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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Sweet deal why are these men smiling ? The reason is in your sugar bowl

By Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele

TIME magazine

Occupying a breathtaking spot on the southeast coast of the Dominican Republic, Casa de Campo is one of the Caribbean's most storied resorts. It bills itself as "a hedonist's and sportsman's dream," and that's truth in advertising. The place has 14 swimming pools, a world-class shooting ground, PGA-quality golf courses and $1,000-a-night villas.

A thousand miles to the northwest, in the Florida Everglades, the vista is much different. Chemical runoff from the corporate cultivation of sugar cane imperils vegetation and wildlife. Polluted water spills out of the glades into Florida Bay, forming a slimy, greenish brown stain where fishing once thrived.

Both sites are the by-product of corporate welfare.

In this case the beneficiaries are the Fanjul family of Palm Beach, Fla. The name means nothing to most Americans, but the Fanjuls might be considered the First Family of Corporate Welfare. They own Flo-Sun Inc., one of the nation's largest producers of raw sugar. As such, they benefit from federal policies that compel American consumers to pay artificially high prices for sugar.

Since the Fanjuls control about one-third of Florida's sugar-cane production, that means they collect at least $60 million a year in subsidies, according to an analysis of General Accounting Office calculations. It's the sweetest of deals, and it's made the family, the proprietors of Casa de Campo, one of America's richest.

The subsidy has had one other consequence: it has helped create an environmental catastrophe in the Everglades. Depending on whom you talk to, it will cost anywhere from $3 billion to $8 billion to repair the Everglades by building new dikes, rerouting canals and digging new lakes.

Growers are committed to pay up to $240 million over 20 years for the cleanup. Which means the industry that created much of the problem will have to pay only a fraction of the cost to correct it. Government will pay the rest. As for the Fanjuls, a spokesman says they are committed to pay about $4.5 million a year.

How did this disaster happen? With your tax dollars. How will it be fixed? With your tax dollars.

It is not news that sugar is richly subsidized, or that the Fanjuls have profited so handsomely. Even as recently as 1995, when Congress passed legislation to phase out price supports for a cornucopia of agricultural products, raw sugar was spared. Through a combination of loan guarantees and tariffs on imported sugar, domestic farmers like the Fanjuls are shielded from real-world prices. So in the U.S., raw sugar sells for about $22 a pound, more than double the price most of the world pays. The cost to Americans: at least $1.4 billion in the form of higher prices for candy, soda and other sweet things of life. A GAO study, moreover, has estimated that nearly half the subsidy goes to large sugar producers like the Fanjuls.

A spokesman for Flo-Sun, Jorge Dominicis, said the company disagrees with the GAO's estimate on the profits the Fanjuls and other growers derive from the program.

"That is supposed to imply somehow that our companies receive $60 million in guaranteed profits," he said, "and that is flat-out not true. Our companies don't make anywhere near that kind of profit."

Dominicis, like other proponents of the sugar program, contends that it doesn't cost taxpayers a penny and is not unlike government protection of other American industries. "If our [sugar policy] is corporate welfare, which I don't believe it is, then all trade policy is corporate welfare," he says.

Flo-Sun is run by four Fanjul brothers, Alfonso ("Alfie"), Jose ("Pepe"), Andres and Alexander. Their family dominated Cuba's sugar industry for decades, and they came to this country with their parents in 1959, after Fidel Castro seized power. The Fanjuls arrived just as a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to control the flow of water in the Florida Everglades made large-scale development possible. The total acreage planted in sugar cane there soared--from 50,000 acres in 1960 to more than 420,000 today.

Within that swampy paradise lies yet another subsidy. Each year, according to a 1997 estimate, the Army Corps of Engineers spends $63 million to control water flow in central and south Florida. This enables growers to obtain water when they need it or restrain the flow during heavy rains. Of the $63 million, the Corps estimates $52 million is spent on agriculture, mainly sugar-cane farmers, in the Everglades.

