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Ian Williams: Bacardi’s Muddled Fight for “Cuba Libre”

Ian WilliamsThe Bacardi family elicits strong feelings across the world. Its propensity for mythmaking, its aggressive commercial competitiveness, its long history of lobbying in Washington, its family obsession with Cuba, and its understandable grudge against Fidel Castro’s regime are all guaranteed to produce friction. Tom Gjelten has had unprecedented cooperation from both the family and from Cuban officials in writing his book, Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: the Biography of a Cause (Viking , 2008). Neither Castro supporters nor the Bacardi family have exactly trumpeted the financial, political, and logistical backing given by the family to Castro and the rebels. Both sides obviously regret the episode. Ironically, however, now that Raul Castro has succeeded his older brother, both sides are linked to the family business, since Raul married the daughter of a Bacardi executive family in a lavish Bacardi-hosted ceremony attended by Fidel, the original big brother. Gjelten leaves nothing unrecorded in his objective, warts and all, history of an unusual company, illustrating Cuban history without the canonizations by leftist apologists for Fidel and the demonizations by conservative Cuban exiles and their friends. He correctly questions some of the company’s mythmaking by copywriters, for example the “Cuba Libre” (rum and Coke), whose Bacardi origins were later dubiously certified by the Bacardi sales manager in New York. However, he is a little too accepting of the family tale, and indeed the Cuban view, of its innovation in rum-making. In fact, for centuries, the Spanish colonies were forbidden from making rum—not, as Gjelten suggests, to protect public morals, but to protect the brandy industry back home. What Bacardi did was replicate the processes long used by the Jamaicans and other Anglo-Caribbeans, who had long before discovered how important aging in oak barrels was to make the product smooth and palatable. Bacardi made a lighter version of rum, filtered to take out much of the color and, in the opinion of many rum connoisseurs, much of the taste as well. But as part of its innovative marketing, the family was strong on quality control, ensuring that the brand, even if bland, was consistent.



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