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.

As they built their fortune, the Fanjuls tried to polish their public image by creating New Hope Charities. The organization runs a medical clinic in Pahokee and an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, where the family owns posh resorts. It takes poor kids from the Glades out to expensive dinners to show them what it's like to eat at fancy places. The Fanjuls boast that they've donated $1.5 million to New Hope since its founding in 1988. In reality, the Fanjuls' donations make up only eight or nine percent of New Hope's budget, says the charity's chief professional officer, Mark Coppock. The Fanjuls do donate their time occasionally, Coppock says, even joining the children for their high-priced dinners.

When New Times asked in June to tag along next time they come by New Hope's offices, however, Coppock said that would be difficult: "I'm having trouble tracking them down. One's in London; the other is in Spain. It's summertime, as you know."

Pepe, Jr., joined the West Palm Beach-based Florida Crystals just two years ago, after working as an investment banker in New York, former Fanjul spokesman Jorge Dominicis says. While he splits his time between a Park Avenue apartment and a $2.4 million home in Palm Beach, Fanjul isn't devoted to playing the role of socialite, as his family has done since it fled Cuba. It may be that the young Fanjul has been something of a bad boy. In October 1991, at 1:30 a.m., a Metro-Dade police officer pulled over Fanjul's white BMW for speeding along Crandon Boulevard, near Sundays on the Bay. Fanjul, then twenty years old, gave the cop a fake ID and failed roadside sobriety tests, according to the resulting police report. The sugar heir explained that he was driving because he wasn't as drunk as the passengers in his car, the report states. The ID was from friend Juan José Arteaga, who now says he didn't know Fanjul was using his license. "No one informed me of that," says Arteaga, a Miami real estate investor. Prosecutors charged Fanjul with three crimes: DUI, driving with a suspended license, and using a counterfeit ID, a felony. But in the end, like many children of the privileged, Fanjul got off easy. After he attended a four-hour pretrial intervention class, all charges were dropped, according to court records.

El jefe, Alfonso "Alfy" Fanjul
El jefe, Alfonso "Alfy" Fanjul
Lamont Oliver escaped the sugar fields, which he says broke many of the imported laborers
Colby Katz
Lamont Oliver escaped the sugar fields, which he says broke many of the imported laborers

Now, José Fanjul, Jr., is officially the senior vice president for Florida Crystals, likely in line to take over the billion-dollar company. After his speech before commissioners in July, Fanjul and his team of attorneys and environmentalists continued their sales pitch. In the hallway outside the commission chambers, they crowded around Rosa Durando, the diminutive environmentalist who speaks for the Audubon Society of the Everglades. Attorney Mitchell Berger, a major Democratic fundraiser and former board chairman of the South Florida Water Management District, did most of the talking. "This generation," he told Durando, "wants to do the right thing. We are environmentalists too."

A doubtful Durando agreed to sit down with the Fanjuls. The meeting launched their campaign to convince critics that they're not as bad as their reputation, which, if history means anything, is ghastly.

Back when cane cutting was done by people and not machines, no one worked the fields if they knew better. The Fanjuls and other sugar farmers recruited mainly Caribbean workers who came with little idea how rough it would be in the fields. On November 1, 1986, those imported workers had finally had enough and organized an impromptu strike. Gathering outside the decrepit barracks on the Fanjul property, a place they called "Vietnam," they demanded fair wages for the backbreaking work. What they got was a trip home.

Rather than negotiate, the Fanjuls assembled a force of Palm Beach County deputies, Belle Glade police, and Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers. Using the threat of guns, K-9 units, and nightsticks, the cops rounded up the men and placed them on buses. They were forced to leave their belongings behind in the barracks. The Fanjuls then shipped them to Miami International Airport, where 384 workers were forcibly deported. The Fanjuls kept the men in a Hialeah warehouse until loading them onto chartered airplanes to Jamaica, says Greg Schell, managing attorney for the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Lake Worth. In a rare interview for the February 2001 Vanity Fair, Alfy Fanjul expressed his regret over the "mishandled" incident. He told writer Marie Brenner, "I am sorry that it was handled that way."

Last week Cantens said only one side of the incident has been told. He claims the company sent the workers home only after they became violent, threatening Fanjul employees with the machetes they used to cut cane. The men were in the United States to work, and if they refused, they were not permitted to stay, Cantens asserted. While no previous news accounts or reports of the uprising mention violence from the workers, Cantens stuck by this new version: "While we regret the incident happened, we didn't cause it."

The deported workers sued the Fanjuls after what had come to be known as "the Dog War," and in 1995 the family agreed to pay $355,000, about $1000 for each worker. But the Dog War is just one of many examples of the Fanjuls' rough treatment of workers and, in light of their efforts to recast their image, seems emblematic of the way the family does business. As environmentalists and lawmakers decide whether to trust the Fanjuls to develop in the Everglades, it may be wise to remember the family's past.

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