A few years back, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen invited a Congressional reporter to observe her daily ritual of making Cuban coffee. She percolated a pot of Café Bustelo, placed “a healthy amount of sugar,” in a separate cup, and then added “a few drops of coffee into the sugar ”
She stirred aggressively, “that’s what makes the ‘espuma’ or the foam” she explained. “Thicker foam makes for better coffee. That’s the mystique. Well, that and the sugar.”
As she tells her staff: “You can’t have too much sugar.”
Now, thanks to Alfy Fanjul, whose recent interview in the Washington Post triggered a reaction among embargo supporters akin to an immense sugar rush, she’s probably cutting back.
If tobacco bound the agonized history of the American South to the broader national experience, sugar is the commodity that has tied the United States, Cuba, and Florida – our people, our economies, our politics – together for three centuries.
Louis Pérez, in his landmark work, On Becoming Cuban, chronicles the pervasive influence of U.S. corporations on the island felt most powerfully at the sugar mill. Sugar was the feedstock for the wealth and power amassed by Cuba’s most influential families for generations before the revolution; among them, the Fanjul family, which started its sugar operations in the 1850s. Fidel Castro’s father, Ángel Castro raised sugar cane; and his son experienced the allure but also the exclusion of foreign corporate sugar interests which, according to one history, “enraged” him.
The United States was Cuba’s largest market for sugar exports. The industry’s mills were among the first U.S. assets nationalized by the revolution. President Eisenhower in December 1960 retaliated by prohibiting the imports of sugar in the U.S.; the following year, sugar plantations were targeted for bombings and shipments of Cuban sugar were targets for contamination.
The Fanjul family fled the island for Florida, which soon replaced Cuba as this country’s sugar bowl. They reestablished their business, and began selling sugar under brand names like Domino and Jack Frost. According to one report, their holdings include more than 400,000 acres of land, with holdings that comprise as much as 12% of Palm Beach County, operations in 20 U.S. states, Canada, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico.
With politics as their industry’s protection, the Depression-era farm program that props up domestic sugar growers has been immune to the cuts that have hit nearly all other federally-supported commodities. This has enriched the Fanjuls, some estimates say, by as much as $60 million annually, while raising food prices, as Progreso Weekly reports, for us all.
Naturally, a fraction of this money is recycled into the system through campaign contributions to friends in Congress who vote with Big Sugar, philanthropy to public causes, and support to the institutions painstakingly built in Florida and Washington to keep the embargo in place, while the most hardened enemies of the Cuban government cling to the embargo and wait for the Castro brothers to die.
This notion of a “biological solution” fixing Cuba, so alive in the minds of some exiles, has never succumbed to realities such as the long life spans of Fidel and Raúl Castro or the implausibility of their successors giving up what they spent their lives creating. Paradoxically, there is a counterpart notion in the minds of Cuba policy reformers; namely, that this stupid embargo policy will never die until patriarchs like Alfy Fanjul “age out” of the South Florida political demographic as well.
In his interview with the Washington Post, Mr. Fanjul told reporters about his travels to Cuba, his meetings with the foreign minister, and his willingness to make investments in Cuba.
Significantly, Mr. Fanjul would invest without waiting for Cuba to satisfy the preconditions written into the Helms-Burton law by public officials, many of whom his family has supported financially, which otherwise require the embargo to remain in place.
As Phil Peters wrote this week, “Short of Jorge Mas Canosa arising from the dead and saying, ‘Never mind,’ it’s hard to think of a bigger shift in the Miami political landscape than the news that the Fanjul brothers have traveled to Cuba and would like to invest there.”
To put it mildly, these statements from someone the Post called “one of the principal funders of the U.S. anti-Castro movement,” enraged leading supporters of U.S. sanctions on Cuba. Representatives Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who last year published an op-ed denouncing Cuba’s government for “enforcing political conformity” using “public acts of repudiation,” repudiated Mr. Fanjul for deviating from the hardliner’s hardline.
Rep. Diaz-Balart said, “Some might be blind to the Castro regime’s brutality and ruthless oppression, but Alfonso Fanjul’s betrayal is compounded because he knows better. In her statement, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen said, “it’s pathetic that a Cuban-American tycoon feels inspired to trample on the backs of those activists in order to give the communist thugs more money with which to repress.”
One critic predicted Fanjul would soon be hiring Cuban slaves to produce sugar. Another demanded a Congressional inquiry into his travel and concluded his post: Mr. Fanjul, “your travel papers please.” The former staff director of the House Foreign Relations Committee proposed a policy change to deny any recipient of farm subsidies the right to travel to Cuba.
It’s hardly a surprise that the Fanjul interview sparked such a vitriolic family feud. Change is unsettling, but never more so when the prospect of change occupies such a distant horizon, as it has in Cuba and the U.S. for so many decades. Located there, change can be foreboding, not hopeful.
We’ve been tantalized and disappointed by the auguries of change before. And yet, what is happening now makes so much sense: movement toward normalization before the revolutionary generation in Cuba “ages out,” sped forward by a 76-year-old exile living in South Florida who says he just wants to do business back home and reunite the family.
Most of us believe this is where history was taking us anyhow. If this leaves a bitter aftertaste with the remaining supporters of the embargo; well, isn’t that what sugar is for?