Rum Wars: The U.S.-Cuba Battle over Havana Club May Be Nearing an End

An end is in sight after a decade of warring over the rights to the liquor label.

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Claudia Daut / Reuters

Cuban Havana Club rum

To the long history of animosity between the United States and Cuba — the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs, the CIA’s crazy plots to kill Fidel Castro — add the battle over who controls the U.S. rights to Havana Club rum.

The two countries have been wrangling over the trademark to Havana Club for more ten years, but the battle may now be drawing to a close, with Cuba’s state distillery in danger of losing rights to the brand to liquor giant Bacardi — which makes its own Havana Club in Puerto Rico, for sale in the U.S. Ongoing sanctions prevent Cuba from marketing its version in the U.S., although it’s sold in more than 120 other countries around the world (it’s now produced as a joint venture with French liquor company Pernod Ricard.)

The history of the feud is convoluted: Havana Club was founded in the Cuban capital by a man named José Arechabala in the 19th Century, but following the Cuban revolution in 1959, the family company was nationalized, and the Arechabalas emigrated to the U.S. They let the trademark lapse in 1976, and in the 1990s they sold their residual rights to Havana Club to Bacardi.

Cuba claims that when the time came to renew the trademark, in 2006, the U.S. Treasury Department blocked them from getting the necessary license as part of an underhanded effort to humiliate the country.

“Cuba does not have a valid registration,” said Patricia M. Neal, a spokeswoman for Bacardi USA, as reported by the Associated Press . “As a matter of law, the United States Patent and Trademark Office will formally cancel the registration of Cuba Export for the mark in due course.”

On May 14, a 30-day countdown was launched after which the trademark would be cancelled, which means that later this month, Cuba could lose all claims to its name in the U.S., and therefore any opportunity for further legal warring.

Maria de los Angeles Sanchez, director of Cuba’s office of intellectual property, told the AP: “The United States’ disrespectful attitude in divesting the legitimate Cuban owners of the Havana Club brand can put at risk the brand and patent rights of American companies in our country.” Although as the AP notes, such retaliation would have “limited immediate impact” — most U.S. goods are barred from the island under the 50-year-old U.S. embargo.

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