On the street
I just finished reading ‘World Without End,’ by Ken Follett. It’s about 13th century England, but I almost think I liked ‘Pillars of the Earth’ better.
Bacardi is the world's top-selling rum with annual sales of 20 million cases in more than 150 countries. But it does not sell a drop in Cuba, where founder Facundo Bacardi first opened a tin-roofed, dirt-floored distillery on Matadero Street in the eastern city of Santiago in 1862.
With thorough reporting and an eye for rich, often quirky detail, veteran National Public Radio correspondent Tom Gjelten traces the story of the Bacardi family in "Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba" (Viking, $27.95). The family's product helped shape Cuba's soul until Fidel Castro nationalized its company's facilities in 1960.
The Bacardis took communist Cuba to court to preserve their international trademark and eventually built a rum empire using operations in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Brazil and the Bahamas. "We just didn't think to register the Bacardi trademark, so we lost it," Castro said years later. "We had the factory that produced the real Bacardi rum, but we couldn't keep the name."
Facundo Bacardi was the first Cuban mayor of Santiago and helped pioneer Cuban-style rum, known for its light, dry, smoothness. He devised a charcoal filter system and began aging rum in oak barrels. Bacardi racked up international awards after 1900, and soon its rum became known as "the one that has made Cuba famous."
Prohibition in the United States sent Americans scurrying to Cuba, thirsty for Bacardi. A contemporary advertisement featured a Bacardi bat - the company's corporate logo, which Gjelten notes is somewhat creepy - carrying an Uncle Sam figure clutching an empty glass across the Straits of Florida to Cuba. By 1935, The New York Times cited Bacardi as a proper noun that had entered U.S. lexicon as a generic term, like Kleenex.
The Bacardis opposed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and supported Fidel Castro, even granting some workers leave to join his rebel forces. Vilma Espin, late wife of Cuban President Raul Castro, was the daughter of a Bacardi accountant and one Bacardi family member even knitted caps and stockings for Castro rebels fighting Batista's forces.
After nationalizing Bacardi, Cuba eventually began producing Havana Club rum, a brand it usurped from the Arechabala family, Bacardi competitors who did not fight to keep their trademarks after nationalization.
Bacardi eventually bought the naming rights to Havana Club from the Arechabalas and began selling its own version of Havana Club in the United States, touching off more legal battles with Cuba that have yet to be fully resolved.
The case is complicated but, as Gjelten notes, its underlying issues are simple: "When could Cuban rum be sold in the United States, by what company and under what label?"
Like so many facets of U.S.-Cuba relations, answering those questions is far from easy.