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The Fanjuls want their painting back and, if they had their way, a large chunk of Cuba, too. It’s been nearly 50 years since the Cuban-born sugar barons last saw Malaga Porta — one of several oil paintings left behind in Havana after the family fled the island in 1959. Worth about $3 million, the painting by Spanish impressionist Joaqu�n Sorolla y Bastida somehow mysteriously left Cuba, crossed several international borders, and ended up in the hands of an Italian art collector. For the past 10 years, the Fanjul family of Palm Beach, Fla., has mounted a desperate effort to convince the U.S. government to get involved and pressure the collector into returning the painting. Recently, the family’s longtime lawyer signed up to lobby Congress on the Fanjuls’ behalf. The Fanjuls, who own Florida Crystals sugar company and whose hands are in the energy, hotel, and real-estate markets, argue that as U.S. citizens and expatriates of Cuba, they are protected by a 1996 U.S. law that prohibits any foreign entity from profiting from property they left behind. And if that law won’t help them, they want a new one written. They say they deserve the attention because over the years they’ve donated millions of dollars to both Republicans and Democrats and their causes. To them, the time is right — now that Cuban President Fidel Castro’s brother Ra�l has taken the helm while Castro himself is ill. And while the first task may be to retrieve the Malaga Porta, the Fanjuls do not mask their ambitions to retrieve all of the property and land they left behind in Cuba and one day see their sugar empire extend to their homeland. “It’s not just about one piece of painting,” says the Fanjuls’ lawyer, Shanker Singham. “It’s about restitution.” ART HISTORY Singham, an international trade and antitrust lawyer at the D.C. office of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, is one of three lobbyists working on the Fanjuls’ case. He marvels at how the family’s fight for the artwork has followed him throughout his career as a lawyer in Miami, London, and now Washington. The search for the Malaga Porta began in 1998, when the painter’s great-granddaughter contacted Jos� “Pepe” Fanjul, who heads Florida Crystals with his brother Alfonso. The company is a unit of Flo-Sun and grows sugar cane and rice on its 180,000 acres. The great-granddaughter said Sotheby’s, the famed international auction house, wanted to authenticate Malaga Porta, which had somehow ended up in its possession. Tracking the art has led searchers through Cuba, Italy, Switzerland, London, and New York. Jos� Fanjul later discovered that the painting, which was left in one of the family’s palatial Havana mansions, had been removed, sold, and was now in the hands of an art dealer in Alessandria, Italy, who had used a former Sotheby’s employee’s address to ship art to London.
Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923)
Born in Valencia, Spain, Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida became internationally known for his realistic style depicting the effects of light. He was particularly known for his paintings of Valencians and sun-drenched places around the city.Sorolla began studying painting at age 15. Three years later, at age 18, he moved to Madrid, where he began copying the Old Masters’ paintings in the Museo del Prado. In 1885, Sorolla won a grant to study painting in Rome. During this period he developed a distinct style that brought fame to his work. “He was the most famous Spanish artist at the turn of the 20th century,” says Marcus Burke, curator of paintings for the Hispanic Society of America Museum and Library in New York City. When Sorolla returned to Madrid, his paintings were in great demand. This led to a successful exhibit of paintings at the 1901 Exposition Universelle in Paris, where his work received high praise. This helped Sorolla establish himself in America, where the Hispanic Society of America commissioned him to paint a massive multipanel work, entitled Vision of Spain representing the regions of Spain.“He was tremendously popular in the United States. In 1909, when the Hispanic Society of America mounted an exhibit of his work in February 1909 here at 151st Street, 168,000 people visited the exhibition in one month, and that’s with three feet of snow on the ground and no closer to midtown than we are now,” says Burke.Shortly after Sorolla completed his work for the museum, he suffered a stroke. He painted very little afterwards and died in 1923 in Madrid.Burke estimates that an easel-size painting of Sorolla’s would be worth at least $3 million. “Something like a beach scene would be big money,” he says.Currently, Sorolla’s works, along with that of his contemporary John Singer Sargent, are on display in the exhibit Sargent/Sorolla at the Petit Palais-Mus�e des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Par�s from Feb. 13 to May 13. — Tifany Williams
Click here for a sample of Sorolla’s work.

