A refreshing history of the folks who brought the world the Cuba libre, and who agitate for a Cuba libre even today.
The Bacardi rum dynasty is now headquartered in Puerto Rico, but its origins are Cuban—and, writes NPR correspondent Gjelten (Sarajevo Daily: A City and Its Newspaper Under Siege, 1995), Cuban of a particular kind, nationalistic and proud. The 19th-century residents of Santiago were mostly Catalan businesspeople and artisans who, contrary to countless stereotypes, were renowned for their work ethic and thriftiness. The Bacardi empire grew from a small shop, spearheaded by a light, dry, tasty rum that “became the drink of choice…just as Cuba was becoming a nation.” Thereafter it was tied up, in a complicated way, with Cuban self-identity, celebrated by Hemingway and by countless Cuban intellectuals, diplomats and even dissidents. Indeed, writes Gjelten, the far-flung Bacardi family was also well known for standing in opposition to the various tinhorn tyrants who followed independence, notably Fulgencio Batista. In a nicely ironic moment, Gjelten observes that Batista, a former army sergeant, came to power thanks to American fears of a Communist Cuba in the 1930s. The Bacardis were progressive and seemingly incorruptible, which put them at odds with that reactionary, thoroughly corrupt regime. They also ran afoul, however, of Fidel Castro, whom most of the Bacardis supported to some degree or another, but who moved to nationalize the rum industry. In the bargain, Fidel made of the Bacardis a powerful foe—though, like most Cubans in exile, its members “repeatedly misjudged conditions in Cuba and made erroneous predictions,” particularly on the matter of when Castro would leave office and his revolution would collapse.
A solid, journalistic treatment of commercial and political history, of a piece with Tom Miller’s Trading with the Enemy (1992), Ann Louise Bardach’s Cuba Confidential (2002) and other studies of the island.