Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause

By Tom Gjelten

Viking

480 pages, $27.95

Over the years, I’ve had my share of Cuba Libres, the cocktail Americans know as rum-and-Coke and many Cuban exiles know as “mentirita,” or little lie because Cuba isn’t free and hasn’t been for a long time. Yet I never knew where it came from. Who mixed it first? And, more relevant perhaps, who was the optimist who named it?

After reading Tom Gjelten’s gem of a book, Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba, I still don’t know the answers to those questions. And neither does the author, a correspondent for National Public Radio. But the origin of the Cuba Libre may be the only detail of the Bacardi family, its prized rum production, and the last 148 years of Cuban history that Gjelten doesn’t know. Everything else—from the price of molasses in the 1850s to the intricacies of U.S. laws regarding commerce with Castro’s Cuba—he has investigated, digested, and delivered in a highly readable and impeccably researched book.

In Gjelten’s recounting, the legend of the first Cuba Libre goes like this: one day, an inspired Havana bartender mixed some Bacardi rum with Coke and offered it to his American customers, a group of soldiers, with a toast: “¡Por Cuba Libre!” (“To a Free Cuba!”) The soldiers repeated the phrase, and the name stuck.

The story comes from a former Bacardi advertising chief in New York City. That, as the author concedes, “raises questions” about the authenticity of an admittedly “good tale.” But a good tale bears repeating.

There may not be a better tale than the story of the Bacardi family to convey the broader, messier, and infinitely sadder story of Cuba. At least one member of the Bacardi family seems to have been involved in every major and sometimes minor development in Cuba’s history since the mid-1800s. Indeed, members of the family were instrumental in helping to turn the island of Cuba into a nation. It was, in Gjelten’s description, a flawed and weak nation—but nonetheless, one where blacks and whites together rose against four hundred years of Spanish domination; where the patriotic and the enlightened, the rich and the poor, rejected U.S. intervention more than a century ago; and where, in the late 1950s, the upper class helped to bring about a revolution that then turned around and confiscated its businesses and bank accounts, pushing more than one million people into exile.

With a steady hand, superb reporting, and exquisite storytelling, Gjelten takes us from the dirty streets of Santiago, where the Bacardi family saga began, to the posh hotels where Mafia bosses plied their trade in 1950s Havana. From there, he moves on to the upheaval of exile in Miami and to the halls of the U.S. Congress and courthouses, where the Bacardi company has more recently defended its claim as the only legitimate manufacturer of Cuban rum—even though its product has not been produced in Cuba since 1960 and is identified on the label as “Puerto Rican Rum.” No detail of the island’s twisted history escapes the author’s discerning and dissecting journalistic eye.

Gjelten states in the preface that his book has a dual purpose: to provide a “nuanced view of the nation’s experience over the last century and a half” and to give voice to the exiles who “deserve to have their contributions recognized, if only to understand why so many became so angry.” It’s rare to find a journalist who admits that his book has an agenda. And at first, it’s easy to distrust Gjelten because of it. But his stated purpose is so well handled and so thoroughly documented, that it becomes the book’s greatest strength.

The author is also right to ascribe such centrality to the Bacardis: their family saga helps us to understand Cuban history in a fresh and seamless way. We know these tales, we’ve heard them before, but no one has told them better and more cohesively than Gjelten.

The Bacardi company was founded in 1862 by Facundo Bacardi, an astute and prudent Catalan merchant, who, as many Spaniards did at the time, deftly negotiated dual loyalties: to Cuba and to the Spanish crown. But Gjelten focuses much of his historical narrative on Emilio Bacardi and José Pepín Bosch, two outsized personalities who came in his wake, and took the Bacardi company to unimagined levels of relevance and success.

Mirta Ojito is an assistant professor at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and the author of Finding Mañana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus. She shared a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2001.