The Cuba Libre Hustle

After a good four years of terrorizing dance club denizens, the macarena finally appears to be dead. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of its legacy. Hoping to cash in on the line-dance craze, rum baron Bacardi, with the help of salsa singer Willy Chirino and a squad of Miami Heat dancers, premiered the "Cuba Libre" earlier this month at the Calle Ocho festival in Little Havana.

Bacardi unveiled Cuba Libre (the line dance) to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Cuba libre (the cocktail). What better way, after all, to honor a drink that owes its existence to U.S. imperialism than by concocting a corporate-sponsored song-and-dance whose stated goal is world domination?

As legend -- or at least the World of Bacardi Museum on Biscayne Boulevard -- would have it, American soldiers haphazardly christened the Cuba libre cocktail in Havana in 1898, while celebrating their victory in the Spanish-American War. During the war, bartenders had been mixing rum (Bacardi rum, naturally) with an exotic new beverage called Coca-Cola, which soft-drink vendors had imported at the request of American troops stationed on the island. In the post-war revelry, a U.S. Signal Corps officer stopped off at a bar and ordered one of the new-fangled cocktails. Urged to give the drink a name, the officer raised his glass and shouted, "Cuba libre!"

Bacardi reps are hoping their promotional line dance will have the same kind of staying power as the macarena. That could be a tall order, though. It took four years -- and several recordings of the song, one by Miami's own Bayside Boys -- for the macarena to waltz from its fabled origins in Barcelona onto the dance floors of middle America. The anthem reached its cultural zenith at the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where Vice President Al Gore poked fun at his stuffy image by announcing he was going to dance the macarena -- and then stood on-stage, motionless.

But subsequent attempts to re-create the magic of the macarena, particularly in the name of booze, have fallen flat. Two years ago Miami radio DJs Kid Curry and Lazaro Mendez (a.k.a. DJ Laz) produced a dance-mix of a song with Spanish lyrics called "El Tongoneo," recorded by Mexican band Mestizzo on the Polygram Latino label. Curry, Mendez, and several club DJs began teaching the accompanying steps and swirls on dance floors all over Dade County. Miller Brewing Company got into the act, offering promotional support to the budding dance in exchange for promotional consideration. "El Tongoneo" became "El Miller Tongoneo." The tune's revised lyrics included the words Miller Lite 41 times over the course of three and a half minutes. "El Miller Tongoneo" tanked.

Chirino proved far more subtle in penning lyrics for "Cuba Libre." The word Bacardi appears only twice in the up-tempo salsa tune, while the words Cuba Libre are sung a mere eight times. To wit: "Al bartender le dire/Siempre una y otra vez/Yo quiero Cuba Libre/CUBA LIBRE!" ("To the bartender I will say/Always again and again/I want a Free Cuba/FREE CUBA!")

Those who suspect the song contains a hidden political message should think again. "What we're celebrating is the drink, just the drink," Chirino insisted during a press preview of the song and dance at Bacardi headquarters one morning earlier this month. "But people can interpret it any way they want," he added as waitresses swirled by with trays of Cuba libres.

And if you suspected that the song contains a commercial message, well, you'd be wrong about that, too. "When people think of rum, they automatically think of Bacardi," explains Jason Rayman, an account executive at the Pantin Partnership, the Miami public relations firm that is promoting the Cuba Libre for Bacardi. "The song is a celebration of the Cuba libre cocktail and the original Cuba libre was made with Bacardi. The Bacardi label is associated tightly with the cocktail, so it's kind of hard to avoid using it. It's like people saying 'Pampers' instead of diapers."

Bacardi has hired not one but two public relations firms to ensure that the Cuba Libre flies: In addition to the Pantin Partnership, Edelman Public Relations, headquarted in New York City, is on the case. The only certain next step for the Cuba Libre will be the song's inclusion on a forthcoming Willy Chirino album on the Sony Tropical label. Aside from that, Rayman says, the PR firms are still developing their strategy for bringing the Cuba Libre to the masses. "But we wanted to get sort of a grassroots buzz about it before it really gets going," he notes.

The Cuba Libre doesn't stand a chance of getting north of the Dade-Broward line, much less sweep the nation, if the song is released only in Spanish, notes Roxanna Greene, CEO of a Miami production company that provides DJs for private parties. "In the Caribbean, it could kick. In Miami, it could kick," Green ventures. "You can blow into a harmonica and that will kick in Miami if the song says 'Cuba libre,' or 'kill Fidel.' But not outside Dade County." The song's emphasis on liquor and local politics, Greene maintains, will only diminish its value among the great stonewashed masses up north.

Bacardi may be up against long odds, but the company seems to thrive on adversity. When faced with an illiterate Cuban population in the 1860s, founder Facundo Bacardi devised a logo consisting of a bat with its wings spread, so that people could identify his brand. His liquor soon became known as the "rum of the bat," which, according to the Bacardi museum, was "believed by many to have magical powers."

Among those magical powers, it would seem, is a knack for avoiding tariffs. In 1931, confronted with the prospect of new rum taxes in Cuba, the company opened a bottling plant in Mexico. In 1937 the company opened a factory in Puerto Rico to avoid a five-dollar-per-gallon U.S. import tax. In 1957, with the Cuban revolution brewing, Bacardi removed its trademark from Cuba and registered it in the Bahamas. Three years later the Castro government confiscated Bacardi properties valued at $76 million. But with operations in several other countries, the company prospered. Its U.S. subsidiary, Bacardi Imports, moved from New York City to Miami in 1963. By 1983 the company had produced its 200-millionth case of rum.

In marketing the Cuba Libre line dance, Bacardi has been careful to emulate the simplicity that was the hallmark of the macarena, which required little more than the ability to hop and put your hands on the back of your head. To dance the Cuba Libre all you have to do is: Clap overhead-touch your shoulders-touch your thighs-clap twice-wiggle your butt-step to the right-step to the left-and do it all again, to a brisk salsa beat.

The Cuba Libre has one last decided advantage over the macarena: It comes equipped with a cocktail. If the dance steps prove too challenging, just have another Bacardi and Coke. The more you drink, the easier it gets.


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