From Bitter to Sweet

Forget the awful past, say Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul, Florida's sugar barons. It's time to make nice and go into real estate.

Nobody expected a Fanjul to be there. Not at something as unglamorous as a Palm Beach County Commission meeting. But on the morning of July 13, Pepe Fanjul, Jr., strode to the podium and made a two-minute speech that was perhaps the only such public appearance by a Fanjul ever.

The speech was a sales pitch. Fanjul, backed by a team of lawyers and hired environmentalists, wanted to persuade the county to drop on their land the soon-coming Scripps Research Institute's Florida branch. With that project, funded by nearly one billion dollars of taxpayer money, the Fanjuls would have the anchor to build a rural utopia of barrel tile and stucco. Fanjul promised to donate 1000 acres to Scripps as long as commissioners agreed to allow development on 14,000 other acres nearby.

After the sugar harvest was mechanized in 1993, thousands of cane cutters lost their jobs
Colby Katz
After the sugar harvest was mechanized in 1993, thousands of cane cutters lost their jobs
Ernest Robinson (left) used to drive a Fanjul work truck
Colby Katz
Ernest Robinson (left) used to drive a Fanjul work truck

At the podium the Fanjul heir looked decidedly uncomfortable. Sweat ran off his tan brow as he read dryly from a one-page speech. He stumbled over his words with no fewer than seventeen "ums." With slicked-back hair as black as molasses, the classically handsome Fanjul looked like he could be one of Alec Baldwin's brothers. A wiry-framed man at five-foot-nine and 150 pounds, he wore a surprisingly modest, charcoal-gray suit that looked off the rack from J.C. Penney. His eyes darted nervously as he addressed the commissioners. "We will make sure this project is done properly," Fanjul muttered with no emotion.

The speech was an odd coming-out for the supposed next generation of Fanjuls. Pepe Fanjul, Jr.'s, first public appearance did little to paint him as a new-and-improved sugar baron. The plan Fanjul sketched out is mammoth. The family planned to develop the eastern border of its sugar kingdom into a new community ten miles west of Wellington, off State Road 80. The 14,850 acres would include 1000 new homes, 50,000 square feet of retail space, a university for 2000 students, and a sprawling campus for Scripps. Company representatives came armed with a packet three inches thick touting the benefits. The pitch claims the Fanjul empire will generously set aside the western edge of the community for a seven-mile-long preserve that will allow wildlife and water to pass between northern and southern conservation lands. The plan was one of several potential Scripps sites county commissioners considered in July, but the Fanjuls have vowed to return with a development plan -- Scripps or no Scripps.

Perhaps on their side in the PR campaign is the fact that few know much about Pepe, Jr. That's in sharp contrast to the Fanjul elders, whose stories are legend. Since Colonial times, the family had owned plantation-style sugar farms in Cuba, until Fidel Castro's revolutionaries seized all 400,000 acres. The Fanjuls fled to Palm Beach in 1960, where they began amassing a dynasty that systematically conquered weaker sugar companies. Now the oldest Fanjul brothers, Alfonso "Alfy" Fanjul of Coral Gables and José "Pepe" Fanjul, Sr., of Palm Beach, own 180,000 acres. (Alfy is the company chairman and CEO; Pepe, Sr., is vice chairman, president, and COO.) Their land is bigger than Pinellas County, four times larger than Washington, D.C., and seven and a half times the size of Coral Gables.

Not wanting to see their land seized again, as it had been in Cuba, the Fanjuls have shared their profits with politicians -- including the Clintons, the Bushes, and Sen. John Kerry -- through political donations. The Fanjuls have given $2.6 million to politicians and political committees since 1979, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The brothers split their allegiance fairly evenly, with Pepe, Sr., cutting checks for Republicans and Alfy supporting Democrats. (In July 1999, Alfy hosted a fundraiser for the Florida Democratic Party at his Gables Estates home. The guest speaker was his friend the president, Bill Clinton. At $25,000 per person, the sumptuous event raised more than one million dollars.) In return, politicians have given back to the Fanjuls in the form of federal sugar price supports. Sugar in the United States costs three times what it does elsewhere. The Fanjuls get an estimated $65 million per year from government subsidies and have received untold hundreds of millions from the price supports.

Examples of the way the Fanjuls have bought political support are plentiful. In 1996, faced with a proposal to put a penny-a-pound tax on sugar to pay for Everglades restoration -- which has become a necessity largely because of the phosphorous and nitrogen that flow off the sugar fields -- the Fanjuls and other sugar companies spent $24 million to defeat the measure. Big sugar nearly doubled the $14 million spent by Save Our Everglades, the plan's main backer, and voters defeated the referendum. Then last year the Fanjuls joined a lobbying blitz to persuade state lawmakers to delay Everglades restoration by a decade or more. In the two years prior to the vote, Big Sugar hired 33 lobbyists, courted black legislators, and donated one million dollars to state parties. Despite harsh criticism from environmentalists and Congress, the delay sailed through the legislature.

Probably the most famous example of the Fanjuls' phenomenal access to power occurred on February 19, 1996. President Clinton was in the Oval Office trying to explain to Monica Lewinsky why their "intimate relationship" wouldn't work, according to Kenneth Starr's report. A phone call interrupted the lovers' spat; it was Alfy Fanjul chewing out Clinton over presidential hopeful Al Gore's proposal to tax sugar growers to pay for Everglades restoration. The call lasted 22 minutes.

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