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.

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.”

The quote, which may lose some of its pathos in translation, points to a little recognized fact: Miami Cubans are not all obsessed with Fidel, money, and power, in that order. Just as they were more than fifty years ago on the island, Cubans in the United States remain preoccupied with issues of social justice, democracy, and wealth distribution. And, of course, Fidel.

The book has a few weak spots. Gjelten fails to fully explore why Bosch, who dedicated his entire life to Bacardi, would suddenly resign over a management spat, then sell 12 percent of the company to a competitor. And the author may seem a bit naïve when he says that Bacardi’s ingenious advertising campaigns were designed “to make Cubans feel good about themselves and proud of their nation, even while dancing the night away.” (I think the Bacardis most likely just wanted to sell rum.) There is also the repeated assertion of what a great manager Bosch was. When, on page 254, Gjelten salutes him as a “classic enterprise leader” who “moved boldly, managed risk, and responded creatively to business setbacks,” I found myself writing “Enough!” in the margin.

But these are minor issues. What matters is that Gjelten has managed to capture in a single book almost all that one needs to know of Cuban history. His exhaustive reporting allowed him to delve deeply into the Cuban character and soul and reach conclusions that many Cubans will not like to hear, but which are nevertheless true.

“A readiness to resort to violence in pursuit of political aims was part of the national culture in Cuba,” Gjelten writes. He goes on to note that “the anti-Castro movement was characterized by petty internal rivalries, in a pattern reminiscent of the way Cuba’s political parties had fragmented in previous decades and made dictatorships possible. Finally, the opposition was tainted by its close association with the U.S. government, another longstanding issue in Cuba’s uneven political development.”

All so true.

It is easy to conclude, as a U.S. general notes toward the end of Cuba’s Independence War, that Cubans are “incapable of creating a viable government.” Gjelten quotes him as an example of the scorn and weird paternalism that Americans felt toward the island at the turn of the twentieth century. A wealthy island—the wealthiest Spanish colony—in the hands of a people too easily impressed by Caudillos can be a corrosive, self-destructive combination, as history has proven time and time again.

Yet Gjelten ends the book on a positive note. He returns to the example of Emilio Bacardi, whom he calls “a wise man who always counseled against despair,” and suggests that in the post-Castro era, Cubans should be able to find the president they deserve. A wise man himself, the author stops short of predicting the future. On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the so-called Cuban revolution, there is still no clear road for the future of a nation that emerged from conflict more than a century ago and that remains mired in a soul-crushing regime with no ideological compass and no other purpose than sustaining its own survival. 

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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.