Rum and Revolution – Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba

by Dave

Drinkers the world round know the name Bacardi means rum, but few non-Cubans know that this global enterprise was founded — and is still owned — by a Cuban family that played an important role in the island’s social, political and economic history. Emilio Bacardi was a prominent activist in Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain, suffering lengthy periods of imprisonment for the cause. Other members of the clan, based in Cuba’s eastern city of Santiago, also stepped forward to oppose the sad parade of corrupt and dictatorial rulers that the island has since known. Longtime NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten writes in this absorbing familial and political history that the Bacardis are still remembered for “their class and their character. While they lived in elegant homes, rode in chauffeured carriages, and sent their children to exclusive private schools, they were also known as good Santiago citizens, generous and warmhearted and fair.”

A Spanish immigrant by the name of Facundo Bacardi founded a mom-and-pop distillery in Santiago in 1862, when the island was the world’s richest colony, thanks to its vast sugarcane plantations and sugar mills. Bacardi realized that, unlike other sugar-producing islands, Cuba was not using the molasses byproduct to make and export rum. Pooling family funds to launch his business, Bacardi pioneered a new technique to produce a light, mixable rum that became a powerhouse in the worldwide spirits business.

Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba (being published next week) is at once a colorful family saga and a carefully researched corrective to caricatures of decadent pre-revolutionary Cuba and the 50-year disaster of Fidel Castro’s rule.

The extraordinary success of Bacardi rum and its conversion into an
international brand were due in large measure to the business genius of
two successive Bacardi sons-in-law. The first one, Enrique Schueg,
played a leading role in the family-owned company for 50 years.
Schueg’s vision led the company to expand its market steadily, first to
the jet-set visitors and then to average tourists who flocked to the
island during Prohibition to enjoy the music, stage shows, drink and
gambling for which Cuba became famous. Having branded Cuba as the home
of rum, and Bacardi as the king of rums, Schueg then moved production
overseas, first to Puerto Rico, where tariff-free rum was made for the
post-Prohibition U.S. market, and then to Mexico.

Throughout his stewardship, Schueg managed to enlist support for his
plans from the various Bacardi family branches that to this day retain
voting shares. Some family feathers were ruffled when control of the
company passed in 1950 to his son-in-law, José “Pepín” Bosch. But Bosch
repeatedly proved his marketing acumen; he turned around the faltering
expansion in Mexico, for instance, by finding ways to persuade tequila
drinkers to buy rum. And he upheld the Bacardi tradition of treating
workers well and donating generously to social welfare and cultural

Bosch was also sporadically drawn into Cuban politics. Infuriated by
the rapacious corruption of “more or less honestly” elected president
Gerardo Machado, the short, fiery-tempered businessman backed an
uprising in 1931 and had to flee the island once the rebellion
collapsed. Years later, in 1950, Bosch was persuaded to serve briefly
as finance minister and managed to put the budget into the black in
little more than a year, but corruption returned as soon as he left the
post. The Bacardi family then collided with the Batista regime, which
used the national labor federation to stir up trouble and attempt to
extort money from the company.

In an often overlooked part of Cuban history, Bosch and other
Bacardi family members supported the Cuban revolutionaries, including
Fidel Castro and the broader M-26-7 organization. It is unlikely that
Castro’s revolution would have succeeded without the wide middle-class
support that it enjoyed, a reaction against the brutal repression of
the Batista regime and its thugs. Gjelten recounts that Bosch
personally donated at least $38,500 (equivalent to $275,000 today) and
arranged meetings between the revolutionaries and the CIA
to assuage the latter’s concerns. Other Bacardi family members,
employees and facilities were also put at the service of the

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