welcome.

Mr. RATHBONE: Thank you.

RAZ: Very few people have ever even heard of Julio Lobo. Why did you decide to tell his story?

Mr. RATHBONE: Perhaps partly because so few people know about him. When you read Cuban history books, you see his name always as a footnote to some large deal, some large sugar crop, but his life is sort of shadowy and mysterious. And in time, I came to see Lobo as a kind of machine with which to explore the pre-revolutionary period.

RAZ: And you sort of use him as a kind of a template to tell the story of Cuba's modern history. How does he sort of fit into that?

Mr. RATHBONE: Well, there's his lifespan to start off with. He was born in 1898, the year that the Spanish left Cuba after the War in Independence, and then he left the Cuban Republic in 1960, shortly after his meeting with Che Guevara.

And because he was so rich and so powerful and so intimately involved in the island's most important industry, which is sugar, his life becomes this vehicle to tell the story of pre-revolutionary Cuba.

RAZ: Let's start out with his early life. At the age of 21, you describe he was just out of college. He went to Louisiana State University in the U.S., actually, to study the sugar industry. He brokered at the time the most lucrative sugar deal in the world. It was worth $6 million, with the British firm Tate and Lyle. Was that the beginning of what would become his sugar empire?

Mr. RATHBONE: That was his first big move. At the time, it was the world's biggest sugar deal, and he stole it from under the nose of a sugar merchant in Cuba called Manuel Rionda, very powerful figure and part of the London trading firm Czarnikow-Rionda.

And I think it was that trade which gave Lobo the confidence - he'd been ambitious ever since a child - to think that he really could become Sugar King.

RAZ: At the height of Julio Lobo's power, how much of the global sugar market did he actually control?

Mr. RATHBONE: A lot of the sugar market was protected within countries such as the United States or Europe. But there was a free-floating sugar market, and Cuba controlled about half of that. And Lobo controlled about 10 percent of the Cuban crop, and Cuba was the world's largest exporter.

RAZ: Now, we often think of Cuba's turning point as January 1, 1959. That was the date that communist revolutionaries overthrew Batista, Fulgencio Batista, the dictator. But you point to another date that you say is equally significant. It sort of divides one kind of Cuba from another kind of Cuba, and that date is September 4, 1933. What happened that day?

Mr. RATHBONE: This was the so-called Sergeants Revolt. When the young Fulgencio Batista, then an unknown sergeant in the army, led a protest for better conditions for non-commissioned officers in the Cuban army.

The backdrop here is the Great Depression. Everyone everywhere in the world is hungry. And then at the same time, there was instability in Cuba because of the Great Depression. And students joined with Fulgencio Batista, and they overthrew the government of the time.

RAZ: And you describe how that moment in 1933 would eventually lead to a culture of cronyism and gangsterism in Cuba that Julio Lobo almost became a victim of.

Mr. RATHBONE: Lobo, despite his wealth, took pride in his honesty. He saw it as the only way to make money was to make it cleanly. Otherwise, it didn't count, in his view. Cuba was extremely corrupt, and there were these rebel groups that I just mentioned.

And supposedly, he refused to pay $50,000 in protection money and as a result of that was mowed down in a style that is very reminiscent of a Chicago-style assassination attempt during the Prohibition Era.

RAZ: And of course, he survived that but barely, right?

Mr. RATHBONE: It was a very close call. He always walked with a limp afterwards. He, through the rest of his life, he had some shrapnel very close to his spine, and one bullet plowed through his skull and took four inches of bone off.

RAZ: You're hearing John Paul Rathbone. He's the author of the new book "The Sugar King of Havana." It's a biography of a man named Julio Lobo who at one time was the richest man in Cuba.

You write that Julio Lobo was different. He was obviously a capitalist and a successful one. But it wasn't so cut and dry, and you write about this class of people, the so-called Cuban bourgeoisie, who are obviously vilified by the Castro regime today, but they were not necessarily pro-Fulgencio Batista and his regime. They opposed his rule, but they also opposed the idea of communism. And Julio Lobo was, I guess, a prime example of that, right?

Mr. RATHBONE: The vast majority of Cubans on the island, including the wealthy and the well-to-do, opposed Batista. And why not? He'd taken power in a coup in 1952. He was corrupt. The mafia was a rising influence. There was not very much that anyone really liked about him.

So when Fidel Castro came along, and he's a romantic figure, he's in the Sierra, he's with his rebels, they want to bring down Batista, but that didn't necessarily mean communism at the time.

The idea that the upper classes in Cuba were opposed to Fidel Castro, or more accurately, that they didn't want Batista out is wrong. And there were various ways in which the upper-middle classes supported the rebels, if not Fidel Castro's, others', or some Fidel Castro himself, as Lobo did.

RAZ: We heard the story in the introduction about how Lobo is summoned by Che Guevara one night in October, 1960. He's offered a job in the communist government. What happens?

Mr. RATHBONE: Well, he's offered more than a job. He's offered basically the sugar industry in Cuba. And he's offered the chance to rationalize it and make it hum and become efficient in the way that Lobo actually had often agitated for in the past.

Lobo at this time is '62, and he replies to Guevara that, I'm a capitalist and you're a communist, and I've been a capitalist all my life.

RAZ: Tell me about the day that he left Cuba for good.

Mr. RATHBONE: He, after his interview with Che Guevara, he went home, and he that was when he realized that, in fact, everything was over. And he was he spent the night more or less immobilized in his bedroom. He locked the door, and then he finally recovered himself the next day and went to his office in Old Havana.

And when he went there, he went into his office to gather up some papers, but everything was boarded up, and there was a young boy sitting in olive green uniform in his chair with his feet up on the desk.

And this young boy said to Lobo, now we've got you where you want you, that's to say naked, i.e., stripped of all his possessions. And Lobo, who was very witty, shot back immediately, Chico, I was born naked, I will die naked, and some of my happiest moments have been naked.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RATHBONE: And then he turned on his heel and marched off. And that - and later that day, he took a flight to Mexico and went to New York.

And he actually - he was fully invested in Cuba, so he only had very few assets outside the island, and he set about trying to remake his fortune.

RAZ: What was life like for him after he left Cuba?

Mr. RATHBONE: Well, for a while, everything went swimmingly well. He started, he kept on trading sugar. He was still a financial genius. He still had his contacts.

He said at one point that he'd made back all his money, and when Castro fell, in his words, he was going to return to Cuba and reinvest it all and rebuild the island and become richer than ever.

But then one day, he zigged on the markets when he should have zagged, and he lost everything. And it was really a terribly sad ending for a man because he really had been the king, and this was his great humbling.

RAZ: How is he remembered in Cuba today? Is he remembered as sort of a capitalist villain or something else?

Mr. RATHBONE: I was in Cuba in April, and I was truck that his old offices have now been renovated. And on the wall of his office in Old Havana, there's a plaque honoring his memory and his life, and there's a very simple but accurate and quite long description of his life.

And I was really struck that in an island that still proclaims itself as revolutionary, here was a plaque to a historical figure who you would have thought could easily be painted as part of the evil tyranny of capitalism and imperialism but on the contrary was being sort of tacitly praised.

RAZ: That's John Paul Rathbone. He's the Latin America editor for The Financial Times and the author of the forthcoming book, "A Sugar King in Havana." It comes out this week.

John Paul, thank you so much.

Mr. RATHBONE: Thank you.

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