CubaBrief: Bacardi, Havana Club, Cuba Decide and the ongoing struggle for Cuban freedom

Marti Noticias this past week released the documentary Trago Amago (Bitter Drink) directed by Joe Cardona and Magdiel Aspillaga, narrated by journalist Oscar Haza and produced by Radio Televisión Martí. It tells the history of Havana Club, a history of sacrifice, expropriation, litigation, exile and family legacy.  The film explores the relationship between Cuban national identity and rum.

Bacardi is synonymous with Republican Cuba. Two generations of the Bacardi family fought for Cuban independence with one family member fighting alongside General Antonio Maceo. During the Republic the family not only had enlightened business practices but also engaged in civic activities that promoted a democratic culture.

Each time dictatorship arose in Cuba under Machado, Batista and Castro the Bacardis joined the democratic resistance. They have recognized the work of Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, and in 2017 that of his daughter, Rosa María Payá and they are supporting the Cuba Decide initiative to push for a democratic transition.

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Past is prologue
The Bacardi family began their world famous Rum business in Santiago de Cuba in 1862. Don Facundo Bacardí Massó founded Bacardi Limited on February 4, 1862. The family would also play an important role in civic life in Cuba, especially Santiago over the next century, and were constant opponents of dictatorship, political corruption and remained ardent Cuban nationalists over several generations. Forced into exile by the Castro regime the Bacardi family has maintained the traditions of the Cuban Republic celebrating independence day, carrying on the family business and continuing the fight for a free Cuba.

  A history of the Bacardi family written by Tom Gjelten, a reporter for National Public Radio titled Bacardi and The Long Fight for Cuba :The Biography of a Cause led to renewed interest in their role in Cuba’s independence.  A 2008 review of the book in The New York Times by Randy Kennedy touches on the figure of Emilio Bacardi Moreau.

Emilio Bacardi, especially, comes to life as the book’s most powerful character, though one so strange that Gabriel García Márquez might have invented him. Emilio was imprisoned twice by Spain off the coast of Morocco for his revolutionary activities. But he still managed to hold the company together, to serve as Santiago’s mayor during the unsettled years of the American occupation, to help found a salon called the Victor Hugo Freethinker Group, to practice theosophy in a predominantly Catholic country and to track down a genuine mummy on a trip to Egypt, which he bought as the centerpiece for a museum he had founded in San­tiago. (Modest he was not; he signed his revolutionary correspondence with the name Phocion, after the Athenian statesman known as “the good.”)

His son, Emilio Bacardi Lay, actively took part in Cuba’s war of independence. In 1895, he was a field officer for Gen. Antonio Maceo during the invasion of Cuba by independence forces. He reached the rank of colonel by the age of 22. He fled Cuba in 1961 due to the Castro regime. Bacardi Imports, Inc., re-established its headquarters in Miami in 1963 after having been based for a century in Santiago de Cuba. Emilio Bacardi Lay died in exile in Miami on October 14, 1972 at the age of 95 and was the last surviving ranking officer of Cuba’s war of independence with Spain.

Emilio Bacardi Moreau

Emilio Bacardi Moreau

This is the history that the Castros would like to erase but have been unable to. Meanwhile to all who read this please consider that if you wish to make a toast to freedom with alcoholic spirits then do it with Bacardi and especially the real Havana Club.

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“The Arechabala Family started their rum-making business in 1878 in Cuba and first registered the original Havana Club trademark in 1934. It wasn’t long before Havana Club Rum became a beloved and iconic Cuban brand – becoming a favorite amongst locals as well as American and European tourists.

Then everything changed. On January 1st, 1960, at gunpoint, the Cuban regime unrightfully seized the company’s assets without compensation. The Arechabala family lost everything and was forced to flee the homeland they loved, with a scant few of their remaining possessions – the precious Havana Club recipe being one of them. Meanwhile, the Cuban Government started to sell their stolen version of Havana Club, and continues to do so to this day.

