Bitter Sugar

Forget the awful past, Palm Beach's sugar barons say. It's time to make nicey-nicey and go into real estate.

The speech was a sales pitch. Fanjul, backed by a team of lawyers and hired environmentalists, wanted to convince the county to drop on their land the soon-coming Scripps Research Institute's Florida branch. With that project, funded with nearly $1 billion of taxpayer money, the Fanjuls would have the anchor to build a rural utopia of barrel tile and stucco. Fanjul promised to donate 1,000 acres to Scripps as long as commissioners agreed to allow development on 14,000 other acres nearby.

At the podium, the Fanjul heir looked unbearably 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 17 "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 plans 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 1,000 new homes, 50,000 square feet of retail space, a university for 2,000 students, and a sprawling campus for Scripps. Company representatives came armed with a packet that stands three inches high touting the benefits. The pitch claims that the Fanjul empire will generously save 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 area was one of several sites County Commissioners considered in July for Scripps, but the Fanjuls have vowed to return with a development plan with or without Scripps.

Since the harvest was automated in 1993, few workers are needed to run the farm's machines.
Colby Katz
Since the harvest was automated in 1993, few workers are needed to run the farm's machines.
Ernest Robinson (left) used to drive a Fanjul work truck until the fields were automated.
Colby Katz
Ernest Robinson (left) used to drive a Fanjul work truck until the fields were automated.

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 of Palm Beach 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 Fanjul brothers -- Alfonso "Alfy" Fanjul, chairman and CEO; and Jose "Pepe" Fanjul Sr., vice chairman, president, and COO -- own 180,000 acres. Their land is bigger than Pinellas County, four times larger than Washington, D.C., and ten times the size of Boca Raton.

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 Alfy supporting Democrats and Pepe Sr. cutting checks for Republicans. (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 sumptous event raised more than $1 million.) They even give to local officials, including a total of $6,500 to all but one Palm Beach County commissioner (Burt Aaronson). 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 a 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 $1 million 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 came 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 the president over presidential hopeful Al Gore's proposal to tax sugar growers to pay for Everglades restoration. The call lasted 22 minutes.

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. It takes poor kids from the Glades out to expensive dinners to show them what it's like to eat at fancy places. Founded in 1988, the Fanjuls boast that they've donated $1.5 million to New Hope. True, says Mark Coppock, New Hope's chief professional officer, but the Fanjuls' donations make up only 8 or 9 percent of New Hope's budget, says New Hope's chief professional officer, Mark Coppock. The Fanjuls do donate their time occasionally, Coppock says, even joining the children for their high-priced dinners.

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