A common assumption is that the Cuban economic elite was universally opposed to the revolutionary government of Fidel Castro from the time it took power in January 1959. But The Sugar King of Havana: The Rise and Fall of Julio Lobo, Cuba’s Last Tycoon shows otherwise.
In his book, John Paul Rathbone, the Latin America editor at the Financial Times, paints a more nuanced picture of the Cuban bourgeoisie and, in particular, of Julio Lobo (1898–1983)— the great Cuban sugar tycoon of the first half of the twentieth century. Reading like an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel with scenes reminiscent of an Elia Kazan film, the book paints vivid descriptions of Lobo’s life and Cuba in general with action on every page.
Born in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1898—the year Spain’s rule over Cuba ended and the first U.S. military occupation began—Julio Lobo Olavarría rose to become a prominent businessman bound to Cuba and to sugar. When his father was hired by the North American Trust Company, the family moved to Cuba. Growing up in Havana during the early years of the First Cuban Republic (1902–1940), Lobo immediately acquired an intense political consciousness.
Like many in Cuba’s upper-middle class, Lobo studied in the United States. Returning to Cuba in 1919, Lobo became involved in the family’s sugar business and saw the industry experience an intense cycle of growth and contraction from 1920 to 1933—the years of the Alfredo Zayas government and the Gerardo Machado dictatorship. His marriage in 1932 to María Esperanza Montalvo, a descendant of sugar industry elites, opened doors for Lobo to the Cuban bourgeoisie.
In Rathbone’s biography, we can see detailed scenes such as Lobo in his black Chrysler, crossing through Havana late on October 11, 1960, to meet with Ché Guevara. Ché would offer Lobo directorship of the sugar industry in exchange for the nationalization of his 14 refineries and canefields, which produced 3 million tons of sugar annually, and two-thirds of his fortune, a sum then valued at some $200 million. Lobo did not give an answer; instead he returned home unable to “conceive that his empire had gone.” We also see the tycoon sharing the view that the First Republic had betrayed the dream of José Martí and that the governments of Ramón Grau (1933–1934, 1944–1948), Carlos Prío Socarrás (1948–1952) and Fulgencio Batista (1940–1944, 1952–1959) had defrauded Cuban citizens.
Rathbone illustrates Lobo the businessman and patriot proud of his wife’s celebrated local lineage, but also the social philanthropist, the collector of art and the founder of libraries. He is cast as a Napoleonic executive who managed to acquire a vast array of art and one of the largest collections of the French emperor’s relics. Lobo admired—along with Fidel Castro, the revolutionary leader who would exile him—the grandeur of the Corsican soldier and politician. The 62-year-old sugar baron and the young revolutionary Castro shared ideas about José Martí and Napoleon, as well as a critical view of the U.S. role in Cuban history and a belief in the centrality of sugar to the island’s economic development.
In short, the reader sees the archetype of the Cuban bourgeoisie sympathizing with the 1959 revolution for its nationalistic overtones, while deliberately trying to ignore its Jacobin radical energy. Through the revolution—and through Guevara in particular—Lobo came to see that it would be impossible to “keep everything as is” in the new Cuba. He was the quintessential symbol of Cuban capitalism and could not exist in the country that Castro and Ché sought to construct.
In the last half-century, the official Cuban memory—a discourse constructed by historians, journalists, ideologues, and politicians—has addressed the figure of Lobo, and the republican elites in general, with rejection. But this rejection has often been cast in varying lights, depending on the extent to which the reality squared with the official discourse of a treasonous, selfish bourgeoisie.
For example, between 1960 and 1980, Soviet-style Marxism-Leninism and revolutionary nationalism were being debated as the official ideology. At the time, two fundamental opinions were held about the republican bourgeoisie: either that it was not nationalist since its interests were completely subordinate to those of the U.S., or that it had never existed since the Cuban economic elite constituted some sort of subgroup within a foreign bourgeoisie that controlled the national wealth.
As Rathbone, a disciple of the French Marxist historian Pierre Vilar, astutely observes, Julio Lobo had been the most tenacious defender of the principle “no sugar, no country” despite two risks. The first was that the view diverged from the island’s own political elites, especially from the most authoritarian ones during the Machado and Batista dictatorships—placing him at odds with these iron-fisted leaders. The second was the risk of clashing with North American policymakers that sought to raise import tariffs on Cuban producers and exporters during the First Republic and pressed for industrial diversification and for the transition of the Cuban economy during the Second Republic (1940–1958).
Using the example of Julio Lobo, Rathbone describes how the island’s business leaders through 1958 were more nationalistic and often opposed to U.S. policies. They aspired to develop the island without abandoning the idea of sugar as its driving economic force. When he refers to Lobo as the “last tycoon,” Rathbone seeks to convey that Lobo was the last of the great businessmen to leave Cuba and that he identified his personal wealth with the national wealth.
Those who, beneath the weight of the myths of the state, still doubt that in Cuba there was a nationalist bourgeoisie that in its own way shared more than a few of the revolution’s fundamental values, should read this book. Those who still insist the entire bourgeoisie was pro-Batista and opposed to the revolutionary government starting from January 1959 should read this book. But this book must not be read to reconstruct that lost world, but rather to understand it better, and to shed the diabolical image that official memory has imposed on it.
His land, art and business expropriated and exiled in 1960, Julio Lobo died in Madrid in 1983, after 20 years living in a small apartment near the Paseo de la Castellana. At that time, the greatest regret of Cuba’s once-richest man was not the loss of his refineries or his stocks and bonds, but rather of the paintings of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Diego Rivera and Salvador Dalí that the Cuban state confiscated after he left the island.