Bacardi and The Long Fight for Cuba
The thing that I love about walking into the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver is that, even if I only need to kill a few minutes before an appointment, I know that I’ll probably spot a book that’s worth reading.
And sure enough, the other day I wandered into the Colfax Ave. store and right away the cover of Tom Gjelten’s Bacardi and The Long Fight for Cuba began calling to me from a nearby shelf. I have always wanted to experience (and photograph!) Cuba, so I helplessly began gravitating toward it, arms outstretched. Further, my intense interest in the world of liquors and mixed drinks naturally included rum, so the name Bacardi threw its hooks out to me as well. Like many people, I had no clue that the Bacardi company had its roots deep in Cuban history, so everything about this book conspired to draw me in for the kill.
I barely had it off the shelf, and while reading the subtitle I could feel my credit cards begin to vibrate in my pocket. “A pistol-packing salsa dance of modern history.” Who wouldn’t buy that book? And I wasn’t let down.
Bacardi and The Long Fight for Cuba is a brilliantly woven story of Cuban history as told through the context of the Bacardi family business. And what a brilliant strategy that was. I mean, it’s not like the last 200 years of Cuban history have not been incredibly interesting. But frankly, I’ve bought lots of books like this on the history of various places that intrigued me, and in 9 out of 10 cases I’m asleep 5 minutes into the introduction.
This book is different. The context of the Bacardi family’s struggle to build a world-class business in the face of repeated revolutionary spasms over the generations gives life to both stories. And indeed, they are completely interwoven. The family’s founders were at first torn between loyalty to their ancestral origins in Spain, and the horrific repression with which the Spanish government ran Cuba in the late 1800′s. Eventually the family became revolutionaries themselves, surreptitiously working for a free Cuba as their adopted homeland. So when Castro came along and overthrew the last Spanish dictator, they momentarily saw Castro’s new revolution as a positive thing for Cuba. Eventually the regime’s true colors came out, however, and the Bacardi family business was nationalized.
This is where things get really interesting. How many of us really knew what happened on that island just south of Florida? Gjelten’s finely crafted telling of Castro’s rise to power and the Bacardi company’s eventual success as an international corporation is heartbreaking and invigorating at the same time. And… a very, very good read, while sipping a Papa Doble or an El Presidente made from Bacardi rum.