An organic history of Cuba through the Bacardi saga – Interview Tom Gjelten

When we bought this book, we thought we were dealing with these hagiographic monographs paid for by brands, readings always enriching but to take with tweezers. Faulty mistake, we came upon a monument of erudition that reads like a historical novel. The author Tom Gjeten, an academic, a great reporter who has spent nearly 10 years researching this major pièce of work on the history of Cuba answers our questions.

Rumporter: why Cuba in the first place ? And why this specific Bacardi angle to evoke Cuba ?
Tom-GjeltenTom Gjelten: I was based in Berlin from 1990 to 1994 and observed firsthand the demise of the socialist system in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. What I saw from that was that Communist regimes that appeared to be strong and stable collapsed very quickly because the people in those countries did not believe in them. There was no popular support underlying the regimes. When I returned to the US in 1994, my attention turned to Cuba, just as the loss of Soviet subsidies and socialist bloc trade connections had thrown the country into a deep economic and political crisis. I had previously been the Latin America correspondent for NPR and spoke Spanish, and I began visiting Cuba, in part out of an expectation that it would follow the same trajectory I witnessed in the socialist countries of eastern Europe.  I went to Cuba two or three times a year, but paradoxically the more I visited, the less I felt I understood the place. It was a mystery to me. I became intensely curious about Cuba and its history and what made it unique. I resolved to explore it.

So, my first thought was to write a book about Cuba and its history. Only later did I decide to focus on the Bacardi story to explain Cuba. I had previously written a book about the war in Bosnia (Sarajevo Daily: A City and Its Newspaper Under Siege). In that case, I tried to tell the Bosnia story in a microcosmic way by using the experience of a daily newspaper and the people (Serbs, Muslims, and Croats) who worked together there throughout the war.  The newspaper story was symbolically important, because it represented the effort to maintain a multiethnic society in the midst of nationalist conflict. I also wanted to use a more human/literary approach, focusing on particular characters. In a sense, I saw it as a nonfiction novel.

In the case of Cuba, I wanted to do something similar: to tell a story using a limited cast of characters whose lives and experiences told a larger story.  I found in the Bacardi story the perfect way to do that.

The title of the book is important. Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause.  The least important word in that title is “Bacardi.”  The story is “The Long Fight for Cuba,”   i.e., the 150-year struggle for a free and sovereign Cuba.  That’s the “cause” to which I refer. I say “biography” because it was an evolving cause.  To fight “for Cuba” meant one thing in the 1860s, something else in the 1920s, something else in the 1950s and something else in the 21st century. A biography is the history of a life, of something organic.  The Bacardi story is what made it possible to tell that long story – and it also gave me a particular setting, a plot, and a cast of characters: all the elements you need for a novel.

I was going regularly to Cuba to do stories for NPR, and during a trip there in 1999 I did a story about the Bacardi-Pernod Ricard dispute. It was at that point that I first became familiar with the unique Bacardi connection to Cuba. I had been looking for a way to tell the Cuba story in a literary way, and it occurred to me after that trip that the Bacardi tale would give me that opportunity. I was working with my editor (Wendy Wolf at Viking), and when I told her about the Bacardi story, she immediately said, “That’s what you need to tell the Cuba story.”


R: We have described your Book as a monument and we mean it. One just has to give  a look at the impressive bibliography and list of acknowledgments.  How long did that take you to write it ?
TG : Mon dieu! Much longer than I expected.  As I said, I first resolved to write this book in mid-1999. I turned in the manuscript in the spring of 2008, 9 years later.  I was not working on the book full-time during that period, of course.  From January 2001 to September 2003, I was the military correspondent for NPR, and I was working full-time on war and terrorism stories. (I was in the Pentagon when it was attacked).  I then took a one-year leave of absence in September 2003, a six-month leave of absence  in 2005, and then a third leave of about 18 months in 2006 and 2007.  So I was working on it full time for at least three years and part-time for an additional 2-3 years.

