Roberto Goizueta: An American Tale

Roberto C. Goizueta will always remember Jan. 2, 1960. His wife, Olga, was going into labor with their third child. As their car stood idle in the driveway, the Goizuetas were forced to wait for an ambulance. Cuba's new ruler, Fidel Castro, had outlawed private transportation. En route to the hospital, they passed jeeps loaded with Castro's armed henchmen--"the bearded ones," Goizueta recalls. Castro had made his move. Now, the time was fast approaching for Goizueta to make his. "Sooner or later," he says, "we knew we had to leave."

That August, Goizueta and his wife left Havana on a jet to Miami. Educated in American schools, both had traveled to the U.S. many times before. They had planned a two-week vacation; in fact, though, they never returned. Reunited with their three children, who had been sent to the U.S. months before to live with relatives, the Goizuetas took their places among the thousands of refugees fleeing Castro's Cuba.

As chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola Co., one of the world's truly stateless corporations, Goizueta refuses to discuss global politics. Cuba is no exception. "That whole Cuban experience is a very personal thing for him and his family," says Donald R. Keough, who retired in 1993 as Coke's president. On July 4, however, Goizueta will address a group of American immigrants taking the oath of citizenship at historic Monticello, part of an annual celebration organized by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Inc. Goizueta, 63, the first corporate chieftain to speak at the event, will share the story of his passage from Cuban immigrant to American citizen.

SILVER SPOON. Before Castro's ascension in 1959, Goizueta's future seemed secure. The only son of Crispulo and Aida Cantera Goizueta, he was heir to a family sugar cane enterprise started by his grandfather, who moved to Cuba from Spain in the early 1900s. Goizueta's father, an architect who had added a construction and hardware company to the family holdings, sent his son to the U.S. to attend Cheshire Academy and then Yale University.

A year out of Yale, Goizueta spotted a newspaper ad from an unnamed U.S. company seeking either a bilingual chemist or chemical engineer. The elder Goizueta agreed his son could pursue the job, provided he worked Saturdays with his dad. The American company? Coca-Cola. Goizueta, then 22, reported to work in Havana on July 4, 1954.

By the summer of 1960, Goizueta had worked his way to top technical director for the five Coca-Cola bottling plants on the island. By that time, too, Castro had begun a campaign to curb foreign investments. The government was pressuring Coca-Cola to buy caramel coloring and other ingredients from Cuban suppliers. And on one occasion, Goizueta was stopped for a random search of his briefcase.

It was this type of pressure, and the arbitrary seizure of personal property, that turned the Goizuetas' two-week vacation into a permanent relocation. Goizueta says the move was not premeditated; only after arriving in Miami and reuniting with their family did the couple seriously consider not returning to their homeland. Shortly afterward, Goizueta's parents and sisters left Cuba as well; they went to Mexico.

PRECIOUS PAPER. Although Goizueta guards it closely, the pain of that long-ago journey lingers. He recalls leaving wedding gifts, family pictures, his Yale diploma in his home. The only property he held on to was 100 Coke shares he had bought through a U.S. custodial account with $8,000 loaned by his father. The shares, which he still owns, now are worth nearly $2 million. Yet Goizueta has declined to dwell in the past. "I'm one of those who just pulls down the curtain," he explains. "When something is over, it's over." Two months after he left Cuba, the government seized Coca-Cola's bottling plants.

Without any savings, Goizueta moved his wife and children into a cramped motel room on Miami's Venetian Causeway. A curtain divided the room. His children and a nursemaid slept on one side, he and his wife on the other. Like many of his Cuban brethren, he didn't think Castro's rule would last. "Everybody in Miami--up until the Bay of Pigs--thought it was just a matter of time," he says. "Nobody thought it was going to be 36 years."

One thing did not change: He still had a job with Coca-Cola. Coke opened an office in a Miami airport hotel for Goizueta and a secretary and, a year later, moved him to Nassau to help oversee the Caribbean. In 1964, Goizueta came to Atlanta; within two years, he was promoted to vice-president in charge of the technical research and development organization. He was 35, at the time the youngest person to attain that title.

Personally, the transition to Atlanta's parochial environment was sometimes bumpy. His children were periodically mocked at school. "`Goizueta' is not like `Smith' or `Jones,"' he explains. "You would go to a gathering, and people would kind of question you as a strange person, foreign-born." Within Coke, though, Goizueta advanced quickly, catching the eye of potentate Robert W. Woodruff. And on a muggy 1969 day, his life as an American began officially: With his wife, he took the oath of citizenship.

When he takes the dais at Monticello, Goizueta will pay tribute to his adopted country. Only in America, he says, could an immigrant run a company that so symbolizes a nation's culture. He'll also leave the new citizens with some instructions. "Opportunity comes accompanied by obligations," he will say. "First, you must seize it; take it into your hands and mold it and put it to work for the benefit of society...Second, you must live it...The third obligation is that you must defend it."

After he finishes, Goizueta plans to stand with the immigrants and restate his oath of citizenship. No other speaker has done that before, say Monticello officials. Few others had more reason to.

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