The Sugar King of Havana

The true story of a sugar baron’s star-crossed life in Cuba.

The Sugar King of Havana: The Rise and Fall of Julio Lobo By John Paul Rathbone Penguin Press 320 pp., $27.95

Severely wounded by assassins, a dapper man named Julio Lobo lies on an Army hospital bed in Havana and listens as a colonel reassures everyone in the room that Cuba’s “Sugar King” is safe.

There won’t be any problem at all, the colonel declares. The fabulously wealthy man who dominates the island’s most lucrative product can recuperate here as long as he’d like. Then he leans in and whispers a few words to the patient: “But if I were you, I would leave immediately as the people who shot you are nearby.”

Lobo, who had more than a passing interest in films and movie stars of the female variety, might have been reminded of the famous “Casablanca” scene where a police captain declares himself to be “shocked, shocked!” to discover gambling in an establishment, then politely thanks a croupier for his winnings.

Lobo, just barely alive, fled immediately. As his long and productive life showed, he was no fool. And as the man who controlled a big chunk of one of the world’s most desired commodities, he was hardly unfamiliar with two sides of the same coin.

He’d lived through wealth and ruin, and watched his beloved country fall in and out of love with capitalism. Soon, he’d be called on the carpet by Che Guevara and have to make a choice about his future in a country where wealth and capitalism became enemies of the state.

But for now, he is simply fighting to survive, his struggle foreshadowing the tough times that would soon plague Cubans and spawn golden myths of a halcyon past before the troubles came.

In his new book, journalist John Paul Rathbone tracks the life of Lobo and his country through much of the 20th century. The Sugar King of Havana: The Rise and Fall of Julio Lobo, Cuba’s Last Tycoon is a picture postcard in print, an elegant and perceptive tale of life on a star-crossed island.

A biography of Lobo alone would be only moderately gripping, considering that he was a savvy businessman and genteel playboy but not much else. He lived in interesting times, however, and his story shimmers against the backdrop of Cuban history.

The man whose last name means “wolf” arrives on the scene at his birth in 1898, the year of the Spanish-American War. He watches Cuba spin from republic to dictatorship to Castro, complete with Havana’s 1950s stint as “the greatest party town on earth,” akin to prewar Berlin.

As he grows up, he learns to control and manipulate the world of sugar, gathering a fortune estimated at $5 billion in today’s dollars, while still managing to care more than most about his workers.

Sugar kept Cuba afloat during much of a turbulent 20th century, bringing in countless millions and creating a sophisticated and cosseted class of the well-to-do. (Most upper- and middle-class girls weren’t allowed to take buses or visit public parks, schools, or beaches.)

Rathbone could have done more to explain the mechanics of sugar production, which plays a crucial role in the rise of Cuba. But he has a keen eye for the sounds, sights and smells of Cuba. He takes readers on a tour of life among the glamorous rich whose supposed villainy is wrapped in a haze of exaggeration and hatred.

Rathbone is especially adept at drawing stories of Lobo out of a variety of interesting characters who are still around, including the one-time Hollywood star Joan Fontaine, a close friend who brushed away a marriage proposal.

In a heartrending moment, Fontaine suddenly turns from friendly to flustered in a phone conversation about the man who meant so much to her. “Oh dear,” she says, and hangs up.

Rathbone’s own personal story adds another dimension to the book. He’s the son of an upper-class Cuban woman who hobnobbed with the Lobo clan, and he shares his own emotions as he visits the country his mother would describe as she lulled him to sleep as a child in England.

For the past 50 years, Americans have seen Cuba as little more than the home of dangerous Communists and embittered refugees.

Through the life of one powerful man and the author’s family, “Sugar King of Havana” snaps Cuba’s past into focus, and allows us to see what slumbers, waiting to bloom once more on an island that Christopher Columbus declared to be the most beautiful he’d ever seen.

Randy Dotinga regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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