Before coming to Cuba, it was my goal to somehow find a singular book that would finally make sense of Cuba’s long history. Our entire trip was irrevocably changed for the better when I stumbled upon Tom Gjelten’s Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: A Biography of a Cause. It’s a hefty piece of text (360-some pages), but I cannot more highly recommend this book for anyone travelling to, or even considering starting a conversation about, Cuba.
Every other book I tried to read picked up somewhere in the middle of the last Revolution, assuming that you were either already well aware of or simply didn’t care about the decades of revolution, culture, policy, and coups that had set the stage for La Revolución in which Cubans are currently living. Gjelten’s Bacardi, however, begins in the 1400s with a vivid description of Hatuey, the Tainó chief who refused to convert to Christianity and so was burned at the stake by colonial missionaries (and much later had the Bacardí beer named in his honour).
The book then traces the political history of Cuba to present day by following a single family, the Bacardís, who were intimately involved in every sphere of Cuban politics. It’s a work of history that reads like a novel, bringing revolutionary characters to life in a way that illuminates the heroic, the ugly, and the impossible choices at either extreme of the political spectrum. Above all, it illuminates the need for a third political space, for a blending of capitalistic competition and socialist community in order to bring the most success to all economic spheres of a country.
After both reading this book (and un gran aplauso for my notoriously slow reader of a husband who actually got it done before we left!), there was no doubt in our minds that our trip needed to begin in Santiago de Cuba, the original capital city of Cuba and the originating site of nearly every catalytical event in the Cuba we see today.
We arrived in Santiago after a 15-hour night bus, the first of many ridiculous travel days in and out of Santiago. We properly initiated ourselves to the city by spending our first afternoon at the Bacardi Museum, which, contrary to what its name suggests, is not a museum about rum (though don’t worry, there IS one of those just down the street!). Instead, it was the pet project of Emilio Bacardí in his role as mayor of Santiago, designed to bring a sense of civic pride and culture to his beloved city. The museum houses a lovely — if somewhat eclectic — collection of Spanish and Cuban art (including numerous sculptures by Mimin Bacardí), indigenous archeological artifacts, and our personal favourite: the Egyptian mummy that Emilio and his wife had specifically gone to Egypt to fetch (the book describes him as “having always wanted an Egyptian mummy…” because, well, don’t we all?), declaring it at customs as “dried meat.”
Upon arriving back in Santiago from Santo Domingo (read about that here & here), with quads screaming and a heel missing, we were out the door the next day by 10AM and didn’t stop walking until 6PM. Our first stop was the Cementario Santa Ifigenia, final resting place of illustrious figures such as the fallen of the 26 of July movement, los Bacardís, Compay Segundo, and José Martí, one of Cuba’s most inspired revolutionary voices.
Monument to José Martí, the Cuban national hero whose poetry united the Cuban people towards revolution and independence.
We stopped for a moment of precious shade beneath a tree, where a friendly guard struck up a conversation with us, showing us around the graves, explaining the differences between “colectivo” graves of the poor and the “particular” crypts of rich families. He was a military veteran, having fought in Angola, and showed us his future spot in the colectivo wall of the Panteon de los Soldados.
He then beckoned us over and showed us a tiny square in a vast concrete wall, one of thousands of colectivo cremated remains, but this one with a name and date hand-scrawled in black paint across the front. It was his brother’s grave, who had died suddenly only a year ago. His brother was one of the lucky ones with someone left who remembered to write his name. For all the famous graves contained in that beautiful place, that small grey square sitting on a weedy patch of parched grass at the back of the cemetery became the most sacred spot.
Burnt and thoughtful, we left el Cimentario and soon realized we were very close to another memorial of sorts: the former Bacardí distillery, nationalized in the sixties. From all my reading, I knew to keep looking past the giant red building now used as a national distillery, and across the railway tracks I suddenly glimpsed the familiar name on a concrete arch nearly worn away by years of scorching sun.
It was astounding to stand on the very spot where the former mayor of Santiago had built an empire in order to bring prosperity and stability to his beloved Cuba. Unfortunately, like most family empires (and like most revolutions!), there were some moments and characters that were more respectable than others in the Bacardí story. But as a whole, the Bacardís during the revolution era brought not only innovative business reform to Cuba on an international level, but also sweeping social reforms to their city and to business principles as a whole.
Frustratingly, the Bacardí-Castro story is one of so many “what ifs.” What if Castro had recognized that private business owners could also hold revolutionary socialists ideals, and allowed them more freedom in the day to day operations of their companies while still holding them to the cooperative ownership and accountability of the new revolution? What if the Bacardi empire had continued to focus on their passion for both an independant Cuba and a successful rum company, rather than allowing their energies to be completely consumed by taking down Castro at any cost? Driven by petty personal loss (because let’s be clear: the financial “losses” garnered by the Bacardi empire after the Revolucion still allowed the family members villas in Spain as well as mansions in Flordia – not exactly a crushing financial collapse), the Bacardí family chose to support a Republican party whose policy included bringing Cuba back under American control: the very thing that both the Bacardí family and the Revolución spent their lives fighting against.
Santiago de Cuba is a hot and crowded city, crowded with generations of individual memories bristling against the collective shape of the city’s place in national history. It is an important and fascinating city, but also an exhausting one. There seems to be no place to rest, no tranquilo corner where one can be refreshed and filled with a new sense of impudence to face another day. It was in search of this rest that Josh and I packed our bags, apologized to our defeated feet, and sleepily went to station to wait out our bus to Baracoa.