Are American Companies Stealing Cuban Brands?

PHOTO: Cohiba Cigars have been handrolled in Cuba since the 1960s. But since the 1980s a U.S. company has also been selling Cohiba cigars that are made in the Dominican Republic.

Cuba has accused the U.S. of allowing American companies to "blatantly steal" some of the island's most important brand names, following a court decision over the famous Cohiba cigar brand.

Cigars carrying the name of this well-known brand, which was created in Cuba in the 1960s, have been sold in the U.S. since 1981 by General Cigar Co., an American company based in Richmond, Virginia.

But General Cigar's "Cohibas" are actually manufactured in the Dominican Republic and have no relation to the original Cuban-made Cohibas. The Cuban Cohibas are manufactured in Havana by Cuba Tabaco, a company owned by the Cuban government, but they cannot be sold in the United States because of the five-decades-old trade embargo against Cuba.

Last week, the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeals Board said it was ok for General Cigar to sell its Dominican-made Cohibas in the States, overruling a lawsuit that the Cuban government had previously won against General Cigar in U.S. courts.

The appeal board's reasoning was that Cuba Tabaco has no legal status in the U.S., which means it can't claim ownership over the Cohiba brand. And since the Cuban trade embargo prevents Cuba Tabaco from doing business in the U.S., this court decision is not likely to change in the coming years.

The state run Cuban website, Cuba Debate, published a scathing article against the court decision on Monday. It also claimed that U.S. courts had also used the embargo as a "pretext" to allow Bacardi to "steal" the Havana Club rum brand from the Cuban government.

Bacardi was founded in Cuba in the 1860s, and is now based in Hamilton, Bermuda. In 2012, the company won a lengthy legal battle over "Havana Club" rum.

Bacardi claimed to have bought the rights to "Havana Club" from the family who created it, and used the name on their version of the rum, which is made in Puerto Rico. But Cuba countered that they had nationalized the brand and, with French liquor company Pernod Ricard, sold it around the world, except in the United States where sanctions against Cuba prevent this.

Bacardi lobbied in Washington and was able to keep Pernod from U.S. registration of the Havana Club trademark. Cuba considered this a bias choice rather than a legal one.

Editor's Note: This story has been revised to reflect a correction and a clarification. Bacardi is not based in the U.S., but in Hamilton, Bermuda. Bacardi also owns the legal rights to "Havana Club."

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