The Sugar King of Havana: John Paul Rathbone

Posted on August 18, 2010

There are 4 stories at play in ‘The Sugar King of Havana.’ The first, and most central, surrounds the life of Julio Lobo, a Venezualan who made a vast fortune cornering the sugar trade in the Republic of Cuba (before the Communist Revolution). The second, and barely separable from the first, is the story of the ill fated and almost mythical Cuban Republic. The third is the story of Rathbone, the author, coming to grips with his Cuban heritage. He tells this story while calling on scenes from the final story, the life of his mother, a player in the same social circles as Lobo before his downfall and exile.

The first two stories are absolutely fantastic; the last two detract to a certain extent simply because they disrupt the flow of the work and, quite honestly, are not as interesting as the life and times of Lobo. Lobo is a fascinating figure, and his life is bigger than anything I could have imagined. He was a great man because he did not play by the rules. He rose above politics, was true to his family and woke up early. That last little tidbit may have been central to his success, as he was in his office a full two hours before the New York trading day began. Oh yeah and he survived a gangland shooting and was offered a cabinet position by Che (that dude on hippie’s T-shirts).

What was most fascinating was Lobo’s worldliness. The son of a wealthy man, he could have gone to any school, but chose to study the science of sugar making at LSU. This knowledge served him well as he built his empire by purchasing undervalued and underperforming mills, turning them into models of efficiency.

His work ethic was prodigious, but what makes him special was that he was beloved by everyone. From his family, to the mistresses he kept, to the farmers and the millworkers he formed lifelong connections with everyone seemed to touch. Put this in the context of the Batista regime.

Rathbone does a masterful job weaving the story of Lobo into the fabric of the island. The impact of this book is bigger than simple history. With the weakening of Fidel, the seeming elitism of corporate America and the proclaimed apathy of my generation, there are many lessons we can take from this book. That you can be a success and not be a sellout. That hard work is the key to fortune. That there can be a wonderful future for our tropical island neighbor. At the basest level, this is a wonderful introduction to one of my favorite periods in time/space: Republican Cuba.

The Sugar King of Havana: The Rise and Fall of Julio Lobo, Cuba’s Last Tycoon

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