The Sugar King of Havana by John Paul Rathbone

Posted August 10, 2010 by Meoskop in Book Reviews, History, Nonfiction / 0 Comments

A vintage photo postcard of Havana,

After reading The Sugar King of Havana I felt empathy for Cuban exiles. That might seem a simple thing to feel, since these are a people who have lost their way of life and (the older generation) largely live in a shadow culture. My relationship with the concept of the exile community is a bit different. It’s sort of like being angry at Holocaust survivors – no one is going to sympathize with you because your loss is nothing compared to theirs. There used to be a smaller, sleepier version of Miami. I liked that Miami.

Miami has always been a haven for whatever wave arrived on it’s shores. Cuban exiles, Haitian refugees, New York snowbirds, Yankee victors, escaped slaves, mafia retirees, Spanish conquistadors. The more recently assimilated invaders send them into the swamps hoping the gators are hungry. (Even the gators have to contend with new neighbors – anacondas have infiltrated the swamp.) Florida changes and changes again. Still, for me, the concept of Cuba is a knee jerk one of infighting and unreasonable expectations. Cuba was a paradise, nothing bad every happened there, Castro is evil, everyone hates him, nothing good ever happened from Revolution, everyone will go back when he dies and the streets will run with liquid gold. To hear some exiles tell it, probably five people live on the entire island and all of them focus their energy on evading the secret police.
John Paul Rathbone has actually been to Cuba. This is a fantastic thought. People go to Cuba? Cuba is forbidden! It’s the no man’s land! To even venture near to Cuba’s shores is to invite imprisonment or death! Except, it turns out, the Cuban exiles of Miami ¬†represent a very small percentage of Cubans internationally. Most Cubans stayed in Cuba. Many initially supported Castro’s revolution because something had to change, and even if they didn’t know exactly what would happen it would certainly be better than what they had. Until it wasn’t. I imagine if Castro died and the exile community returned home they would be greeted (again) the same way they were greeted here, as strangers with a strange culture bringing things the inhabitants aren’t sure they want.
Using Julio Lobo as the face of Cuba’s upper classes Rathbone illustrates why their way of life was destined, by the history of their people, to end. Like many in Cuba, Lobo supported Castro and believed strongly in patriotism over self interest. Lobo was set on the road to exile when idealism and reality collided. The Sugar King of Havana is not only well researched and enjoyable to read, it explains so many things previously inexplicable about the relationship between Cuba and Miami. In doing so it doesn’t quite justify a world with The Miami Sound Machine, but it certainly explains the religious fervor of Elian’s custody fight.
Now if someone could do something about hipsters wearing Che shirts, we’d be in good shape.