Even with the additional production from the Glades, propped up by price supports, the U.S. can't produce all the sugar it needs. The Federal Government rations access to the lucrative U.S. market by assigning quotas to 40 sugar-producing nations, most of them developing countries. And, remarkably, the Fanjuls have found riches here too. Every year, the country that receives the largest sugar quota is the Dominican Republic. With a per-capita income of $1,600 a year and an unemployment rate hovering around 20%, that Caribbean nation needs all the economic help it can get. And who is the largest private exporter of Dominican sugar? The Fanjuls, thanks in part to their long-standing relationship with the Dominican Republic's politicians. Through a subsidiary, Central Romana Ltd., the brothers grow sugar cane and operate the world's largest sugar mill there. The profit margin is substantial, partly because cane cutters on the island earn about $100 a month, making production costs much lower than in Florida. From their Dominican plantation the Fanjuls export roughly 100,000 tons of raw, duty-free sugar each year to the U.S.

Whether they sell sugar from their holdings in the Everglades or from their mill in the Caribbean, the Fanjuls are guaranteed a U.S. price that is more than double anywhere else in the world. As might be expected, having it both ways has propelled the Fanjuls into the ranks of the richest Americans. Their wealth is counted in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

And although they appear frequently in the society pages, the Fanjuls won't be caught dead in the financial section. As Emilia Fanjul, the wife of Pepe, once confided to a society reporter, "We like to be private about the business."

Depending on the season, the Fanjuls can be found shooting game in Scotland, skiing in Switzerland or relaxing at their spectacular Casa de Campo. These 7,000 acres overlooking the sea have long been a favorite playground of the wealthy. But Palm Beach is still their real home, and Florida is still the heart of their financial empire. They now farm an estimated 180,000 acres of cane-producing land in the Everglades--43% of the total--making them one of the two-largest sugar growers in the state.

For decades, this region has been home to one of the worst jobs in America--hacking cane with a machete. Until the work was mechanized in the 1990s, the growers had to bring in thousands of cane cutters from the Caribbean every season. Yet in preserving the subsidy that has made millionaires of the Fanjuls, Congress has cited the fact that it saves American jobs.

Migrant-labor organizations and legal-aid groups in Florida have long waged an ongoing battle with the Fanjuls and other growers over the abysmal conditions. Greg Schell, an attorney with the Migrant Farmworkers Justice Project in Belle Glade, Fla., contends that of all the growers, the Fanjuls have treated their workers the worst. "They are in a class by themselves," he said. A lawsuit seeking back wages and benefits is expected to go to trial next spring.

Every few years, critics of the sugar program attempt to roll back the subsidy that has enriched the Fanjuls and kept sugar prices high. And every time they fail, largely because of the power of the sugar lobby, which includes not just large growers like the Fanjuls but thousands of small sugar-beet farmers in other parts of the nation.

Though by no means the largest special interest in Washington, the sugar lobby is one of the most well-heeled. And among growers, the Fanjuls are big givers. Family members and corporate executives have contributed nearly $1 million so far in this decade, dividing the money fairly evenly between political parties.

This knack for covering all political bases carries all the way to the top of the Fanjul empire. Alfonso Fanjul served as co-chairman of Bill Clinton's Florida campaign in 1992. His brother Pepe was national vice chairman of finance for Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996 and was host to a $1,000-a-head fund raiser for Dole at his Palm Beach mansion. After Clinton's 1992 victory, Alfie was a member of the select group invited by the Clinton camp to attend the President-elect's "economic summit" in Little Rock, Ark.

Careful readers of Kenneth Starr's impeachment report to Congress will note that on Feb. 19, 1996, Alfie called President Clinton while the President was closeted with Monica Lewinsky in an emotional meeting in the Oval Office. After breaking the news that "their intimate relationship" would have to end--temporarily, as it turned out--the President returned Fanjul's call; Lewinsky left. The two spoke for 22 minutes. The topic: a proposed tax on sugar farmers to pay for the Everglades cleanup. Fanjul reportedly told the President he and other growers opposed such a step, since it would cost them millions. Such a tax has never been passed.

That's access.


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: November 23, 1998

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