Tom Gjelten's new book, Bacardi and the Long Fight For Cuba: The Biography of a Cause, threads the history of the family-owned Bacardi Rum Co. together with that of the nation in which it was founded.
The Bacardi family business began in 1862, when Facundo Bacardi, an immigrant from Spain, opened a small distillery in Santiago, Cuba, and set forth to change the image of rum.
Previously, Gjelten says, rum had been a "rough man's drink," favored by sailors and buccaneers, but Facundo decided to make it a lighter drink, one that could be mixed with other things and enjoyed by a broader group of consumers.
The strategy worked. Bacardi rum — and the fruity concoctions it mixed with — became emblematic of Cuba's status as the tourist capital of the Caribbean, an island of tropical delights, nightclubs and casinos. One of the company's first advertising slogans boasted that Bacardi rum was "the one that has made Cuba famous."
Rum And Revolution
Over the years, the company's entrepreneurial identity became intertwined with Cuba's search for national identity. In the 19th century, Facundo's son, Emilio, was arrested twice and exiled after becoming involved in Cuba's war of independence from Spain.
"One of the ways that [Bacardi] established their reputation as a Cuban company was by emphasizing their patriotic credentials and their close association with Cuba," says Gjelten.
In the 1950s, the family's support for Fidel Castro in the Cuban Revolution was a natural carryover from 100 years of involvement in Cuban nationalistic movements. Pepin Bosch, the chairman of the company at that time, gave tens of thousands of dollars of his own money to the cause — as did other members of the family.
"When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, there was no Cuban company more associated with the revolution than the Bacardi Rum Co.," says Gjelten.
But the alliance was short lived; a year and a half after taking power, Castro appropriated all of the Bacardi properties, and most of the family was exiled. The company continued to thrive, however, largely because the family had created independent companies outside Cuba in the 1950s.
Looking ahead to a post-Castro era, Gjelten says the Bacardis' involvement in Cuba may not be over.
"There is a deep Cuban identity in this company," he says. "Just as the Bacardis have been a big force and presence in Cuba for over a century, I think we cannot at all discount the possibility that they could be a force in Cuba in the future."