It wasn’t until 1995 – after decades of rebuilding, the Arechabala family finally joined forces with another Cuban family in exile: Bacardi. The latter acquired the Havana Club brand and began producing rum based on the original Havana Club recipe and selling it in the one country that didn’t recognize the Cuban Government’s 1960 illegal expropriation, the United States.

The Havana Club brand is an example of how, despite the circumstances, Cubans in exile have never accepted their fate. Havana Club rum holds onto its rich Cuban culture.” 

Ambassador Otto J. Reich, president of the Center for a Free Cuba, on January 31, 2020 in The Miami Herald called on the United States to undo a wrong that favored the Castro dictatorship and gutted the rights of a family business. “The Obama administration allowed Cuba to renew an expired trademark registration for the confiscated Havana Club rum. The Trump administration should reverse that action and demonstrate to unscrupulous foreign companies that there are grave risks to economic deals with a regime that has stolen billions of dollars in properties from Americans and Cubans, and thus stop dishonestly enriching the Cuban government.”

In case you missed it below is the February 2016 article announcing Bacardi’s opposition to granting the Castro regime the trademark for Havana Club. The rightful owners of Havana Club, the Arechabala family, had their Rum business and assets taken at gunpoint and a short time later were forced to leave Cuba or face prison. Rewarding the Castro dictatorship with the Havana Club trademark is an outrage and it should be reversed. The United States should be on the side of property not the communist dictatorship that expropriated them.

This is followed by an important November 2016 Oped by Mauricio Claver Carone highlighting concretely how the previous Administration’s Cuba policy made matters worse. In the midst of the current public policy debate on Cuba it is important to remember  philosopher George Santayana’s wise counsel: “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Industry Week, February 16, 2016

Bacardi Seeks US Reversal on Cuba License to Sell Rum

Bacardi does not want Cuba to sell Havana Club rum in America.

Agence France-Presse

Feb 16, 2016

MIAMI –Bacardi said on February 16 it had demanded the United States reverse its recent decision allowing Cuba to sell Havana Club rum in America when the U.S. trade embargo ends.

Bacardi, stepping up its long legal battle over trademark protection of its Havana Club rum, said it had filed the request for the U-turn with the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Treasury’s arm that enforces economic and trade sanctions.

“OFAC’s decision to grant the license to the Cuban government reverses its prior decision in 2006 to deny that very same license and contradicts its own defense of that decision in various U.S. courts,” said Bacardi senior vice president and general counsel Eduardo Sanchez.

“We request that OFAC revoke License 837-1 retroactively to prevent Cuba — and its business partner Pernod Ricard — from their continued trafficking in illegally confiscated property,” Sanchez said.

The privately held, Bermuda-based Bacardi has been selling Havana Club in the U.S. since the mid-1990s.

French spirits and wine company Pernod Ricard sells its Havana Club rum in Cuba and a number of markets, notably Germany, France, Britain and Canada, but not the U.S.

The move is Bacardi’s latest salvo in the legal battle that dates back to the Cuban revolution of 1959, and it comes amid thawing U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations.

The United States and Cuba restored diplomatic relations in July 2015. In January, Cuba received a license to sell Havana Club in the United States from the US Patent and Trademark Office once the US embargo against the communist island is lifted.

Bacardi, which had made rum in Cuba under its own name and that of Havana Club, left the island in 1960 after Fidel Castro came to power.

Bacardi insists it bought the rights to Havana Club from the Arechabala family, which made the rum until its distillery was seized by the Cuban government after the revolution.

In 1976, Cuba, which also continued to produce Havana Club, was able to register the trademark in the United States. But it lost the trademark in 2006 when it could not present the necessary license to the Treasury Department.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2016

The Miami Herald, November 16, 2016

Obama’s Cuba policy makes bad situation worse


It’s been almost two years since President Barack Obama announced that he was “charting a new course on Cuba” and lifted numerous U.S. trade sanctions on the island to empower the “Cuban people” and the island’s “emerging private sector.” At the time, reasonable minds could disagree with Obama’s tactics, which ignored the plight of Cuba’s political dissidents, but few could disagree with the president’s purported intent.

