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Few deals are sweeter than US Sugar Subsidies

December 9, 2012 in Class War

Pepe and Alfonso Fanjul pose for a PR photo for a PR story about their “generosity” in The LandReport – Nov 29, 2012

Another Story of Two Government Welfare Corporate Brothers–the Fanjuls

Raised in Havana’s exclusive aristocracy, Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul lived in the Vedado section, 17th Street between D and E, in a two-floor mansion with neoclassical balconies, Louis XV-type rooms, Sèvres statues, Chinese kiosks, paintings by Sorolla, Goya, Murillo, Caravaggio, Boucher and Lebrun. The building was expropriated by the Revolution and today is the National Museum of Decorative Arts. Then in 1959, after their father lost one of Cuba’s great sugar fortunes to Castro’s revolution, Alfy and Pepe Fanjul built a new empire in Florida, importing cheap Jamaican labor to do the brutal, dangerous work of sugarcane harvesting, and wielding ever more political power in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.

At 2 a.m. on the morning of January 1, 1959, dictator Fulgencio Batista and his family boarded airplanes and flew away from Cuba. The revolution led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara had won, and, after a general strike and the fall of several government institutions, Castro emerged as prime minister on February 16.

The Fanjul family had been watching a fireworks show in Havana harbor when Batista fled, but they had not been oblivious of the changing attitudes in their homeland. As José “Pepe” Fanjul, scion of Lillian and Alfonso and the current co-head of the family business, noted in an interview with LondonTimes investigative reporter Peter Watson, “My father had tried to get Batista to allow Cuba to return to democracy. So when Castro came in, we were not the first people he went for. Batista’s immediate entourage was executed early on. But then, throughout 1960, pressures were put on the business community, and my grandfather and father thought it was wiser to leave. That year, month by month, the family emigrated.”

There were no public good-byes, no tearful gatherings at the airport, no big public sale of assets. The Fanjuls left unobtrusively with only what they could carry. They left fortunes behind, but they were far from pauperism. When they finally did apply for a particular form of American welfare, it was a far different one from that given to those living in the barrios of Miami and Los Angeles. The Fanjuls get $65 million a year in agricultural subsidies through a federal program meant to support American farmers and sugar producers.

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Thanks to the crooks in Congress and the crooks on the Streets like the Fanjuls, the American people pay twice as much for sugar than anyone else in the world.  Every few years the Fanjuls and the Florida growers lobby tirelessly for the reauthorization of the sugar program established under the 1981 Farm Bill.

Each year Florida Crystals receives about $65 million in price supports; the Fanjuls’ chief rival, U.S. Sugar, takes in $55 million. Although the price of sugar on the world market is 10 cents a pound, American sugar growers by law are guaranteed 21 cents a pound. When the farmers overproduce—as they did last year—and the price of their crop dives, the government takes the surplus at the guaranteed price and holds it in warehouses.

The sugar program adds $1.4 billion to consumers’ bills and funnels about $560 million back to the growers, Harper’s magazine reported in 2001. In the 42 years since the Fanjul brothers left Havana, they have become shrewd practitioners of the quiet ways of American corporate influence. Unlike their counterparts, the Koch brothers  in  the oil industry,  the Fanjul brothers remain out of sight.

Big Sugar’s dark history of labor controversy has been investigated by congressional committees, and most vividly by Alec Wilkinson in Big Sugar, which first ran as a series of articles in The New Yorker in 1989. In the 1940s, the government brought charges against U.S. Sugar, accusing it of violating “the right and privilege of … citizens to be free from slavery”—an allegation not often made since the Civil War. The charges were dropped when a judge ruled that the jury had been illegally selected. Soon after that, sugar companies in Florida were given permission to import “guest workers” from the Caribbean for the cutting season.

They support, with rivers of money, the leading candidates of both American parties. Alfonso supports the Democrats; Pepe, the Republicans.  Then the Fanjul brothers do whatever they want to the flora, the fauna and the human race in Florida.