R: You have spent some time in Cuba and especially in Santiago. As a US citizen, how was that made possible ? What have been your relationship with the Cuban authorities ?

TG: Staff journalists for accredited news organizations were exempt from the U.S. travel ban, so I had no problem with the U.S. authorities. Most of the time I was in Cuba, I was reporting stories for NPR, so the Cuban authorities saw me as a regular news correspondent and gave me the appropriate credentials. They knew I was especially interested in the Cuban rum industry, which was a story they were eager to promote, so they approved my investigations in that area. I did not specifically say I was focusing on the Bacardi angle, nor did I say I was writing a book.  During the time I was not reporting regularly for NPR, I continued to visit Cuba – twice going there as a “tourist.”

That was the one time I got in some trouble. The Cuban authorities did not appreciate me doing research while officially there in a touristic capacity.  I also had people in Cuba helping me with research, as I explain in my acknowledgments. When my book was published, some of the Cuban officials with whom I had dealt were not happy, largely because of the critical stance I took toward Fidel Castro in the last few chapters.  Through a colleague, the Cubans suggested that I was no longer considered a “friend” of Cuba and that I could not return there to report. I have not been back to Cuba since the book was published in 2008.  I do think, however, that many Cuban officials now regard much of my book as fair and professional, and I suspect I could return there now if I wanted. I am no longer reporting on Cuba issues for NPR, so I have less reason to return.

The tin-roofed Bacardi rum distillery on Matador Street in Santiago. The palm tree in the front yard was planted by Fecund Bacardi Jr. shortly after the distillery was opened in 1862. Courtesy : Compañia Ron Bacardi, S.A.

R: On Santiago “justement”, we hardly go to La Havana in the book, what does this city represent for you in the Cuban culture, history, collective conscious ?
TG: Santiagueros and Habaneros feel their separate identities acutely. People from Santiago regard it as “la ciudad heroica.” The slogan on the side of the old Bacardi rum warehouse in Santiago – “Rebelde ayer, hospitalaria hoy, heroica siempre”  – sums up how Santiagueros see their city.  It’s where all the rebellions and freedom fights in Cuba originated. As I write on p. 97, Emilio Bacardi saw Santiago as “a purer representation of the Cuban nation whose development as a whole had been so tragic.” Historically, it has had more ties to the Caribbean culture and less to the North American culture than Havana.

Habaneros on the other hand see themselves as more cosmopolitan and sophisticated and have a tendency to look down on people from the rest of Cuba as provincial.  Not surprisingly, Cubans from the provinces regard the Habaneros as arrogant and self-important.

L'histoire de Cuba à travers Bacardi
Fidel Castro with Gilberto Cala, a worker  at thh former Bacardi factory, in 1963. Castro asked Cala to suggest a new brand name for the rum previously produced there under the “Bacardi” label. © Alberto Korda

R: Your book was released in 2008. At this time the illness of Fidel Castro opened the perspectives of a “transition” that is still to happen.  2016 is another turning year for Cuba with the Obama visit. What are your projections for the next 10 years ? Are the US a risk for Cuba or a chance. Many people here fear seeing Cuba covered with all inclusive hotels, Starbucks coffee shops and MacDonalds.
TG: Cuba is already covered with all-inclusive hôtels ! The Cuban government has always given preference to package tourism, because it’s easier to control than individual tourism. People come in on charter flights, go directly to an all-inclusive resort, and have minimal contact with the Cuban people.  Individual tourists coming to stay in private houses might be more destabilizing.  I think the thing to remember about the current Cuban government is that it values political control over almost all other goals.  The regime under Raul is committed to quasi-capitalist economic development but there are few signs that the government is willing to accommodate much small scale entrepreneurial activity.  I can therefore imagine that McDonalds will be established there before there is an explosion of private restaurants. Big corporations are easier to work with.

