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.