Since that  Dec. 17, 2014, announcement, there’s been little to celebrate. Political repression in Cuba is at historic highs; emigration has risen to levels not seen since the 1994 flight of rafters; violations of religious freedom have increased tenfold; and the rate of growth of the so-called “emerging private sector” (“cuentapropistas”) has turned negative.

In short, Obama’s new course for Cuba has made a bad situation worse.Recently Obama and his administration added insult to injury by promulgating rules that allow Americans to do business with Cuba’s state monopolies run by Castro family members. These are businesses and properties confiscated without compensating the owners — stolen — by the Castros’ regime. Many of the owners were Americans or Cubans who fled the island. Three new provisions, jointly promulgated Oct. 14, by the U.S. Treasury and Commerce Departments, send a clear message: The Obama administration has pivoted to support the Castro regime, rather than the Cuban people and their desire for economic and political reform. The new U.S. regulations:

  • Remove the $100 cap on the import of Cuban rum and cigars for personal consumption. The cap had been imposed because these industries along with their trademarks had been confiscated. U.S. law and prior administrations had never legitimized such theft of private property, trafficking in stolen property, or support to Cuba’s state monopolies. Apparently, President Obama no longer cares.The biggest beneficiary is, of course, the Castros’ rum industry, anchored by a stolen distillery and its “Havana Club” brand. Jose Arechabala established the distillery in 1878 and began exporting Havana Club rum to the United States in 1934. The Castro dictatorship forcibly seized all of the Arechabala family’s assets in 1960. The family was imprisoned or fled the island with only the shirts on their backs. Today Americans traveling to Cuba can party, drink and take home all the Havana Club rum they like, not knowing or caring that the Castros enjoy the profits.

  • Narrow the definition of “prohibited Cuban regime officials.” This change grants officials of the Castro government the same access to U.S. financial assistance that, purportedly, was crafted solely to support “the Cuban people and emerging private sector.” As a result, members of Castro’s Council of State; the puppet legislature; political prosecutors; local and provincial regime officials; ministry officials; secret police (Direccion de Seguridad del Estado, DSE) and intelligence agents (Direccion General de Inteligencia, DGI); neighborhood repressors (Comites de Defensa, CDR); media and cultural censors; even prison guards will be allowed to receive unlimited remittances and gifts, set up banking accounts, access and use the Internet to repress Cuban dissidents who have been seeking U.S. support for economic and political reform.

It’s hard to justify this latest “White House gift” amid the dramatic increase in repression.

  • Permit “contingency contracts” with Castro’s state monopolies. U.S. law prohibits contracts with Cuba’s state monopolies. Sales of agricultural commodities, medicine and medical devices were Congressionally-mandated exceptions. The Obama administration has now ignored the law to authorize dealings with these monopolies if the contracts include a “contingency clause” stating it won’t be implemented until U.S. law is changed or the transaction is specifically authorized by the Treasury Department. That’s tantamount to stealing the future of the Cuban people.

Obama is so intent on creating a lobby of U.S. corporate interests to pressure Congress into changing the law, that he has invited the Castro family to divvy up and establish a contractual claim to ownership on every potentially lucrative industry or business on the island, leaving the Cuban people with nothing for tomorrow.

The president has repeatedly described U.S. policy toward Cuba as a “relic of the Cold War.” He had to dig deeper into the archives to derive this provision, so reminiscent of an era when U.S. foreign policy famously teamed with Latin American dictators and American corporations, like the United Fruit Company, to negotiate away the economic future of those nations.

There’s no longer any rational strategy behind President Obama’s “Cuba policy.” It has gone from what it initially portrayed as a noble purpose to pure sycophancy in pursuit of “historic firsts.” Unfortunately, those Cuban dissidents who recognized Obama’s intent from the beginning and labeled it “a betrayal” of their fight for freedom have now been proven correct. Their foresight has come at a terrible cost.

Mauricio Claver-Carone is the executive director of Cuba Democracy Advocates in Washington, D.C.