They destroy the Everglades by extending the cane fields all the way into the swamp. The fertilizer they spread in the plantations consumes the oxygen in water, killing the aquatic life. Conservationists complain, but the authorities ignore the crime because the Fanjul brothers – Florida’s cane kings and purveyors of two of every three teaspoons of sugar Americans consume – use their million-dollar contributions to Washington to buy the law and impose it as they see fit, including the way they exploit their workers.

Ángel Pérez, a Cuban-American who, for 15 years, worked in one of the Fanjul brothers’ sugar mills had been considered a model employee, until he was elected as a union representative and started to file complaints about his fellow workers’ conditions. He was expelled from the mill in the presence of a sheriff. Since he went to work in a company car, he was left without a vehicle, 50 miles from his home.

But the rottenness of the Fanjul brothers is not limited to the United States. It extends to the Dominican Republic, where, in the mid-1980s, they bought cane fields and mills because, according to them, it was “the place most similar to our much-beloved Cuba.”

Cane cutters are paid on an output basis. An average of 90 pesos (US$2.46) for every ton of cane cut. A goodmachetero, young, strong and healthy, can cut up to four tons a day (US$9.84). But then come the withholdings.

Wages are withheld for a “medical insurance” the cutters don’t have. For water they don’t get while cutting on the fields. For light they don’t have in their barracks. For the machete, the boots and the gloves. Even for their consumption of the sugar they buy with the little money they make cutting cane, sunup to sundown.

There are neither papers nor contracts. The Jamaican and Haitian macheteros sign nothing. Their only survival system consists of being careful and not having an accident, not chopping a finger or slicing the tendons in one hand. Because if they don’t work, they don’t eat.

Of course, because they’re good businessmen, the Fanjul brothers use those migrants to increase the production in their cane fields, both in the Dominican Republic and Florida.But something went wrong in Florida when they brought thousands of Jamaicans (on the sly) to work under subhuman conditions.

Alternative publications, such as The Miami New Times, accused the Fanjuls’ company, Florida Crystals, and denounced “the slavery of the sugar barons in Florida.” In November 1986 there was a scandal when about 500 Jamaicans in a site known as Vietnam went on strike to protest against the mistreatment.

The Fanjuls called the police and special agents carrying guns shoved the Jamaicans into buses and deported them.

The Fanjul’s Money and Influence kept a Universal film about them which was directed by Jodie Foster and starred Robert DeNiro from being distributed.

The incident riled up labor unions, labor lawyers and human rights organizations, and was turned into a movie script by actress Jodie Foster, who sold the rights to Robert DeNiro’s production company, Tribeca Films. Foster herself directed the movie and played the role of the Jamaicans’ defense lawyer (in reality, they were defended by attorney Edward Tuddenham). DeNiro played Alfonso Fanjul.

The movie was titled “Sugarland” and was to be distributed by Universal.

From a 2008 interview with Foster:  Another of your projects, Sugarland, also fell through. Why, despite your popularity and that of Robert De Niro, who was supposed to act in the film, did it not come together?  Isn’t it unbelievable? But that’s the way it is. On top of that, Robert quit the project. It’s a film about social politics and, because the world changes so quickly, our screenplay is already outdated.  [ A little too slick there Jodie.  Since when was there a requirement for movies to be about current events, Jodie?]

On the other hand, the Bush administration returned the financial favors the Fanjuls extended to his 2000 campaign in Florida and in 2002 confirmed a continuation of the subsidies the government extends to them as “American sugar farmers,” for the purpose of putting a financial choke hold on Cuban exports.

A 1996 attempt to eliminate that subsidy was voted down and the Congressmen who opposed the bill received $11,000 in donations from the domestic sugar industry. The Fanjuls receive $65 million a year from the U.S. Government. In the Dominican Republic, they are lords and masters. A minister who challenged their abuses on the cane fields, the Spanish missionary Christopher Hartley Sartorius, has his passport seized and was expelled from the country, back to Spain.

Today, the brothers control 50 percent of sugar production in Florida, where they own 728 square kilometers of cane fields, under the name Florida Crystals. They’re worth more than $1 billion.

Proclaim the Queen!