Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tom Gjelten's Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba

There are really two parts to Tom Gjelten's Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba (2008).  The first is a history of Cuba from the 1860s to the 1960s, centered on Bacardi and the city of Santiago.  The second is a narrative of how Bacardi became global and also obsessed with fighting Fidel Castro.  The Bacardi company went from being an icon of Cuba to a conglomerate struggling to maintain a Cuban identity.

The first part is excellent.  Bacardi was in the middle of fighting against Spain and then later against Fulgencio Batista (who did everything he could to either entice or compel the company to support his government).  Gjelten's describes a company that took tremendous pride in Cuba, and was even grudgingly admired by Marxist union leaders for its positive relations with labor (p. 125).  Pepín Bosch, the president at the time of the revolution, even supported Fidel Castro until it became clear that there would be no autonomous political and economic space in the country.  Bacardi was so enmeshed in Cuba that Raúl Castro married the daughter of a Bacardi executive (Velma Espín).

Bacardi was a living example of how a homegrown Cuba industry could become global to the point that the word "Bacardi" immediately brings up the image of rum.  Ironically, it took the revolution to really launch that global brand.  Bacardi already had plants in Puerto Rico and Mexico, in large part as a result of concern about unstable political conditions before Fidel even became prominent, but it grew exponentially only after leaving Cuba entirely.

The second part of the book is interesting, but not as convincing.  Gjelten gives the company a pass when it comes to its association with terrorists like Luis Posada Carriles.  Despite Bosch's support for the Bay of Pigs and other endeavors, and even helping to launch Jorge Mas Canosa's political career, Gjelten somehow comes to the conclusion that "Bacardi as a corporate entity had largely steered clear of Washington politics around the Cuba cause" (p. 331) until the 1990s.  That is a stretch.

At times Gjelten acknowledges a dilemma of focusing on the Bacardis as a way to understand Cuban political development: "The Bacardis were white, upper-class Cubans, and it is impossible to generalize from their lives to the experiences of the whole Cuban people, a great many of whom were poor (p. 350).  But "they did love their country and were generous citizens."  Yet over time Bacardi shifted from a nationalism independent of (and even skeptical of) the United States toward one that depends largely on U.S. legislation and legal decisions to defend its claims.  Since 1959 both Cuba and Bacardi have changed a lot.


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