Under Raul’s leadership,  the Cuban government is certainly open to more business with the U.S., but on its own terms – which means it will resist giving up political control. One fear I have is that corruption may come to characterize Cuban economic and political life. The “rule of law” is not well established there because the judiciary has little power of its own and there are few genuinely independent institutions. In addition, Cuba’s geographic location means it is in the center of international drug trafficking patterns, which could also lead to some corruption.


R: How was your project perceived by the Bacardi family at the beginning ? Did you get any help ? How was it perceived after the release ? Some journalists say you have been very kind on them but I don’t agree, you seem to have a sense of balance in all your conclusions…

TG: This is one of the reasons it took me so long to write this book.  I chose to work with two of the most difficult parties on the planet – the Cuban government and the Bacardi family.  The Bacardis are notoriously private. The company has been almost entirely in family hands for more than a century, so there is little pressure on them to deal with outsiders. Their longstanding position has been to give only minimal cooperation to the news media. It took years for me to get the corporation to let me consult with the Bacardi archivist, who gave me access to old photographs and corroborated some historical details. I also managed to get an interview with the chairman of the Bacardi board, but that was his personal choice.

Emilio Bacardí Moreau, son of the founder and a main architect de of the cuban independance. Here as mayor of Santiago, at work at his city hall office. The main character of the book. © Bacardi family collection

Several individual family members, however, did cooperate with me, on their own and without coordination and prior approval from the corporate officers. Even so, it took months of cajoling. I appealed to their pride in their Cuban heritage, saying it was something that too few people knew, and I persuaded them I could be fair and thorough in telling their story. After the book was released, the Bacardis – as a family and as a corporation  – were generally pleased with the book, although the corporate folks were not thrilled with my account of the battle with Pernod Ricard and the efforts by Bacardi lobbyists to get U.S. law changed to support their commercial interests.

I know the criticism to which you refer, and I have to say it is fair. In hindsight, I think I could have edited out some of the more positive treatment of the family and its history in Cuba. It was all accurate and fair in my opinion, but maybe there was more of it than was needed to tell the story.

L'histoire de Cuba à travers Bacardi
Hemingway feted by Bacardi in 1956 in honor of his nobel prize. To his right is Fernando Campoamor, noted Havana columnist and Hemingway drinking pal. Courtesy : Bacardi Ron Compañia S.A

R: What is your perception of how Cubans would welcome the Bacardis if they were to come back? Are they still considered as Cubans in Cuba? Do they perceive themselves as Cubans ?
 TG: These are interesting questions. The Bacardis are seen very differently in Santiago and Havana. In Santiago, they are still revered. There is still a Bacardi museum there, and the Bacardi graves in the local cemetery are lovingly maintained. In Havana, they are seen in more political terms – associated with the counter-revolution and the “Miami Mafia.”  Emilio Bacardi, who fought for Cuban independence and was critical of the United States, is seen as the “good” Bacardi. The Bacardi building in Havana was recently officially renamed, from the Edificio Bacardi to the Edificio Emilio Bacardi to indicate he was different from his successors.

It has been more than 50 years since the Bacardis left Cuba, so only the oldest Cubans have any direct recollection of them, and much of what Cubans are told of the Bacardi family is negative (although it is slightly different in Santiago).

As for the Bacardis themselves, the older members of the family still identify very strongly with their Cuban heritage, although it gets weaker with each generation.  I don’t see any of the family moving back to Cuba, but they would like to visit. Several family members have already done so.  Bacardi rum is no longer associated with Cuba, so I don’t think they are very interested in re-establishing their company  there. To the extent there is interest, it would be the domestic Cuban rum market. Bacardi makes good white rum, which is what Cubans like.

