"It’s hard to imagine that any (Cuban history) is as enjoyable as “Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba” by Tom Gjelten, a correspondent for National Public Radio. His book is as smooth and refreshing as a well-made daiquiri. Presenting his history through the lives of people who affected the events they personally experienced and were in turn affected by them, he gives us drama, not chronology or statistics." --Barry Gewen, New York Times (read the entire NY Times review)
“By the turn of the century, as Gjelten lucidly recounts, the distilling operation that Facundo [Bacardi] had begun in a shed was among the brands most closely identified with Cuba, and the Bacardis became inextricably entangled with the nation’s history.” --The New Yorker (read the entire New Yorker review)
"A gripping saga that tells us just as much about human nature and the struggle between power and freedom as it does about Bacardi's transformation from a fledgling business into the world's top family-owned distiller." --Alvaro Vargas Llosa, The Wall Street Journal (read the entire Wall Street Journal review)
"With its fabulous triumphs and poignant defeats, this stirring tale of rum, money, and revolutions has all the markings of a great epic movie." --Richard Feinberg, Foreign Affairs (read the entire Foreign Affairs review)
“Absorbing history, at once a colorful family saga and a carefully researched corrective to caricatures of decadent pre-revolutionary Cuba." --Linda Robinson, The Washington Post (read the entire Washington Post review) (Listen to the Washington Post Book World podcast interview with Tom Gjelten)
"Mr. Gjelten masterfully illuminates the biography of a cause personified by a proud family that pioneered a major business and shaped the recent past of Cuba, a neighbor whose still uncertain future will almost certainly affect America and the rest of the Western Hemisphere. He presents a fair, balanced, and yet extremely evocative portrait of the rum dynasty and its love-hate affairs with the Spanish Crown, Fidel Castro and the United States government." --Harry Hurt III, New York Times Business Section (read the entire NY Times review)
"With thorough reporting and an eye for rich, often quirky detail, veteran National Public Radio correspondent Tom Gjelten traces the story of the Bacardi family, whose product helped shape Cuba's soul until Fidel Castro nationalized its company's facilities in 1960." --Will Weissert, The Chicago Tribune (read the entire Chicago Tribune review)
"National Public Radio correspondent Tom
Gjelten writes an appealingly smooth and colorful history - thorough and open-minded." --Peter Lewis, San Francisco Chronicle (read the entire SF Chronicle review)
"Exhaustively researched, succeeds in painting a vivid portrait of the
company's early, scrappy years and its prominent role in the fight
against Spanish rule. Gjelten provides a fascinating look at how the
company built itself into the multinational giant it has become." --Randy Kennedy, New York Times Sunday Book Review (read the entire Sunday Book Review review)
PETER M. GIANOTTI
Newsday (New York)
September 21, 2008
"While the free world impatiently awaits the last judgment of Fidel and Raul Castro, here come three books that underscore the guilt of their predecessors, too.
The trio comprises a cocktail of history: part analysis, part biography, part nostalgia, finished with a splash of color. It's "Guantanamera" to Guantnamo.
T.J. English's sometimes entertaining, sometimes sloppy Havana Nocturne does have a hangover quality. English distills the "country for sale" years when Meyer Lansky and more gangsters than populate "The Godfather, Part II" basically owned Cuba while the equally murderous and corrupt Fulgencio Batista ran it.
English, whose earlier works include The Westies and Paddy Whacked, has a cranky novelist's style. That keeps the saga moving, a tale of "sun, gambling and showgirls" seasoned with celebrities and gangsters. He goes up to the ascent of Castro and the destruction of the casinos.
English quotes the eloquent Lucky Luciano: "We gotta expand someplace and we need a place to send our dough where it'll keep making money." Lansky has "been down to Havana and he's made some good contacts."
And English has some fun detailing the crime and the decadence, the characters and the competitors. But along the way, his writing often turns florid and overwrought. There's one "dazzling, raven-haired beauty" too many. The soon-to-be departed Albert Anastasia "never knew what hit him. The fusillade of bullets came from behind - with no warning." There's more. You've been warned.
Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba is a far more thoughtful, thorough piece of reporting. Tom Gjelten, correspondent for National Public Radio, subtly and skillfully details the saga of the Bacardi family. You may never look at a mojito or a daiquiri quite the same way.
Gjelten follows the ups and downs of the clan and its rum company as an integral and symbolic part of the tormented nation's past. It's as if the family line is a timeline. Bacardi was a "progressive" firm, he writes, and initially cooperated with Castro: a capitalist operation as a revolutionary partner. But the revolution, of course, just led to another dictator and different firing squads, despite Castro's perpetual attempts to recast and rewrite Cuban history. Bacardi, "the largest industrial firm still in private hands," was nationalized. Legal battles ensued over the Bacardi name, with the trademark settled in the family's favor. Bacardi became a multinational, as well an assertive lobbyist in Washington. Gjelten's book is a clear-eyed examination of missed opportunities, there and here.
Bacardi began during the battle with Spain and grew, much like the country, until Castro took over. Gjelten's narrative is detailed and compelling, delivering a vivid portrait of the family business and the family itself, from founder Facundo Bacardi to Jose "Pepin" Bosch, the Bacardi chairman who broke with Castro.
Gjelten's perspective is broad. He covers the Lansky & Co. era in detail. But it's only part of his report on "Cuba corrupted." Gjelten carefully traces the rise of Fidel Castro and puts it in fuller context. And he offers a dramatic primer on doing business in turbulent times.
The romantic capitalist may imagine that some day Bacardi will shed the words "Puerto Rican rum" and return to Cuba. But, as Gjelten notes, any transition in Cuba "would not come easily. Nothing did in Cuba."
