What A Sweet Life!

Sugar Plantations

The sugar cane industry is what fueled the promise of the New World. With a field of sugar cane, a poor European could become a wealthy millionaire. A status, that would never have been attainable in the Old World. Sugar cane fed the hunger for sugar, a prized commodity, that would change the taste of the human diet forever. The production of sugar would also introduce several byproducts like molasses and rum. The story of sugar cane almost always has been connected to the story of the West Indies, but what about in mainland America?

Decisions and destiny – Florida Humanities

In 1763, Florida became a colony of the British empire. British colonial authorities notably handed out large land grants to British subjects, mainly from South Carolina and Georgia, willing to grow sugar cane and other crops along the St. Johns River, as Florida provided the right climate. The first Florida commercial-sized sugar cane plantations started in the late 1760s in New Smyrna, east of the St. Johns River. Then the American Revolution happened, the British lost Florida to the Spanish, and some years later the United States purchased Florida from Spain in 1821 with the idea in mind that the land would be profitable for agriculture and in a good position for trade on the Mississippi River. 

VIVA Florida 500: History of Sugarcane – Florida Department of ...

Planters from Virginia and the Carolinas moved into Florida to harvest sugar cane. Big investments were put into equipment to make larger, more effective sugarcane operation hubs as sugar cane alone seemed like a crop that would exceed expectations. But they forgot one thing. North Florida where most planters would try to cultivate sugar cane, incurred an almost yearly freeze and sugar cane was susceptible to freezing. When sugar cane freezes it produces less crystallized sugar. When to harvest became a guessing game for planters, and eventually, the risks of guessing wrong became too great for most planters. By the year 1840, most if not all, large scale sugar cane cultivation was abandoned. By 1886, however, large scale planting of sugar cane would resume south of Lake Okeechobee as it was found not susceptible to freezing. Developers diverted rivers and drained large tracts of land – including parts of the Everglades – for sugar cane cultivation. 

In the 1920s the U.S. government began building and dredging canals and ‘reclaiming’ Everglades land south of the lake for agriculture and paying subsidies to sugar growers. In 1931,  Charles Stewart Mott, a GM Motors co-founder and the guy whose family owns the Applewood Estate in Flint, Michigan that grows the Motts apples for your favorite Motts Apple Juice, purchased the assets from the bankrupt Southern Sugar Company during the Great Depression in Clewiston, Florida. Mott renamed the company U.S. Sugar Corporation. He revived the company by overcoming the drainage problems that plagued the previous owner and was able to develop varieties of sugarcane suitable for Florida with the help of experts in cane growing and production from Louisiana, Cuba, and the West Indies. Sugarcane production increased, the company grew, and by 1941, U.S. Sugar was profitable. Even with government help, the sugar industry stayed small, until the 1959 Cuban Revolution. 

Viva La Revolución

With the Cuban Revolution came the American trade embargo along with the migration of several wealthy dispossessed Cuban families. Cuba was one of the main exporters of sugar to the U.S. Florida producers rushed to fill the void, like the U.S. Sugar Corporation however they would not be able to match the tactics of the Fanjul family. Alfonso Fanjul Sr. and his wife owned several cane sugar millsrefineries, distilleries, and significant amounts of real estate on the island of Cuba. As a result of the Cuban revolution, he and his family moved to Florida purchasing 4,000 acres of property near Lake Okeechobee along with some sugar mills from Louisiana and started over in the US. His sons, the Fanjul brothers – Alfy Fanjul, Pepe, Alexander, and Andres would become the owners of the now Fanjul Corp, a vast sugar and real estate conglomerate in the U.S. and Dominican Republic. It comprises of Domino SugarFlorida CrystalsC&H SugarRedpath Sugar, former Tate & Lyle sugar companies, American Sugar RefiningLa Romana International Airport (a single terminal airport that only caters to businessmen flying in and out on private jets), and resorts surrounding La Romana, Dominican Republic. The Fanjuls also now own about 400,000 acres of sugar cane plantations, half of which are in (Clewiston and Palm Beach) Florida and the other half in the Dominican Republic. The Fanjul brothers are what you would call the modern-day Sugar Barons of history’s past.

