Bacardi and the defense of Cuban sovereignty

The policy shift that the Cuban and U. S. governments initiated on Dec. 17, 2014 to ease the web of rules and sanctions preventing normal relations between two close neighbors certainly was an historic occasion. Fifty-five years of U.S. siege to isolate the island has posed a challenge for the Cuban government and people.  Fundamental differences mainly in terms of a sovereign, independent state’s right to self-determination are at stake.

Imperialist policies, state-directed terrorism, and the self-interest of multi-national corporations conspire against that right.  But Cuba’s struggle in defense of its sovereignty continues. U. S. dealings with the Bacardi Company, which sells Havana Club rum in the United States, is a case in point.

In January 2016, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office weighed in on determining ownership rights of the brand’s trademark and decided against Bacardi.  The United States was acknowledging that only the Arechabala family, not Bacardi, had been producing Havana Club in Cuba, beginning in 1934. 

When Cuba’s revolutionary government nationalized their company, the Arechabala family stopped rum production and exited Cuba. Its Havana Club trademark rights lapsed in that process. Later the Cuban government asserted its rights to the trademark, and in 1976 resumed production and worldwide sales.  It did so as a joint venture with the Pernod Ricard company of France, more precisely with Pernod Ricard’s affiliate Cubaexport. The U. S. economic blockade prevents Cubaexport from marketing Havana Club in the United States.

Another shoe was waiting to drop. Prior to the victory of the Cuban Revolution, the Bacardi Company also produced rum in Cuba. Its facilities in Cuba were also nationalized and Bacardi’s owners decamped. Now Bacardi, founded in Cuba, is the world’s largest privately owned – spirits manufacturer, with 30 distilleries located in many countries. 

Bacardi asserts a claim on the Havana Club trademark on the strength of the Arechabala family having handed over trademark rights and the recipe. In 1994 Bacardi applied for U. S. recognition of its ownership of the Havana Club trademark. And with approval from the Arechabala family, it began marketing Havana Club rum in the United States, the rum actually being produced in Puerto Rico.

In 2006 Cuba sought U.S. recognition of Cubaexport’s claim on trade mark rights for Havana Club.  A legal battle ensued that ended in 2012 with a Supreme Court ruling in Bacardi’s favor.  Yet Cubaexport persisted, and in January the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled in favor of Cuba. Bacardi, of course, is not giving up its fight.

There’s more to the Havana Club story; the prime source is “Bacardi:  The Hidden War” (Pluto Press, 2002). According to Hernando Calvo Ospina, the book’s author, “Bacardi-Martini’s (formerly Bacardi) efforts fundamentally have been aimed at wresting the Havana Club brand from its owners who had registered the brand name in five countries. [And yet f]our years prior to the Revolution’s triumph, the Arechabala family did not re-register the brand name in Spain or the Dominican Republic … and the name passed into what is known as the public domain.”   

Crucially, Calvo Ospina portrays Bacardi as manipulating U. S. legislative policies against Cuba for the sake of corporate profit. Within the context of intensified sanctions under the U. S. blockade against Cuba, Bacardi joined forces with the ultra-right wing Cuban American National Foundation to pursue a strategy aimed at obstructing any U. S. rapprochement with Cuba. Bacardi lavished political favor upon anti-Castro candidates of both major U. S. political parties, and the company’s lawyers helped shape the Helms-Burton Law of 1996. Bacardi also funded lobbyists to assure its passage.  

That legislation reinforced old ties between Batista henchmen, rightwing extremists, and radical ideologues who had waged war against Cuba for years in violation of international norms. The Helms-Burton Law codified into law what had been administrative regulations and the blockade gained new visibility as an issue within U. S. domestic politics.

And former owners of Cuban factories, land and industry- in this case the Bacardi Company -acquired an instrument enabling them to sue for compensation for property that had been legally nationalized in Cuba, even though the U.S. government had turned down the Cuban government’s offer to provide compensation.

Florida politicians of both parties who talk about “protections” for intellectual property rights, the Havana Club trademark, for example, have in effect been employing code language for extending the blockade.  Meanwhile the Bacardi-Martini Company profits from its 50 percent market share of rum sales in the United States. Its appropriation of a trade mark belonging in part to the Cuban government violates Cuba sovereignty, which the Cuban people haven’t yet surrendered.

Bacardi is a multi-national entity, not a U. S. corporation. Its headquarters are in Bermuda, a tax-free haven for corporate profits. The hold that a “stateless” company exerts on U. S. politicians exemplifies the contradictions cluttering the history of U. S.-Cuba relations.  As one way to resolve some of them, it would seem appropriate now to enable Cuba to use U. S. dollars for its commercial transactions and now to extend U.S. financial credit to Cuba for two-way trade with the United States.  

Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP


Richard Grassl
Richard Grassl

Richard Grassl is a member of the Carpenters union in Washington state.