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The Rise and Fall of Julio Lobo, Cuba's Last Tycoon

A-The Sugar King of HavanaJohn Paul Rathbone is the Latin America editor for the Financial Times.

The Topic: Many Americans think of pre-Castro Cuba as the playground of millionaires and mafiosi. But the island had its own substantial business class, and Julio Lobo was one of the most successful of this group. Lobo was crafty enough to corner the global market in both sugar and Napoleonic artifacts. He was a spectacularly successful capitalist but also worked to improve conditions for sugar mill workers and secretly funded rebels in the early days of the Cuban Revolution. That revolution eventually turned on him: he lived out his days in Madrid and was largely forgotten by most of the world. Rathbone reconstructs the tycoon's story and uses it to illustrate the many changes Cuba has experienced in the 20th century.
Penguin. 304 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 9781594202582

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"The Sugar King of Havana ... is a picture postcard in print, an elegant and perceptive tale of life on a star-crossed island. ... Through the life of one powerful man and the author's family, Sugar King of Havana snaps Cuba's past into focus, and allows us to see what slumbers, waiting to bloom once more on an island that Christopher Columbus declared to be the most beautiful he'd ever seen." Randy Dotinga

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Although Mr. Rathbone, who grew up on his mother's stories about those ‘elegant, decadent and whirligig years,' occasionally romanticizes Lobo and his world, he gives us a richly detailed portrait of this complicated, conflicted man while deftly weaving a thumbnail history of modern Cuba into Lobo's story. He leaves the reader with a palpable sense of the glittering and increasingly violent world that this ‘new sugar magus' and his family inhabited, and conveys both the profound emotional dislocations of exile and the dangers and persistence of nostalgia." Michiko Kakutani

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"[Rathbone] dives into Lobo's life through letters, documents, and interviews with family members, business associates and friends. He also brings his own family's history into the story--Mr. Rathbone is the son of a Cuban exile who, back home, had moved in the haute bourgeois circles frequented by the Lobo family." Eduardo Kaplan

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"In The Sugar King of Havana, John Paul Rathbone, an editor at the Financial Times, has pulled off a splendid trifecta. He has produced a long overdue biography of Lobo along with a perceptive and unsentimental rendering of pre-revolution Cuba as well as Rathbone's own family story--tracing his mother's trajectory from dazzling Havana debutante to toy store clerk in London." Ann Louise Bardach

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As British financial journalist John Paul Rathbone points out in this ambitious, atmospheric biography, Lobo's life provides the perfect lens through which to examine the rise and fall of the Cuban Republic. ... A former World Bank economist and currently the Financial Times' Latin America editor, Rathbone does an excellent job of detailing how Lobo built the empire and the inner machinations of the international sugar market." Larry Lebowtiz

Critical Summary

No critics disputed that John Paul Rathbone has written an excellent biography of Julio Lobo. Their enthusiasm varied somewhat, however, in relating Lobo's life to the larger story of Cuba. Reviewers interested in business and trade had no trouble understanding Lobo's importance, but many who would have otherwise not shown much interest in sugar were similarly impressed by Rathbone's use of the tycoon's life to show how Cuba has changed. A few critics, however, found the fit unsatisfying and some of Rathbone's personal digressions distracting (his mother was a Cuban exile of Lobo's social class). Overall, though, critics felt The Sugar King of Havana to be essential reading for those interested in business history or Latin America.