Sunday, September 14, 2008

Distilling the ties between Bacardi and Cuba

Posted on Sun, Sep. 14, 2008

Distilling the ties between Bacardi and Cuba

By Michael Deibert

The Miami Herald

Tom Gjelten. Viking. 480 pages. $27.95.

(Read the original article here)

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.

1 comment:

Walter Lippmann said...

Thanks very much for your review. I'd already seen it at the MIAMI HERALD and sent it out to the CubaNews list which I moderate.

Isn't the Internet a great way for people to make contact with one another?

For over eight years I've been operating an Internet-based news service on Cuba which you and your readers might find useful

My father and his parents lived in Cuba from 1939 to 1942. They were German Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, and not political left-wingers. That family history is where my own interest in Cuba comes from.

Cuban society today represents an effort to build an alternative to the way life was under the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, who ran Cuba before Fidel Castro led a revolution there. No one complained about a lack of human rights and democracy in those days, but U.S. businesses were protected.

I'd like to see Gjelton's book. He's always so negative when he goes to Cuba and I've heard many of his reports on National Public Radio, but it does look like he's done some interesting research on this occasion.

Would like to review the book myself.
Thanks for letting me rant on this morning.

Walter Lippmann
Los Angeles, California