Cuba’s Sugar King
By Pedro Pablo Morejon
HAVANA TIMES – Sometimes, we need to take a break and not write about everyday life. Everything is sad and depressing. This hardship that threatens to swallow us whole every day and is feeding a climate of terrifying violence, murders and robberies are reported on social media every day.
Health centers in ruin, without necessary conditions, ambulances and medicine. Repression at its peak ever since July 11, 2021. Inflation, blackouts, the fuel crisis etc.
Sometimes, a part of my conscience tries to censor me. “Don’t get people reading you to feel sorry for you, don’t look like you’re complaining like a cry baby,” I tell myself.
I don’t want to write about any of this today. Today, I want to tell you the story of a character that younger generations, including my own, don’t really know about. Maybe the older ones will remember him.
Julio Lobo, Cuba’s sugar king. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1898, to a Sephardic Jewish family (which is the name given to Spanish-speaking Jews that settled in Spain centuries ago), his parents moved to Cuba when he was only two years old.
They were well-to-do and sent their son to the United States to study, and he began to build his sugar empire upon his return to the island.
Baptized the “sugar king” by everyone, over half of the six million tons of sugar produced here came out of his sugar mills. Cuba was with sugar what Arab countries are with oil, and global prices were controlled from Havana and Julio Lobo controlled this process.
The tycoon used revenue from this industry to broaden his investments in banking, shipping companies and an airline. One of his objectives was to get US capital out of the island, according to his major biographer, author John Paul Rathbone.
He bought lots of mills belonging to US owners because he felt that Cubans should be in control of the country. He made all of his fortune and invested it here. Back then, he was the richest man in Cuba, and some people estimate that he was worth over 4 billion USD in today’s money.
It’s interesting to note that he had one of Cuba’s most extensive libraries and the most complete collection of Napoleonic art outside of France, including a molar, a lock of hair and a shiny urinal that belonged to the General himself.
According to several historians, he also owned paintings by Raphael, Michelangelo, Da Vinci and dozens of oil paintings and engravings by Goya.
Lobo was never interested in politics, but he was a die-hard anti-Batista supporter and so he helped the opposition by funding it, sending money to the Sierra Maestra to the rebels under Fidel Castro’s command.
But “the Comandante came and ordered everything to stop,” like the famous song by Castrista folk singer Carlos Puebla goes. According to the story many historians tell, including Rathbone, which inspired me to research and write this article, Che Guevara summoned Lobo to his office as President of the Cuban National Bank, on October 11, 1960, because he had an extremely important matter to discuss with him.
I guess Julio Lobo went knowing that this meeting would change his life forever. They sat face-to-face, a fanatic and austere Communist on one side, and the businessman, the last symbol of Cuban capitalism, on the other.
Word has it Che was brief, he proposed (how ironic!) that he’d take over Lobo’s property, Cuba’s sugar industry. In exchange, Lobo would keep the mansion where he lived and the usufruct of Tinguaro, one of his 14 sugar mills and his favorite.
The rest would become “the people’s” property, that is to say, warehouses, refineries, sugar brokers, his radio communication agency, his bank, his shipping company, his airline, insurance company, oil company, etc. Lobo asked for a few days to think it over.
The story goes – although this hasn’t been verified – that when he left the office, an army officer told him, “This is how we wanted to see you, Julio Lobo, butt naked,” to which Lobo replied: “I was born butt naked, I’ll die butt naked and I’ve enjoyed the best moments of my life butt naked.”
The following morning, when he went into his office, he asked his secretary to help him collect some important documents, that then became his archives which his descendents still hold onto. “It’s over,” he said and he headed North on a plane two days later.
Ever since then, his empire began to be torn apart within the framework of nationalization. The new “revolutionary” Government, who had granted him a letter of safe passage to leave the country, took control of his assets in the name of the Revolution.
His articles about sugar were taken to Cuba’s National Library. The thousands of relics and objects he owned from Napoleon are now at the Napoleon Museum in Havana.
His collection of paintings make up most of the collection at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, but nobody knows where other more valuable paintings – such as the works by Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael and other famous painters – ended up. I think they were stolen, and we can already imagine who took them.
His mansions are now tenements in ruin almost, or offices or ministries. Regarding the majority of his mills that were seized, we already know their fate… they are now forgotten sugar refineries and their communities.
Word has it he spent his last few years being looked after by his first wife, who he’d divorced years before.
His last wish was to be cremated in a light-fitting guayabera shirt and for a Cuban flag to cover his coffin.
5 thoughts on “Cuba’s Sugar King”
I read a very good book titled, ” The Last Sugar Cane King of Cuba”, and it is the complete story of Julio Lobo, of which I imagine a lot of this article has been referenced. His parents were from Venezuela and his father was a prominent banker. Their mansion, which then became Julio’s mansion, upon their passing, is now the Ministry of Culture, located at Calle 11 entre 2 y 4. Incredible Mansion!!!!!! Julio Lobo himself spent many years living in Miramar and his office was in Havana Veija on Calle Reilly, close to Havana Bay!! Julio was an international businessman and was one of the richest men of his time, controlling 75% of all the sugar in the world, until the revolution stole everything!!!!
To be sure, Lobo was no saint. His sugar mills were symbols of savage capitalism. Lobo’s known racist and sexist reputation more than reflected the social mores of his time. That said, stealing his legal property in the name of the Revolution doesn’t correct Lobo’s wrongs with the wrongs of governmental theft.
Great story Pedro, and well written. The purest example of how communists destroy everything they touch. The rich empire of Julio Lobo they stole, and swiftly pissed it away. 600 million tons of sugar reduced to not enough to satisfy the needs of the Island. I’m glad that you have the resourcefulness to write for Havana Times, I hope that you submit your diary to 14 y medio as well to reach a broader readership.
Nice article Pédro. You might add that Ché Guevara, recognizing Lobo’s talent, asked him to stay and oversee the nationalized sugar mills. He thought about it and decided not too and left the country.
Guevara appreciated his fairness and support for his workers and respected that he would be of real value to the new Cuba, but it was not to be.
Nevertheless, he remains a great example of what Cuba can achieve when focused on the realities of the way economies work.
A tale of Dickensian times re-enacted in the 20th century. Not cops and robbers, but thieves and victims.
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