Alfy Fanjul, the sugar daddy

Sep 17, 2008
Charles Laurence

Alfonso Fanjul Jr’s family fled Castro’s Cuba. Thanks to state help they now enjoy a monopoly on sugar in the US

Alfonso 'Alfy' Fanjul Jr is 'Big Sugar', the patriarch of the Cuban family which dominates the huge sugar industry of Florida, and he is not the kind of man who needs a business degree to know how to sweeten a deal.

His is the fifth generation of a family which owned the lion's share of the Cuban sugar industry, slave plantations and all, before Fidel Castro's revolution seized their land, smoke-stack refineries and Havana palaces in 1959.

While Castro went broke, the Fanjuls sailed to Florida with cash, jewels and a few paintings, and went back to business. Fifty years later, his profit protected by a federal regulation that pegs the price of sugar at a minimum 18 cents a pound in the US compared to between six and 12 cents elsewhere in the world, Fanjul (above with his wife, Rayza Herrera) is poised to complete his conquest of Florida's sugar country.

His company, Flo-Sun Inc, is about to buy up the last 187,000 acres of sugar cane it does not already own in the state, and a nice new refinery that comes with them. That is what is left of Flo-Sun's last commercial rival, US Sugar. But the really neat trick is that Fanjul and his family are buying it not at the market rate from US Sugar but on the cheap from the Florida state government.

The Fanjuls live in Palm Beach and are listed among America's richest families. But nobody knows much about them because they keep their gateways locked, their lawyers on retainer and their holding company private so they need publish no books.
They own Tate and Lyle's north American interests (purchased in 2001), Domino and California and Hawaii (C and H), so whichever packet of sugar a customer takes from the supermarket shelves, they are buying Fanjul. When CBS television ran a mini-series called Sugar in 2007, the show was hailed as "the Cuban Sopranos". The Fanjuls sued, and the producers issued public statements saying that Sugar had nothing to do with Alfy's operation.

How did the Fanjuls persuade the state of Florida to hand over 187,000 acres of sugar cane? First, the Fanjuls are good pals with the Bush family. When Dubya Bush ran for President in 2000, the Fanjuls made maximum contributions to his campaign; when Dubya's brother Jeb (left), Florida's governor, called for the recount that took the White House from Democrat Al Gore and gave it to Bush, Fanjul's lawyer Joseph 'Pit Bull' Klock was the man who defended the recount against legal challenges, though Fanjul denied paying his fee; by the time Jeb reached his term limit in 2007 and handed over to new governor Charlie Crist, the plan for the state to buy US Sugar for $1.75bn was already in place.
The ostensible reason for the purchase was that the state needed - for environmental reasons - to restore the water flow from Lake Okechobee to the Everglades swamp. To do this, they needed a swathe of land owned by US Sugar. But saving the environment involved only 24,000 of the 187,000 acres belonging to US Sugar. So what should the Florida taxpayers do with the remaining 163,000 acres and new sugar refinery? Let Fanjul take it off their hands! "This is going to be a really good deal for the Fanjuls," says Dexter Lehtinen, a former US prosecutor turned environmental lawyer.

In the 1990s, a series of prosecutions stopped the Fanjuls' age-old tradition of cutting costs by shipping in workers from the Caribbean, keeping them in barracks behind locked gates, and charging them for food while paying below-minimum as they harvested with machetes.

But it didn't stop Fanjul making friends with the men in power. When he faced a government plan to end a lucrative tax break in February 1996, he knew what to do: he telephoned President Bill Clinton to complain. No one would ever have been the wiser if it had not been Fanjul's lobbying call - made public in Kenneth Starr's famous impeachment report - that distracted the Horn Dog from a blow-job bestowed by an intern named Monica Lewinsky.

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