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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

On the Everglades Part VI: The Sugar Scumbags Strike Back

As I was too low-tech with this website to have credits scrolling that looked like Spielberg’s, you’re going to have to use your imagination:

It is a dark time for the Rebellion. Joe Negron, President of the Florida State Senate, has revealed himself as a Sith Lord. Once an apparent ally of the forces of progress when green scum fouled the estuaries of his home planet (Stuart, Florida), rather than pursue the agreed upon deal to force US Sugar to sell all its holdings to the state, as they agreed to in 2008, he cut a deal with Darth Rick-Scott, Governor of Florida, the only man in the universe too corrupt to be a Sith Lord, to send sufficient water through already state-owned lands to obviate excessive nutrient-laden water releases into the Caloosahatchee and St Lucie rivers, while leaving the Eastern Everglades to die. One last battle remains: the Empire hopes to let the state’s option to purchase US Sugar holdings expire in 2020. When this last hope dies, humanity will await rising sea level to submerge Miami (as the porous substratum will send sea water under any sea wall), salinize the aquifer, and forever kill the Eastern Everglades.

Having posted four long essays on Everglades ecology (if you haven’t seen them, start here), which ended with the conclusion that virtually all problems can be solved if historical levels of water once again moved through what is now Big Sugar’s fiefdom, and one essay on the politics, explaining why these lands still haven’t been purchased (here), I ended the latter by promising a post on the personalities behind Big Sugar. Nearly all of this land is owned by only two entities: US Sugar and the Fanjul family corporations. Of the two, only the latter would make good villains in a Star Wars franchise; the situation with US Sugar is more complex.

US Sugar was owned originally by the family of Charles Stewart Mott, one of the founders of General Motors Corporation and mayor of Flint, Michigan, who passed away in 1973. It was at one time a publicly traded corporation, but it went private in the 1980s. The current owners are the Mott Foundation (approximately 30%), the Mott Children’s Health Center of Flint, Michigan (approximately 30%), and the company’s current and former employees including the pension fund (40%). Hit by hurricanes and the crash of Florida real estate values, the company entertained but ultimately rejected a bid for a corporate takeover in early 2008. As times worsened, they stopped paying dividends to shareholders. When then-Governor Charlie Crist made an even better offer, the company agreed, the agreement later scaled way back due to a budget shortfall, but the state did take out options on the land, including the one that is still good through 2020. The public protested, demanding and voting to fund the land purchases, but with real estate prices having recovered, the company has held back and has thrown every political trick it could into scuttling the sale.

So, although I stand by my personal view of the company leadership as dishonest scumbags (and I disclosed my personal reasons for this view in the last post), they could be said to be doing their fiduciary duty: maximizing returns for shareholders. What we have here is a failure of the American capitalist system. The sociopathic investor class pursues its own financial interest at the expense of the common good, and no amount of public dollars spent on lawyers, regulators, legal bribes, etc., can defend the public interest if the money is good enough. No true villain to be found; the plutocratic, cronyist, corrupt system once again manages to prevail over the planet and its inhabitants. Old news.

But in the Fanjuls, central casting has sent us our Chancellor Palpatines: evil, deceptive and slimy. Cast out of Cuba at the time of the Revolution, these confidantes of the former dictator, accustomed to bribes as a cost of business, ended up in Florida at the time much of the Everglades had been drained to create land for agriculture. They bought. And with no competition from Cuba, they planted sugarcane fields. At the time, cutting cane was difficult work, done by machete, through stalks as hard as bamboo, risking death from snakes if one survived the blades. No Americans would do the work, so the Fanjuls imported labor from Jamaica. Fourteen hour days, seven days a week, a pittance for wages, no or minimal health care facilities, use of child labor, but worst of all, if you ever refused, the man had the power to write on your forms “refused to work” and you were deported back to Jamaica. The Fanjuls were prosecuted for slavery on their holdings, but an army of lawyers managed to split the case up into nearly 100 suits. Tens of millions were paid in fines, but they continued operating their Jamaican slave rings into the 1990s when cane cutting was mechanized. Today, slavery exists only on their holdings in the Dominican Republic, where they are the largest sugar producers. Exposés have reported the Fanjuls treat Haitians in DR in much the same way they treated Jamaicans in the US; one report stated that they treated their “slaves” worse than any other plantation owners.

