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

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.

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.

Lobo tried to avoid the culture of gangsterism and cronyism that Rathbone describes as having flourished in Cuba. This period followed the military coup known as the Sergeants' Revolt, on Sept. 4, 1933, led by dictator Fulgencio Batista himself -- then an unknown sergeant in the army.

"Lobo, despite his wealth, took pride in his honesty," Rathbone says. "The only way to make money was to make it cleanly -- otherwise it didn't count in his view."

Lobo's philosophy did not keep him safe from attack. On Aug. 6, 1946, Lobo purchased the Caracas Sugar Mill, which would become his largest. That same night, he was shot while driving home and nearly lost his life.

"It was a very close call. He always walked with a limp afterwards. 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," Rathbone says.

In Sugar King, Rathbone explains that the Cuban bourgeoisie, now vilified by the Castro regime, were not necessarily pro-Batista. But they also opposed the idea of communism.

"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.

"[Lobo is] offered the sugar industry in Cuba. And he's offered the chance to nationalize it and make it hum and become efficient, in the way that Lobo had often agitated for in the past," Rathbone says.

But Lobo's response to Guevara was: "I'm a capitalist and you're a communist. And I've been a capitalist all my life."

That night, Lobo knew that was the end. The next day, he went to his office to gather paperwork, but saw it had all been boarded up. After a brief interaction with a young boy in a green uniform sitting at his desk, Lobo left the office, and later that day flew to Mexico and then to New York.

Since most of Lobo's fortune was invested in the island, leaving meant starting over anew. For a while, he did well. But the markets did not go his way, and he lost it all again. Lobo died in exile in Spain in 1983. He was 85 years old. On a recent trip to Cuba, Rathbone found a commemorative plaque in Lobo's former office.

"I was really struck that in an island that still proclaims itself as revolutionary, here was a plaque to 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," Rathbone says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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