Campaign cash at the root of Big Sugar’s political clout

Remember when we told you last week about the Dominican sugarcane operation partly owned by the Florida-based Fanjul brothers facing an federal import ban and allegations of forced labor?

Similar allegations have dogged the company for years; the industry, admittedly, there have been some reforms. But the allegations from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Trade suggest there’s still a long way to go.

Yet if the allegations are true, one might wonder how Central Romana Corp, partly owned by West Palm Beach businessmen Alfonso “Alfy” and Jose “Pepe” Fanjul, has gotten away with it. 

The answer: Clout.

Big Sugar is notorious for its political muscle. The Fanjul Corp., part owners of ASR Group International, is the world’s largest marketer and refiner of cane sugar, with an annual production capacity of 6 million metric tons. It operates six sugar refineries and sells sugar under the brand names Florida Crystals, Domino, C&H, Redpath, Tate & Lyle, Lyle’s and Sidul, according to the company’s website.

The brothers’ sugar and real estate empire is valued at an estimated $8.2 billion, according to media reports.

This wealth isn’t just made on the backs of foreign laborers. It’s also made possible by sugar price supports and import quotas in the U.S. Farm Bill, which serve to keep the price of American-produced sugar high — lining the sugar barons’ pockets.

How close are they to decision makers? As President Bill Clinton tried to break up with Monica Lewinsky on President’s Day, 1996, he reportedly took or returned a call from “Alfy” himself.

Then there’s the campaign cash, piled astonishingly high.

According to state records, Florida Crystals Corp. gave $4.6 million in the 2022 election cycle alone. Almost all of this went to political action committees, which often distribute the money to candidates, or other PACs, providing a layer of “plausible deniability” for the original donors.

At the federal level, Florida Crystals gave just $157,500 this past cycle — but a whopping $150,000 of that went to the “Make America Great Again, Again! Inc.” super PAC, which backs former President Donald Trump.

Individually, members of the Fanjul family — and others listing their place of employment as Florida Crystals Corp. — contributed $1.2 million to federal candidates and PACs.

Pepe tended to give to Republicans, Alfy to Democrats. Pepe gave more than $8,000 to the “Doctor Oz for Senate” PAC, backing Pennsylvania senatorial candidate Mehmet Oz; but Alfy gave nearly $6,000 to Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, a Democrat

Pepe made several contributions to Winred, the Republican Party’s fundraising platform; Alfy gave $36,500 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and $25,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

It pays to hedge your bets.

Making friends on both sides of the aisle ensures more support for Big Sugar’s agenda — for example, perpetuating the privileges conveyed via the federal Farm Bill.

Those privileges help make the sugar business lucrative.

That’s one reason Big Sugar got to be so big.

But the times are changing. The federal import ban on Central Romana sugar is a major blow. So too is new scrutiny facing the industry over the pre-harvest burning of sugarcane fields in Florida and the effects on vulnerable communities in the Glades region.

The time is right to break the industry’s political stranglehold, strip sugar supports from the Farm Bill and end the rigged game, once and for all.