Saturday, May 19, 2018
Business

Havana Club rum trademark has Cuba, U.S. at odds

HAVANA

There was the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and there is still no end in sight to U.S.-Cuban animosity. Now a bitter dispute over a sweet-tasting spirit appears to be nearing an end game after more than a decade of legal wrangling.

Time and again, U.S. courts have ruled against Cuba in its fight to control the U.S. rights to the trademark Havana Club, the island's flagship rum brand, which is sold in more than 120 countries around the world — but not in the United States.

By mid June, Cuba could lose all chance of pressing its legal claims against Bacardi, which distributes a limited quantity of its own Havana Club rum in Florida and says it plans to expand to other states in the near future.

Indignant over what it considers wholesale piracy of a national icon, Cuba accuses the United States of using an under-the-radar maneuver to block it from paying the small patent renewal fee and has raised its concerns at increasingly high levels of government. If the patent expires, Cuba says it could retaliate toward U.S. trademarks currently protected on the island.

"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," said Maria de los Angeles Sanchez, director of Cuba's office of intellectual property. "Cuba reserves the right as a sovereign nation to act at the appropriate moment."

Such retaliation might have limited immediate impact, as most U.S. goods are barred from being sold to the island under the U.S. embargo. However, there are some legal sales of food items, and companies could also face tough and costly legal battles to win back their trademark rights in a post-embargo Cuba.

Although the sanctions prevent Cuba from marketing Havana Club in the United States, the island has held the trademark there since 1976 after the Cuban family that originally owned the brand let its registration lapse.

But since it came time to renew in 2006, Cuba says it has been unable to do so because the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces the embargo, has not issued a license for Havana to make the $200 renewal payment.

Cuba sued the U.S. government, but lost. When the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the ruling, a 30-day countdown began after which the patent office can cancel the trademark.

That means that as soon as June 13, Cuba's claim to the name could expire, and with it the island's best hope of continuing its legal battle.

Pernod Ricard, which partners with Cuba to distribute Havana Club worldwide, vows the battle isn't over.

But the French spirits maker is also putting contingency plans into action. After the Supreme Court ruling, Pernod Ricard announced that it had registered the brand name Havanista in the United States to sell rum there whenever the embargo is lifted.

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