Bacardi and the Three Wars for Cuba’s Independence


Cathedral in Havana

Cuba Cathedral by Artur Staszewski / CC BY

The history of Cuba is closely intertwined with the history of Bacardi and the family who created it. Cuban patriots all, the Bacardí family almost unanimously supported the rebel forces, some risking their lives and livelihood for the cause.

In 1862, Bacardi was founded by Don Facundo Bacardí Massó during a period of Spanish colonial rule in Cuba. With the purchase of a tin-roof distillery in Santiago de Cuba, Bacardí and his wife, Amalia Bacardí Moreau, began the BACARDÍ rum dynasty that would outlast many governments and prosper regardless of political unrest.

The struggle for Cuban independence began on October 10, 1868 with what became known as “el grito de Yara,” (the shout of Yara). Carlos Manuel de Céspedes led a revolt at a sugar mill in Yara, calling for liberty and independence for Cuba. The sentiment behind “el grito de Yara” ignited Cuban patriotism and galvanized support for the rebel movement. Thus began the Ten Years’ War, the first struggle for Cuban independence.

The rebel cause appealed to young Emilio Bacardí Moreau, Don Facundo’s eldest son, who sought to do his part. In December 1868, Emilio Bacardí Moreau, working without the permission or knowledge of the official rebel chain of command, tried to incite his fellow Cubans to riot and take the Santiago de Cuba Governor’s Palace. Although his first attempt at insurrection fell flat, Emilio Bacardí Moreau’s passion for fighting for a free Cuba never dimmed, and he supported the revolutionaries for the next 30 years.

Notwithstanding Cuban patriotic fervor and popular support, the Ten Years’ War ended in failure for the rebels. The weapons supply and funding were a continual challenge. Despite support from the Cuban exile community, peace talks ended in 1878 with the Spanish still in control of Cuba.

The second battle for independence was brief. Many rebel commanders were dissatisfied with the conclusion of the hard-fought Ten Years’ War and tried to stoke the embers of the rebellion once more. The Cuban people were weary of war, however, and preferred peace to continual struggle. After just one year, the “Little War” fizzled in 1880.

At the advent of the third and final War of Independence in 1895, Emilio Bacardí Moreau was in an excellent position to help. As the president of his family’s company, he traveled to far-flung sugar plantations, where he could pass messages among rebel supporters without detection. Using the code name “Phoción,” Emilio Bacardí Moreau facilitated arms traffic and financial support for rebels by communicating with the rebel headquarters in the United States. He and other businessmen even established an independent trading company headquartered just down the street from Bacardi’s Marina Baja Street offices that served as a front for these activities.

Emilio Bacardí Moreau was not alone in the Bacardí family in his support for the rebel forces. His second wife, Elvira Cape Lombard, supported her husband’s revolutionary activity, even stepping into his shoes when he was imprisoned. Communicating with rebel leadership using the feminine form of her husband’s code name, “Phociona” kept up support for the cause of independence. Calm under pressure, Elvira Cape Lombard even managed to smuggle incriminating letters out of her house during a search by Spanish authorities. The letters, concealed in her baby daughter’s hat, made it safely to the home of family members Enrique Schueg and Amalia Bacardí.

Emilito Bacardí begged his father for permission to join in the revolutionary fighting when he came of age. Emilio Bacardí Moreau wrote a letter to brilliant military strategist and leader Antonio Maceo, known as the “Bronze Titan,” asking if his son could fight under his command. Emilito Bacardí served with distinction, rising to the rank of colonel.

The Cuban wars for independence eventually attracted the attention of the people and government of the United States. President William McKinley was persuaded to send the USS Maine to Habana Harbor in 1895 in case of any threat to the United States’ citizens. On February 15, 1898, an explosion of unknown origin sunk the Maine. The Spanish were blamed, and the United States entered the war. The three-decades long struggle concluded a short three months later when a provisionally free Cuba was placed under transitional U.S. rule.

U.S. soldiers, including the Rough Riders, a volunteer force led by future U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, played a part in further entwining the history of Cuban independence and BACARDÍ rum. The popular cocktail Cuba Libre was born when American soldiers tried a new cocktail of Coca-Cola and BACARDÍ rum with a twist of lime. Approving the drink heartily, the men raised their glasses for a toast, “Por Cuba Libre” (to Cuba’s freedom).

The threads of Bacardi’s history are woven tightly with events in Cuba’s own history, owed largely to the actions of Bacardí family members during Cuba’s struggle for independence.