Florida lawmakers ask Trump administration to revoke Havana Club trademark license

Bottles of Havana Club rum sit on display during a video conference between the Havana Club rum company in Havana and their associates in Paris at Pernod Ricard in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, June 5, 2012.
Bottles of Havana Club rum sit on display during a video conference between the Havana Club rum company in Havana and their associates in Paris at Pernod Ricard in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, June 5, 2012. AP

A bipartisan Florida Congressional delegation is asking the Trump administration to revoke a license granted to a Cuban company to register the Havana Club rum trademark in the United States as part of a Cuba policy review now under way.

The 25 House representatives, led by Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz, issued a letter asking the departments of State and Treasury to revise the February 2016 decision, when the Treasury’s Office for Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) — following a State Department recommendation — broke a long-standing position and granted a license to the Cubaexport company that allowed it to register the Havana Club rum brand in the U.S.

Since the United States eased restrictions on bringing back alcohol from the island for personal consumption, the Cuban rum industry is booming with bottles going for as much as a $1,000.

“We believe that OFAC’s decision to depart from precedent is untenable and that the Executive branch must continue to honor our nation’s intellectual property laws and policies,” the letter said.

The lawmakers specifically asked for explanations about why OFAC did not apply section 211 — in the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 1998 — which stipulates that OFAC should investigate whether the trademark in question is linked to confiscated property, and whether the party seeking registration has obtained permission from the original owners of the stolen mark.

The Congress members said they are worried about the precedent set by the decision, which could affect other cases and weaken protection against the expropriation of U.S. intellectual property by foreign governments. Also, they rejected the argument made by the State Department — under former President Barack Obama — that the granting of the license was consistent with the new foreign policy toward Cuba.

It was a decision made for political expedience...

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.)

“It was a decision made for political expedience that ignored standing U.S. law and potentially opened a Pandora’s box that could see U.S. intellectual property rights holders subject to unlawful and unjust foreign confiscations,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

Wasserman Schultz also urged OFAC to “reverse this misguided decision and send a loud and clear message to the international community that the United States has been and always will be a global leader on intellectual property rights.”

Amy Federman, a Bacardí spokeswoman, said the company was “pleased to see that support for intellectual property rights and opposing illegal foreign confiscations continues to have bipartisan Congressional support.”

“The company supports both legislation and legal action to uphold the principle of protection of trademarks and ensuring trademarks that have been confiscated by the Cuban government without the consent of their rightful owners not be recognized by the international community,” she added.

The complicated case involves property confiscated by the Castro government of the Arechabala family, the original producer of the Havana Club rum. Bacardí — also a famous producer of rum expropriated by the Cuban government, which has legally battled for control of the trademark — claims to be the legitimate heir of the brand because it bought the rights in an agreement with the Arechabala company in 1997. Both entities assert that they have never authorized Cubaexport to use the Havana Club trademark.

But Cubaexport managed to register the trademark — fraudulently, according to Bacardí, because it was done without mention of the confiscated properties — during a period in which the Arechabala company left its registration to expire. In 2006, the OFAC denied Cubaexport the ability to pay for its renewal. An appeal by the Cuban government reached the Supreme Court, which dismissed the case and sent it back to the Patent and Trademark Office.

Last year’s decision took Bacardí by surprise, and the company immediately filed an amended complaint with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. According to a company spokeswoman, nothing has yet moved in court.

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres