New Book: John Paul Rathbone’s The Sugar King of Havana

The Sugar King of Havana: The Rise and Fall of Julio Lobo, Cuba’s Last Tycoon is a new biography by John Paul Rathbone. Rathbone, Lex writer at the Financial Times and former World Bank economist, offers an incisive and detailed look at Cuba in the 1950s through the trajectory of sugar baron Julio Lobo. Jon Lee Anderson (author of Che and The Fall of Baghdad) calls it “a stunning achievement.”  Anderson writes “The Sugar King of Havana is a remarkable book. On the one hand, John Paul Rathbone has written the extraordinary life story of Cuba’s late sugar baron Julio Lobo. Set against the epic sweep of Cuba’s revolutionary history, this is also a deeply personal family memoir that clears a pathway to a part of Cuba’s wounded soul.” Here are excerpts from “’The Sugar King of Havana,’ Cuba’s Last Tycoon” (NPR review) with a link to the full article below:

Around midnight on Oct. 11, 1960, the 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 he didn’t quite know what to expect.

In his new book, The Sugar King of Havana, John Paul Rathbone describes the scene:

“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 part of it, or go.” Guevara wanted Lobo to run Cuba’s newly nationalized sugar industry. Rathbone’s book tells the story of what happened next and what led up to that moment. The book is part biography and part history of Cuba’s main cash crop — sugar.

Lobo is not very well-known, but as Rathbone tells NPR’s Guy Raz, that is why he chose to write 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,” Rathbone says.

He says Lobo’s lifespan itself provides insight into Cuba’s historical transformation. Lobo was born the year after the War of Independence against Spain, in 1898, and left Cuba in 1960. At age 21, just out of college, Lobo brokered the most lucrative sugar deal at that point — worth $6 million — with the British firm Tate and Lyle. “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.'” [. . .] Rathbone says that Cuba was the world’s largest exporter of sugar, and it controlled about half of the world’s “free-floating” sugar market — the market not protected by countries like the United States or Europe. Lobo himself controlled about 10 percent of the Cuban crop.

[. . .] “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,” Rathbone says. “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.”

Lobo’s meeting with Guevara in 1960 shows their complicated connection.

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