L'histoire de Cuba à travers Bacardi
Bacardi boss Pepin Bosch directed the highly successful reorganization of Bacardi operations outside Cuba after the company’s facilities were confiscated by the Castro government in 1960. © Business Week

R: There are two main figures that stand out in the book : Emilio Bacardi Moreau and Pepin Bosch. They incarnate the Company in 2 different ways (one is more an intellectual and the other more of a business man)  but both have been the defenders of an independent Cuba, liberal in a socially balanced way as they incarnate a form of human capitalism, yet paternalist. From your contacts and conversations within the family, in the 2016 context do you see a figure of that kind within the family nowadays and do you think it is possible for one to arise with Cuba as a concern (because it seems to me they have the world as a quest not only Ciuba).

TG: I don’t see anyone in the family with remotely the stature and patriotism of Emilio and Pepin Bosch.  The current chairman of the Bacardi board, Facundo Bacardi (Morales) is a great-grandson of Facundo Bacardi Moreau (Emilio’s brother), but he was born in the US and doesn’t speak Spanish well. The chief executive officers of the company in recent years have come from outside the family.


R: The Pernod fight. I am a indécrottable naive but i always have the idea that (to a certain extent we are always stronger when we join forces). Havana and Bacardi could work together on developing the Cuban Rum as a whole. Do you see any chance that this might happen and why … not ?
I rather doubt this, because they each have much loyalty to their individual brands. Also, as I said earlier, I think at this time Pernod Ricard is more closely associated with Cuban rum on the global level than Bacardi is.  Bacardi’s main interest in producing and selling rum from Cuba would be the U.S. market. I don’t see them cooperating. I do think, however, that there is a decent chance that we could see a settlement of their dispute. I can see Bacardi dropping (for a hefty price) its challenge to PR’s use of the Havana Club trademark. It doesn’t mean much in the US, which is the market that matters most to Bacardi.

L'histoire de Cuba à travers Bacardi
Teh Bacardi factory in Santiago as it appeared in the 1950s. The factory was built on the site of the original distillery on Madero street, and the coconut palm is the same tree planted at the site by Fecund Bacardi Moreau in 1862. Courtesy : Bacardi Ron Compañia SA.


R: What is you rum culture ?
I am not a huge fan of Bacardi rum, largely because I have no interest in white rum, which is the Bacardi specialty.  I prefer an aged rum.  I mostly drink 7-year-old Flor de Caña, which is made in Nicaragua.  The 7-year-old Havana Club is generally close to Flor de Caña, but I have found it to be inconsistent. Some bottles good, some less so. Bacardi 8 is the closest to those rums in the Bacardi line, but I don’t think it’s comparable.

R: Have you visited the former Bacardi facilities in Santiago. What is left of it theree ?
I have. The facilities are still intact. The aging warehouse is still there, almost unchanged from the Bacardi days, and the old column distillery there is still in use. It is now used by the state-owned rum company, but Pernod Ricard claims that the Havana Club rum sold in Europe does NOT come from the old Bacardi facilities. If it did, Pernod Ricard would be subject to legal action in the US for using “stolen” property.


R: Do you plan to have your book translated into French ? Do you plan to update it with what happened in the past 8 years…
I have no plans as of yet. It was a struggle to get it translated into Spanish. I had to pay someone myself to do the translation, and there is a much bigger market for it in Spanish than in French. I would love to have it available in French, however. Do you think there would be a market for it?

I wrote the book in such a way that it would not really need to be updated based on new developments in Cuba, but if a new edition were to come out, I cold write an epilogue.

R: One last: you are an “observateur avisé” of the US Politics, who do you think will win
the elections and what are the perspective for Cuba if Trump was to be the one ?
Like most observers, I suspect Hillary Clinton will win the election, but I am by no means certain of that. Trump’s chances go up and down by the day, it seems.  I actually think that the current direction of US-Cuba rapprochement will continue regardless. Obama’s opening to Cuba has a fair amount of support within business circles here, and I think support for the embargo is diminishing. Trump does not talk much about Cuba, even in Florida, and his stated desire to “negotiate” and “make friends” suggests to me he would be inclined to maintain this opening with Cuba.

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