Bitter Sugar

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

When New Times asked in June to tag along next time they come by the charities' 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 doesn't spend much time in 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 1991, a Miami-Dade County police officer pulled over Fanjul's white BMW for speeding. Fanjul gave the cop a fake ID and failed roadside sobriety tests, according to a police report. The sugar heir explained that he drove because he wasn't as drunk as the passengers in his car, the report states. The ID was from friend Juan Jose Arteaga, who now says he didn't know Fanjul was using his license. "No one informed me of that," says Arteaga, a real estate investor in Miami. 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. Charges were dropped in exchange for attending a four-hour pretrial intervention class, according to court records.

Now, Jose 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 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."

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.

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

ack when cane cutting was done by people and not machines, no one worked the fields if they knew better. Mostly, the Fanjuls and other sugar farmers recruited Caribbean workers who came with no 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. They gathered outside the decrepit barracks on the Fanjul property, a place they called "Vietnam." They demanded fair wages for the backbreaking work, but 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 onto buses. They were forced to leave their belongings behind in the barracks. The Fanjuls then shipped them to the Miami airport, where 384 men 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." Cantens contends that 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 cut cane, and if they refused to work, they were not permitted to stay, Cantens says. While no previous news accounts or reports of the incident 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 $1,000 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 Fanjuls do business. As environmentalists and lawmakers decide whether to trust the Fanjuls to develop in the Everglades, it may be wise to remember the Fanjul family's past.

The U.S. Department of Labor under President Reagan investigated the Fanjuls' company after the Dog War incident and found that it shorted workers regularly. The investigation then triggered a flood of lawsuits from ex-workers. "They paid the lowest wages of any of the sugar farms, and that resulted in widespread underpayment of workers," says Schell, the farm workers' attorney. "They partook in a systematic falsification of payroll records to cover this up." Former cane cutters banded together in the early 1990s to sue the Fanjuls and other sugar barons. They claimed the Fanjuls promised them $5.30 per ton of cane but instead paid about $3 to $3.50 a ton. Former supervisors who kept track of the wages for workers claim that the Fanjuls and others ordered them to falsify the records, Schell says. "Superman couldn't cut enough cane" to meet the Fanjuls' quota, Schell says.

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