In the U.S., the price of sugar has been greater than in other parts of the world, sometimes two or three times more. This significant markup is the result of U.S. laws and regulations. The U.S. Sugar Program, which began in 1934, supplies cane and beet growers with subsidized loans and limits imports through tariffs and by setting local selling quotas if imports fall below a certain floor. While 60 percent of U.S. sugar production originates from beets, the remaining 40 percent comes from canes. Over the years, sugar imports have grown as well—including imports from the Dominican Republic, where the Fanjuls are the biggest growers and exporters. The Dominican Republic is one of the top exporters of sugar to the U.S., and 63 percent of the country’s sugar export quota to the U.S. is allocated to the Fanjul family. 

Sugar U: Fanjuls some history and a little trouble in Paradise ...

In addition to making it to most likely billionaire status in the U.S., the Fanjuls and the sugar industry do a very good job at lobbying. In a December 2013 Washington Post article, a lobbyist close to sugar executives said: “the sugar guys win votes because they are better at politics than anyone else. And they do it with little fanfare and few ears: they come to Washington often, meet quietly with individual members, usually without staff present.” On top of their federal lobbying and contributions, the Fanjuls are also very active in local politics. Between 1994 and 2016 their sugar conglomerate has given about $72 million in direct and in-kind contributions to state and local political campaigns. Alfy Fanjul has never become a U.S. citizen and maintains Spanish citizenship, contributing to the Democratic party, while his brother Pepe Fanjul has become a U.S. citizen, contributing to the Republican party.

Who doesn't remember Monica Lewinsky's claim Bill Clinton took a ...

The Fanjul brothers’ have been major fundraisers for Clinton and Trump. Alfy Fanjul was the co-chair of Bill Clinton’s Florida campaign in 1992. Later, Alfy Fanjul extended his support to Hillary Clinton as well. Ahead of the 2008 elections, he contributed to her campaign, and in January 2015 he hosted both Hillary and Bill Clinton in his Dominican Republic mansion. Alfy Fanjul also held a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton on August 9, where participants paid $50,000 per plate. Pepe Fanjul was one of the biggest supporters of and contributors to George W. Bush and was one of the leading patrons of Marco Rubio. In 2015, he co-hosted a big fundraiser for Donald Trump in the Hamptons. The Fanjul brothers also work with the rest of the sugar industry, and together they donate to politicians in big numbers, from 1990-2016, the sugar industry has spent over $40 million on contributions to politicians. 

Environmental Impact of Sugar | Green Groundswell

In addition to politics, the American sugar barons also nicknamed “Big Sugar”, have negatively impacted the natural habitat of the Everglades and surrounding areas. The Everglades serves as the “predominant water recharge area for all of South Florida,” and home, as well, to almost 750 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish. The Fertilizer that is used in the farming of Sugar Cane releases phosphorous which flows from the cane fields canals south to the Everglades. Phosphorus is a pollutant of the river of grass, feeding algae, and non-native vegetation. In recent years toxic algae blooms as a result of the phosphorus runoff have prompted emergency declarations in four counties and a hotly contested legislative effort for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. Unfortunately, as Big Sugar spends on political campaigns, they are afforded considerable influence over the watershed that supports the drinking water of more than a third of Floridians. Growers have helped establish and even delay environmental standards, undermined a state constitutional amendment calling on polluters to pay for clean-up, and have slowed construction of the reservoir south of the state’s largest lake by at least a decade.

Not only has Big Sugar influenced politics and the environment, but it has also affected the human life of the many who come from third world countries to work the cane fields. In past history, the initial sugar boom was fueled with the help of many African slaves brought to the new world to harvest and refine sugar. But in modern-day, chattel slavery no longer exists but migrant workers do. These migrant workers are usually of West Indian or Mexican origin. Sugar growers say they cannot find domestic workers, either citizens or refugees, willing to cut cane by hand for an entire season – six months out the year. The use of foreign workers, who fear deportation and blacklisting, keeps the unions out and wages and working conditions too bad for domestic (citizen) workers. These migrant workers live in squalor while they tend to the fields and get paid at a rate below minimum wage. Similar to the plight of many migrant workers in the U.S. who fear deportation and loss of income that helps support their families back home.

What Poor U.S. Beet, Cane Crops Mean for Sugar Industry | Sugar ...

Wow, what a history. If you thought the sugar industry wasn’t as influential as it was in the making of the new world back in the 16th, 17th, and 19th centuries, then you are now sadly mistaken. Sugar continues to shape our world, most notably in politics, and remains as the silent crop that fuels money, power, and greed. Sugar is not a matter of history’s past, it’s a matter of history’s future. Please check out my source links for more information!







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