Americans have been on a death watch for quite a while now, without really paying a whole lot of attention. Yet once Fidel Castro passes from the scene, and the regime he founded collapses — in a few years? months? days? — the United States will inevitably become involved in setting the terms for Cuba’s future. So this is a particularly appropriate time to learn something about Cuba’s past.
There’s a shelf of histories to consult. But it’s hard to imagine that any 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.
Mr. Gjelten has had the brilliant idea of telling Cuba’s story through a family and a business that have been at the center of that country for as long as there has been a country, indeed even longer. As Mr. Gjelten writes, and succeeds in proving, “the history of Cuba can be narrated around tales of rum.”
The Bacardi Rum Company was founded by a Catalan merchant in 1862, when Cuba was still a Spanish colony. In the decades that followed his heirs were deeply involved in the struggle for independence, in Cuba’s tortured relationship with the United States, in the rollicking era when Havana was “the Las Vegas of the Caribbean,” in the Castro revolution that overthrew the dictator Fulgencio Batista and in the battle that continues today against Mr. Castro from Miami and other places of exile.
Teddy Roosevelt goes charging through these pages. Meyer Lansky casts a shadow as Batista’s “gambling adviser.” Frank Sinatra drops by to sing a song or two. The great Puerto Rican leader Luis Muñoz Marín puts in an all-too-brief appearance. Ernest Hemingway downs his favorite drink, daiquiris made with Bacardi rum.
What makes Mr. Gjelten’s book such a standout is its quality of subjectivity. 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. Sometimes he dutifully draws back to provide necessary commercial detail about Bacardi, and at those moments the book risks dwindling into a standard business history of a little company and how it grew.
But Mr. Gjelten always returns to the individual family members for a fresh burst of narrative energy. Two, one influential in the 19th century, the other in the 20th, are particularly extraordinary: Emilio Bacardi Moreau, a son of the founder, who risked his business and his life for the cause of Cuban independence, and José (Pepín) Bosch, who led the company for a quarter-century and who first backed Mr. Castro, then became one of his most determined, and most powerful, enemies.
The 24-year-old Emilio Bacardi supported the first Cuban war of independence in 1868, and with its failure became an active revolutionary, smuggling arms and raising money for rebels in the hills. He was an abolitionist when the sugar economy of Cuba depended on slavery, a freethinker who questioned Jesus’ divinity, despite the power of the Roman Catholic Church on the island. Twice he was arrested, and spent years in Spanish prisons. Yet he ran a successful business, his rum gaining in popularity and winning medals in international competitions while he fought Spain. He also wrote novels.
After the Spanish-American War of 1898, Bacardi worked in uneasy alliance with the American occupation army. (Readers may be forgiven if they see certain similarities to the confusions and contradictions in present-day Iraq.) In 1901 Bacardi was elected mayor of his hometown, Santiago, and then to the Cuban Senate. But the political pressures and counterpressures proved too much for him, and as his country descended into chaos, he abandoned public life to concentrate on the family business and his literary pursuits. Before his death in 1922, he compiled a 10-volume collection of annotated documents, a classic work titled “Crónicas de Santiago de Cuba.”
In summarizing Bacardi’s life, Mr. Gjelten writes, “Though his name is mentioned in few Cuban history books, Emilio Bacardi Moreau was a rare example of enlightened and responsible civic leadership in Cuba at a time when such men were in short supply.”
José (Pepín) Bosch demonstrated the same heroic commitment to civic responsibility under very different circumstances. Married to the founder’s granddaughter, he served as the Cuban finance minister before being selected to run the company in 1951. After Batista seized power a year later, Bosch became an opposition leader, one of the few businessmen to call for a restoration of democracy.
Like Emilio Bacardi almost a century earlier, he risked everything for his ideals; in 1957 his son was briefly arrested by Batista’s military police. Soon Bosch was raising funds for Mr. Castro, and when the revolutionaries victoriously entered Havana in the first days of 1959, they could count Bosch and the Bacardi family among their most prominent supporters.
There are no more dramatic sections in Mr. Gjelten’s book than those recounting Bosch’s gradual disillusionment with Mr. Castro. First came the firing squads; then the growing centralization of power; then the removal of moderates, including some of Bosch’s friends, from the government; then the suppression of the news media and the jailing of dissidents; finally the confiscations of “bourgeois” property. In July 1960 Bosch and his wife, Enriqueta, left for Miami, never again to set foot in Cuba. He died in 1994.
During Bosch’s years in exile, his story and that of his company take on uncomfortable ambiguities. Bosch became linked to at least one terrorist, who thought the way to fight Mr. Castro was to blow up airplanes, and there are suggestions of Mafia ties as well. In Cuba Bacardi had enjoyed a reputation as a socially conscious, progressive employer, but in the United States Bosch’s closest political allies were right-wingers like Jesse Helms. When three of Tom DeLay’s aides were indicted for violating campaign-finance laws, Bacardi was one of several companies indicted with them.
For almost a century and a half, Mr. Gjelten shows, the Bacardi company and the Bacardi family strenuously associated themselves with what they saw as “the Cuban cause.” In recent years they identified that cause almost entirely with the overthrow of Fidel Castro, to the exclusion of just about anything else. Now Mr. Castro’s end is in sight. Yet it’s not clear who or what will replace him, or how, and so Mr. Gjelten is forced to conclude his book on an uncertain note.
Once Cuba produced remarkable, heroic men like Emilio Bacardi and Pepín Bosch. But today, Mr. Gjelten writes, the idea of the Cuban cause is “no longer clear,” and the heroes for a post-Castro Cuba are nowhere in sight.