Jos� Fanjul contacted Singham, then the family’s lawyer in Miami. Singham himself has also traversed dangerous twists and turns. In the middle of a blizzard in London in 2001, he drove on a narrow, mountainous strip to find the phone and address of the man believed to have the painting. Once he found it, the family had a private investigator pose as an art buyer and show up at the man’s door. The Italian art dealer, Singham says, showed the investigator Malaga Porta, and the investigator took photos of the painting and left. “And that’s how we know who has it,” Singham says. The piece holds sentimental value, Jos� Fanjul says, because it dates back to the beginning of the Fanjul sugar dynasty. Malaga Porta had originally belonged to the Gomez-Mena family, of Spanish descent. The Fanjuls’ grandmother, Lillian Gomez-Mena, inherited the piece, part of a collection, from her father, Jos� Gomez-Mena, whose family owned several sugar mills in Cuba in the early 1900s. In 1936, Lillian Gomez-Mena married Alfonso Fanjul Sr., another major sugar mill owner. The combined family using the Fanjul name controlled much of the American-dominated sugar industry in Cuba. The family’s mansion, built in 1927, was the former residence of the Spanish Countess de Revilla de Camargo. But Castro’s seizure of power from then-Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 signaled an end to the family’s economic rule in the island nation. The Fanjuls, who backed democracy in Cuba, fled for the United States, leaving behind the mansion, other homes, and 150,000 acres of sugar mills. The four Fanjul brothers — Jos�, Alfonso “Alfie,” Alexander, and Adres — rebuilt the family fortune in America. Family members reside in a community of multimillion-dollar, seven-bedroom, 8.5-bathroom mansions on Jungle Road in Palm Beach and own a golf resort in the Dominican Republic. Florida Crystals jointly owns American Sugar Refining, a top sugar-refining company that processes 3 million tons of sugar per year, with the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida. The joint venture recently announced the purchase of Canada’s largest sugar company for $260 million. Back in Cuba, the family’s Havana home was renamed the National Museum of Decorative Arts by the Castro government and now houses permanent and temporary exhibitions of European and Asian applied arts, ceramics, chinaware, furniture, paintings, and sculptures of the 19th and 20th century. The family left behind hundreds of paintings, worth millions of dollars, that adorned the walls of the mansion. One of the paintings was Malaga Porta. “His works were avidly collected by Latin and North Americans. Cubans were particularly eager to acquire works by Sorolla,” says Marcus Burke, curator of paintings at the Hispanic Society of America Museum and Library in New York. “There are many of his works in Cuba, much of it owned by the Fanjul family.” A Sorolla work has a starting price tag in the seven figures, Burke says. “These are not trivial figures. This is a beautiful artist, and a lot of money is involved.” Jos� Fanjul says Malaga Porta is worth about $3 million and is not the best piece from the family’s collection. Singham’s attempts to pull the painting away from the Italian collector have been futile. He has repeatedly lobbied the State Department to act, asking that the collector, his spouse, and any minor children have thier visas revoked or that they be barred from entering the United States if he does not return Malaga Porta. The State Department, however, has not followed up on his request, he says. The department declined repeated requests to comment on the case. William LeoGrande, dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University and a specialist in Latin American politics and U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America, says it’s unlikely the Fanjuls’ lobbying for their painting will end up in their favor. The U.S. government, he says, is unlikely to push for restitution for Cuban-American families in the near future “as long as Castro or any Castro family member is in power.” And even if the United States were to get involved, it’s unlikely that Cuba would oblige, he says. “It’s going to be difficult for the Cuban state to compensate all Cuban-Americans who seek some sort of property restoration, because it deals directly with the Cuban economy,” LeoGrande says. “The Cuban government has accepted that, in principle, foreign investors whose property was nationalized are due something, but they don’t accept that Cuban citizens or Cuban-Americans are due compensation.” SWEETENING THE POLITICOS Singham, however, is convinced that the Fanjuls’ political connections could be a driving force in the family’s ability to retrieve their painting and, eventually, their remaining property in Havana. The Fanjuls are well known in the United States, not only in the business community but also in politics and Hollywood. (A movie produced by Robert DeNiro and starring Academy Award winner Jodie Foster is rumored to be in the works — albeit one in which the family is portrayed as villains.) “We’re lucky in our family that we have done so well outside Cuba,” Jos� Fanjul says. “My brothers and I are very close in this country’s political environment. If conditions are correct, we can go back to Cuba. We are in the sugar, energy, and hotel business and involved in the Caribbean. Obviously, we would like to go back to our roots.” According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Fanjul family has given about $1 million in political donations to both Republicans and Democrats since 1989. Alfonso Fanjul is a lifelong Democrat who served as co-chairman of Bill Clinton’s Florida campaign in 1992. The center calls Alfonso Fanjul’s fund-raising efforts “prodigious.” At Clinton’s economic summit after he was elected the first time, Alfonso Fanjul was seated only three spots away from Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. Fanjul