These two books contain evocative photographs. But if you're looking for images, Havana Before Castro has them in bulk. Peter Moruzzi's infatuation with Cuba is illustrated in grand and grandiose style.
It's a pop-culture potpourri, full of brochures, advertisements, postcards, album covers, period photos, architectural details, drink recipes. Cha-cha and mambo, rum and cigars, "Guys and Dolls," George Raft and Frank Sinatra, all have their place. Visit Sloppy Joe's Bar and the Floridita, the nightclubs Tropicana and Sans Souci, the Hotel Nacional and Havana Riviera.
The slogan of the Cuban Tourist Commission in the 1940s and 1950s: "Cuba - So Near ... And Yet So Foreign."
It still is.
The Miami Herald
September 14, 2008
Distilling the ties between Bacardi and Cuba;
This is an engaging portrait of a family squabble and a corrupt country.
When a Catalan merchant named Facundo Bacardi purchased an underperforming rum distillery in Santiago de Cuba in 1862, he likely could little have imagined how vast his business venture would one day become, nor how intertwined its rise would be with the fate of a nation.
The story of Facundo and his descendants is the focus of the new book by National Public Radio correspondent Tom Gjelten, who seeks in his narrative to view much of Cuba's history through the microcosm of a single sprawling, occasionally squabbling Cuban family. He is largely successful in painting an engaging portrait of a vibrant though often tragic national trajectory.
Gjelten writes that what made the family-held company unique was its ''intertwining of nationalist and capitalist identities.'' These dual strands never coalesce with greater passion than in Emilio Bacardi, Facundo's son and the dominant figure in the first half of the book. Twice imprisoned by the Spanish and subsequently Santiago de Cuba's first Cuban-born mayor and a national senator, Emilio represents perhaps the greatest flowering of these complementary identities. A fine portrait is likewise drawn of the corrupt playground Cuba became under presidents Ramón Grau San Martin and Fulgencio Batista.
Gjelten does not paint the island in stark primary colors of good and evil, instead portraying a Cuba of imperfect patriots, conflicted loyalties and sometimes disastrous rebellions. Fidel Castro's ill-advised nationalization of businesses finally succeeds in driving the Bacardis out in a melancholy coda to a business identity that always seemed inextricably linked with the soil on which it was founded.
The book has some shortcomings, as Gjelten appears to have gotten a little too close to his subject and thereby lost some of the objectivity that is so important in such a definitive undertaking. The Bacardi family is almost always portrayed as selfless, while the company's workers are often portrayed as difficult and opportunistic, though Gjelten does make a point of expounding upon the stark inequalities between Cuba's rural poor and urban elite.
The family squabbles that mark the narrative once the Bacardis move to the United States prove nowhere near as engaging as the chronicle of revolution, politics and commerce that precedes it, though the company's ability to get a pro-Bacardi amendment inserted into the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 1999 vividly illustrates how powerful corporations can bend legislation to suit their interests.
One is left with the sense that Cuba was a nation of missed opportunities. The original Bacardi credo of responsible civic engagement, one that the powerful in both Cuba and the United States could do well to remember, is perhaps best summed by lines that Emilio Bacardi penned following the start of the U.S. occupation of Cuba at the close of the 19th century: "The obligation of those in authority is to be at the service of those who suffer. It is not for those who suffer to be at the disposition of those who command.''
Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti.
Columbia Journalism Review
"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 Pepin 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 Cronicas de Santiago de Cuba, a classic work.
Pepin 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 Marti, 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, Pepin 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 Espin, the daughter of a Bacardi executive and stockholder, married Raul 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.”
“A thoroughly researched and lively history of the family-owned drinks business, currently the third largest liquor producer in the world.” --Christopher Silvester, Spectator Business (London)
“Gjelten leaves nothing unrecorded in his objective, warts and all, history of an unusual company, illustrating Cuban history without the canonizations by leftist apologists for Fidel and the demonizations by conservative Cuban exiles and their friends.” --Ian Williams, World Policy Blog
“Tom Gjelten traces the history of the Bacardi family, their business, and their involvement in Cuban history with consummate skill. This is a first-rate distillation, at once illuminating and entrancing; a sweeping narrative that rivals the best of historical novels. This book will definitely enhance the buzz in every Daiquiri and Mojito, and give added meaning to every Cuba Libre served anywhere in the world” —Carlos Eire, author of Waiting for Snow in Havana, winner of the National Book Award
"With a novelist's sense of drama and a historian's understanding of the social forces that shape our lives, Tom Gjelten has captured vividly -- through the chronicle of a powerful family's fortunes -- one of the great political dramas of our time." --Ronald Steel, author of Walter Lippmann and the American Century
“Contained within family genealogy are often found profound insights into the history of an entire people. The Bacardís represent one such family. Gjelten has fashioned a splendid prism through which to cast new light on the human dimensions of the Cuban past. The epochal transitions of Cuban national formation are experienced through successive generations of Bacardís, revealing the complex ways that a people are overtaken by the forces of their own creation. Anyone with an interest in Cuban history–and a fondness for Cuban rum–will find the Bacardí family history irresistible.” --Louis A. Perez, Jr., J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
“Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba explores and illuminates the story of our nearest and largest Caribbean island neighbor in an utterly unique and fundamentally revealing way. Tom Gjelten has written a book that is a ‘must read’ for scholars, policy makers, and indeed anyone interested in the long, hard journey of Cuba -- and for what will happen there next. A brilliant job!" --Admiral Jim Stavridis, U.S. Navy, Commander, U.S. Southern Command
"A marvelous blend of biography and vivid history. This book will surely become essential reading to understanding both Cuba’s tragic past and the island’s post-Castro future. A stunning achievement from a versatile journalist." --Kai Bird, co-author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer