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.
Emilio Bacardi, Facundo’s oldest son, was an enlightened and educated man who wrote novels, opposed slavery, sent two of his daughters to the progressive Raja Yoga School in California, questioned the divinity of Jesus, and saw the Roman Catholic Church as an arm of Spanish repression. In retirement, he kept busy by compiling a ten-volume collection of news, anecdotes, and official notices, titled Crónicas de Santiago de Cuba, a classic work.
Pepín Bosch entered the story later, when he married one of Emilio’s granddaughters. To him fell the task of globalizing the company and rebuilding it. Bosch, only the third man to lead Bacardi, held on to this job for more than thirty years, retiring in 1976. Headquartered in Bermuda, Bacardi today is a thriving multinational, which produces whiskey, gin, vermouth, vodka, tequila, and, of course, rum.
Gjelten is at his best when he leaves aside the intricacies of running a business and returns to the intersection of the family with the greater currents of Cuban history. One can almost imagine him yelping with joy as he discovers yet another connection.
To wit: Emilio Bacardi knew José Martí, the poet and national martyr. His son “Emilito” fought alongside the great Antonio Maceo—a mulatto so fierce in battle that he was known as the Bronze Titan. For a brief period, Pepín Bosch ran Cuba’s Finance Ministry as well as the company. The clan was also connected to Desi Arnaz (of I Love Lucy fame), since his grandfather had been a Bacardi executive and sponsored the company of the world-famous ballerina Alicia Alonso. In the late 1950s, Bacardi women knitted hats and socks for the rebels who were fighting the U.S.-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Vilma Espín, the daughter of a Bacardi executive and stockholder, married Raúl Castro, Cuba’s current president, in 1959. That same year, Bosch was the only businessman to accompany Fidel Castro on his first, quasi-official trip to the United States.
Throughout it all—family tragedies, an earthquake, devastating fires, plagues, wars, prison, and exile at various times to different countries—the Bacardis managed to keep their company intact. The family ran such a tight, civic-minded, and profitable business, as Gjelten repeatedly reminds us, that they were untouchable. Through good times and bad, everyone drank rum. The business simply couldn’t lose—until Castro came to power, that is. In 1960, a group of armed milicianos showed up at the Bacardi offices in Havana and asked a thirty-year-old sales manager, the most senior employee on duty that morning, to hand over the keys. The sales manager complied, then asked for a receipt. “I have to have something to show my boss,” he told the soldiers. Accountants estimated that the company’s seized properties amounted to about $76 million in 1960 dollars.
Once the book shifts focus to the Miami exiles, Gjelten’s writing becomes even tighter. At one point, he packs two decades of history into two paragraphs. In the same chapter, he uses a 1984 commentary written by Bosch in a Miami newspaper to highlight the contradictions of being an anti-Castro exile and a progressive thinker—a duality that few non-Cuban reporters have ever fully grasped. In the piece, Bosch criticized President Ronald Reagan’s economic policies, even though most Cuban exiles—himself included—were enamored of Reagan’s foreign polices. He wrote: “It seems to me that Mr. Reagan should impose on the rich the same sacrifices he is obliging the rest of the society to suffer. So far, this government has not caused me any sacrifice whatsoever . . . . To me, this doesn’t seem right.”