is also notoriously tied to the Monica Lewinsky scandal, having allegedly been on the phone with the president while the White House intern was in the Oval Office. While Alfonso Fanjul doted on Democrats, Jos� Fanjul covered his bases with the Republicans, serving as vice chairman of the George H.W. Bush/Dan Quayle finance committee during the 1988 campaign, entering the White House as a guest in 1990, and joining Sen. Bob Dole’s finance committee during Dole’s presidential bid in 1996. “In the 1960s, when I became a Republican in Florida, it was a joke in Florida because there were no Republicans in Florida,” Jos� Fanjul jokes. But the family balances contributions to each party while also giving to sugar-related PACs. The Fanjuls hope to become the first family to have the United States apply the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which was created to protect the private-property rights of Cuban expatriates. Known also as the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996, it was enacted as a result of intense lobbying by Cuban-Americans and bolstered by U.S. embargo and trade sanctions against Cuba. Helms-Burton states that foreigners or foreign companies that profit from property once owned by U.S. citizens and confiscated by the Cuban government can be penalized. It allows U.S. citizens to obtain compensation from third parties who are profiting from or trafficking property confiscated by the Cuban government. Hundreds of other Cuban-American families, mainly in Florida, have been pushing for restitution for years, but to no avail. “No one has been successful thus far,” says Nicol�s Guti�rrez Jr., a Miami lawyer who represents others trying to reclaim property in Cuba. Because of their staunch support of both parties, the Fanjuls are looking for aid in Congress. In December, a team of lawmakers, led by Reps. William Delahunt (D-Mass.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), co-chairmen of the Cuba Working Group, a bipartisan caucus that opposes U.S. sanctions against Cuba, traveled to the island to discuss the possibility of a change in the decades-old Cuban embargo, especially now that power may be shifting away from Fidel Castro. Legislation introduced in January by Rep. Jos� Serrano (D-N.Y.) would lift sanctions against Cuba, opening the gates for the Fanjuls and others to do business in Cuba. But at the same time, the bill also calls for a repeal of the 1996 legislation that the Fanjuls are gravely relying upon to get back their painting. “This same piece of legislation somehow comes up every year,” Singham says. “And it never goes through.” BITTER FRUIT A 2001 takeover of U.S. Domino Sugar refineries gave Florida Crystals control of Domino’s U.S. sugar-manufacturing process, which competes with the U.S. Sugar Corp. From Florida cane fields to supermarket shelves and from processed sugar to organic, the Fanjuls dominate the American sugar industry. That 2001 deal sparked an interest on Capitol Hill for an end to the federal government’s subsidy to sugar growers. According to the Government Accountability Office, the family has received $65 million per year as a result of the U.S. price support system. The Fanjuls have also been criticized for waste runoff in the Everglades from its sugar plants. Jos� Fanjul says he’s not bothered by the scrutiny and points out that until now, his family business has never hired D.C. lobbyists. And he says his company would succeed without subsidies. “Our reputation has been very clean,” he says. “We have the largest producer of sugar in an actually free market. We have no problem competing.” While the Fanjuls have their supporters, they also have enemies — from inside the United States and in Cuba. In the Cuban and other Latin American press, the family has been described as arrogant and out of touch with average Cubans. One of the chief criticisms that haunts the family’s sugar business is their alleged treatment of migrant workers, which has resulted in several lawsuits. Some workers’ groups have gone so far as to refer to the family as slave masters. At the age of 23, Carl Anthony Benson jumped at the chance to make a better life in the United States as a cane cutter at the Fanjul family’s Osceola Farms Corp. in the early1980s. He stayed on the company’s campsite hacking down cane for five years amid what he called abuse and mistreatment “because I had to survive.” Benson is one of thousands of claimants in an 18-year-old lawsuit against the sugar producer filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in West Palm Beach. A new case was filed in 2005 in the federal court after a judge ruled the workers couldn’t continue the class action that was initially filed in state court in 1989. The suits left the Fanjuls’ sugar company with a reputation among lawyers who represent migrant workers as one of the worst farm employers in the nation. “It was cheaper to have it done by hand and not by machine,” says Gregory Schell, managing attorney at Florida Legal Services’ Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Lake Worth, Fla. Today, Jos� Fanjul says the company no longer uses migrant workers. “We did receive criticism with that,” he says. “But we eventually phased them out. We decided to pull the plug and use machines. It’s totally mechanical now.” Though the fight for the painting still goes unresolved, two weeks ago, the family scored a victory in the art world. Sotheby’s and Christie’s, another famed art auction house, struck a deal with the Fanjuls that would keep paintings the family says used to belong to them from being sold. “If a painting is taken to a Sotheby’s anywhere around the world, they have agreed to hold it until the issue of who owns the title is resolved,” Singham says. “We have a private agreement with Christie’s, who has agreed not to sell any of the Fanjul family paintings.”


Osita Iroegbu can be contacted at [email protected].

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