Then I became interested in Julio Lobo. His life and business empire helped shape the troubled years of the Cuban Republic, the very era I was interested in. If any story could reveal how Cuba worked in the prerevolutionary years and disentangle the questions that I held inside me, I thought, it would be his. Remarkably, there was no biography. Even the best history books only mentioned Lobo briefly. Such fragments were tantalizing; they suggested a richer and more complicated life, lived on a bigger canvas.
Some writers believed Lobo was Dutch and his name a Hispanicization of "Wolf," which lent him the ruthless air of a restless egoist, the evil speculator of Communist lore. Others praised his philanthropy. I look at his jowled hound's face in an old photograph, glowing like white stone, and see the look of a solitary man who loved reading and books. In another I examine his stilled gaze, focused on an event taking place outside the frame. Unfreeze and rewind these single images, though, and Lobo's life has the explosiveness of a Hollywood movie, one that might have screened in a Havana theater in the days when the city had 135 cinemas - more than New York. Lobo swam the Mississippi as a young man, fenced in duels, survived assassins' bullets, was put against the wall to be shot but pardoned at the last moment, courted movie stars, raised a family, made and lost two fortunes, and once told Philippe Pétain, Marshal of France (perhaps apocryphally but also in character): Je veux dire un mot: merde, shit.
Yet more than all this is how Lobo's life mirrors, in extreme Technicolor, the repeating rises and falls of the Republic. This is more than a literary conceit because Cuba, as is often said, constantly relives its past.
Certain events and themes - bewitchment, prosperity, decline, revolution, exile and return - repeat themselves in recurring cycles that are as old as the island itself. Telling are the first words of the memoir that the Condesa de Merlin, "Cuba's Scheherazade" and a Havana-born ancestor of Lobo's first wife, wrote 170 years ago as she watched the island appear on the horizon from the poop deck of her sailing ship: "I am enchanted!" Yet telling too, for me, was the apprehension she felt disembarking again in Havana after a long absence. The condesa, whose father's house survives in the Plaza del Mercado, feared she might not know the city after living in Paris for forty years. Worse, she was anxious that it might not know her.
When I began to write this book, Castro was still strong enough to stand in the midday sun and give two-hour-long speeches. As I finished it, he had vanished from view, suffering from a severe intestinal disorder, having handed power over to his then seventy-six-year-old younger brother, Raúl. "The Revolution is stronger than ever," Raúl had proclaimed in 2009 on the occasion of the revolution's fiftieth anniversary.
"Glory to our heroes and martyrs." News photographs of the event showed Raúl dressed in military uniform, addressing an invited audience of elderly army officers under the hot Caribbean sun. It was a significant symmetry: half a century before, a young and charismatic lawyer had taken power in Havana, displacing a corrupt dictator, while an old general, President Eisenhower, sat in the White House. Now, fifty years later, a young, charismatic, and black lawyer was in the White House, while an aging white general sought to maintain the dream of a flawed revolution in Cuba.
Far too much, whole libraries, has already been written about the revolution. As the island limps toward the end of the Castro brothers' rule, what interests me more are the events that preceded and caused it. A famous historian once suggested to me that recovering a better knowledge of this history could play as crucial a role in the country's future as it did in Russia before the fall of the Soviet Union. If so, thinking about Cuba's "before" therefore also meant thinking about its "after." In Havana, a wise friend counseled me that this was a vain and preposterous task. Better, he said, to ponder something else, as so many people had been proven so wrong over so many years. I only half took his advice, though, as it is impossible not to wonder about Cuba's future even if I have done so through the lens of its past.
Excerpted from The Sugar King of Havana by John Paul Rathbone. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) John Paul Rathbone, 2010.
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