But even with slavery, their empire wouldn’t be profitable without bilking the US taxpayers for corporate welfare. Sugar was the one industry exempt from NAFTA regulations until 2008, so until that point, American producers (including the Fanjul’s Florida Crystals company) were shielded from Mexican competition, and the largest share of the allowed import quota was given to growers in the Dominican Republic (dominated by the Fanjul’s Central Romana Corporation). Domestic sugar growers were guaranteed a price that was often double that obtainable on the international market.

The guarantees worked as follows: the US government extended loans to the sugar producers with their sugar crop as collateral. If the market price fell below the cost of repaying the loans, the American taxpayers were obligated to accept the sugar in lieu of loan repayment. The sugar was then sold to ethanol plants at pennies on the dollar, rather than dumping it on the market and depressing the prices. Certainly we couldn’t have supply and demand setting the price. No, that would be capitalism, uh, err, I meant failing to support productive American industry. Cue that shitty Lee Greenwood song.

But wait, how did the American soft drink industry survive the dramatic uptick in cost of a major raw material? Well, as luck would have it, the early 70s, when the sugar price supports were implemented, were a time of downturn in corn prices, so when the price of sugar was jacked up, the soft drink industry switched to high fructose corn syrup, keeping prices artificially inflated for still another American commodity. And causing a sustained spike in diabetes rates, but hey, who expects “free market capitalism” to benefit anyone other than those who can buy and sell politicians?

And that’s where the Fanjuls excel: owning our politicians. Alfy Fanjul is the family’s Democrat, doling out his largess to state and federal politicians of the Democratic Party. He owned the Clintons big time. Indeed, it came out in Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings that he interrupted a blowjob from Monica Lewinsky to take a phone call. So who was on the phone with business so important that US government “servicing” was interrupted? Alfy Fanjul, convincing Clinton to withdraw support for a tax on sugar famers. The tax never came to be.

Pépé Fanjul is the family’s Republican. Marco Rubio was his boy, but when he lost the primary, support switched big time to Donald Trump. But he owned Bob Dole, he owned George W. Bush, he owned any Republican politician with any need for votes from Florida. And he owned many in Florida. Cross him, and he’d spend big to defeat you. Indeed, once Citizen’s United removed virtually all regulation on those who own us from influencing elections, he spent one million dollars to defeat a (Republican!) County Commissioner in Lee County, Florida (where I live), because he had been too noisy about dumping of Big Sugar-polluted, pesticide and nutrient laden water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River.

One million dollars on a county race? Well, between 1994 and 2016, according to a review of records by the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times, the Fanjuls and US Sugar spent $57.8 million on local and state political races (and they spent much more on federal races).

The Fanjul’s most recent political success was protecting their empire from Mexican competition. The bumper crop in Mexican sugar of 2013 prompted claims of unfair trading practices, and in response, the Obama Commerce Department persuaded Mexican sugar refiners to accept limits on exports and a minimum price. But that wasn’t good enough for the Sugar Scumbags. (I still think the moniker sounds good—please do share this post so that it spreads far and wide.) The Mexican government, hoping to delay a standoff with Trump until the full-blown NAFTA renegotiation, capitulated still further. On June 6 of this year, Mexico agreed to cut exports by about two-fold. In return, the US will accept a lower level of purity for what is sold as “refined” sugar, and Mexico gets the exclusive right to sell to US markets if any “excess demand” remains. In a tour-de-force of chutzpah (actually, since these Cuban immigrants are now honorary “Southerners,” I should probably say “gumption” instead), the Fanjuls still complained, largely over the fine print of how this excess demand, should it ever exist, would be met.

My prediction: the buying of politicians will continue at least until the state’s option on the US Sugar land expires in 2020. Then, if the people of Florida still want to sell, it will be at astronomical rates. Until the US economy crashes through a bursting of some unregulated bubble and the price of land plummets. By that point, given that attending to the environmental damage left by Big Sugar operations and re-engineering the water flow will take decades even after the land is acquired, it may be too late to save the Everglades.

However, Florida has a governor’s race in 2018. The environment will be a huge issue. The new governor takes office in 2019. So all hope is not lost. The water may still be made to move, and this vital ecosystem may be preserved.

But I still haven’t told you about invasive species. The critters slithering around in the swamp aren’t Ewoks. The moon of Endor was forestland—any card-carrying nerd should know that! (Okay, I’ll admit it: I Googled and found that out on Wookieepedia.)

What they are will be the subject of my next post in this series.

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