It turns out you can write entire books on what I don’t know about the history of Cuba. Helpfully, Tom Gjelten has done just that and he’s even made particularly relevant to the likes of me by looking at the subject through the lens of the Bacardi family.
I hadn’t really associated Bacardi with Cuba in the past. When they started printing “Casa fundada en Cuba, 1862” on their UK bottles a couple of years ago, I was one of the knowing bartenders who would turn the bottle over and point out the words “Product of the Bahamas” on the back label. Of course, I was aware that Bacardi had been founded in Cuba and had fled when Castro nationalized their facilities on the island in 1960, but I’d never thought of it as being particularly tied to any one country. My experience of Bacardi was as a global product from a multi-national corporation. But from small acorns, y’know.
The impressive thing about Gjelten’s book is the way he emphasizes those Cuban roots at every stage of the story. There are points when the company seems to represent everything Cuba could be and yet, by the end, the Bacardi company I’m familiar is as far away from the old idea of a free Cuba as the Castro regime. The Bacardis turn out to be the perfect guides to Cuban history, from Facundo Bacardi’s struggle to establish a life for his family during the Spanish colonial period to Emilio Bacardi Moreau guiding both his company and hometown through revolution and regime change. There are cameos from Theodore Roosevelt, Ernest Hemmingway, Che Guevara, and there’s always the long shadows cast by Cuba’s homegrown dictators, Batista and Castro.
It’s not a book about bartending. It often seems like the fact that the Bacardis made rum is incidental to the drama, which is, I guess, true. Ultimately, it’s a book about people and the trouble that comes when you get enough of them together to form a family, to form a company, or to form a nation.