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.