The sweet taste of success
In the United States, we say that someone is “as rich as Rockefeller.” Cubans, even today, say someone is “as rich as Julio Lobo.” It’s their folk memory of a sugar-industry magnate who died in sad exile in Madrid in 1983, but endures as a symbol of his country’s pre-Castro highs and lows.
Lobo, who was worth $200 million in 1960 currency before he lost almost everything to the Revolution’s confiscation, dominated the sugar market. Che Guevara asked Lobo, known for his honesty in a corrupt culture, to stay in Cuba to run the sugar industry as a top bureaucrat; Lobo, a loner and a natural risk-taker, fled the country the next day with a single suitcase rather than comply.
British journalist John Paul Rathbone is ideally suited to write The Sugar King of Havana, a colorful, even-handed account of Lobo and his Cuba. Rathbone’s mother is a Cuban exile who grew up in Lobo’s upper-class Havana circle and was a friend of his younger daughter. His book is really a dual biography, of Lobo and of his own interesting, lively Cuban family.
Rathbone is able to see with both sympathy and detachment the two sides in the never-ending conflict between those Cubans who believe Castro’s dictatorship destroyed a paradise and those who believe the Revolution brought education, health care and independence to a country strangled by American economic imperialism. He argues that both views are distortions of real-life complexities.
On one point, Rathbone is unflinching: Today’s Havana is dismal and repressed compared to the vibrant, sophisticated city that was Lobo’s home, and that still lives in the pages of The Sugar King of Havana.