Rum and cigars at stake in family`s bid to win compensation from Cuba
They are the quintessential ingredients of a sultry Havana night: cocktails blended from premium rum and hand-rolled cigars so fine that Fidel Castro would smoke no other brand.
But now a court in Miami may hand two of Cuba's most prized assets – the trademarks for Havana Club rum and Cohiba cigars – to the family of a man executed on the island half a century ago.
Bobby Fuller, a former US marine who owned a sugar plantation in Cuba, was shot by firing squad in October 1960, less than 24 hours after his arrest and trial for alleged disloyalty to Castro's communist revolution.
In 2007 his brothers and sisters were awarded a $100m settlement for wrongful death against the Castro regime by a Miami court.
Because Havana refuses to recognise the jurisdiction of US courts, payouts from similar lawsuits used to be made from Cuban assets that were frozen in Washington decades ago and were once thought to amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.
But the family's lawyer, Roberto Martinez, is pursuing the rum, cigars and 12 other government-owned brands because he believes those frozen assets have dwindled to almost nothing as a result of the previous cases.
He has not put a dollar value on the trademarks because Cuban products are still banned from sale in the US under the terms of a 1960 trade embargo. But relations between Havana and Washington are beginning to thaw and experts say that the American market for authentic Cuban goods will be lucrative once the barriers finally fall.
"The strategy is dead-on," said Andrew Hall, an independent lawyer who won $13.4m from Sudan in 2007 on behalf of the families of 17 victims of the bombing of the warship USS Cole in Yemen seven years earlier.
"The beauty of it is that Cuba appropriated a lot of these trademarks, rum, whisky, beer, all sorts of things, and exploited them, so the good news is that there's a huge amount of money there.
"The bad news is that everyone who has some kind of stake or claim on these trademarks is going to be in there against him. It's going to take a lot of time, stamina and money to advance this."
One of the first tasks facing Miami-Dade circuit judge Thomas Wilson in a hearing scheduled for next month will be to establish exactly where ownership of the US trademarks in question currently lies.
Cuba registered the Havana Club and Cohiba brand names in the US during the 1970s, and has been selling its products abroad through international partnerships since then.
Havana Club rum, for example, sells 3.4 million cases each year through a deal with the French drinks giant Pernod Ricard. But in 1996 Bermuda-based Bacardi won a separate 10-year legal battle that allowed it to start selling in the US its own Havana Club branded rum, produced in Puerto Rico.
"Havana Club is not an asset of the Cuban government," said Bacardi spokeswoman Patricia O'Neal, who cited a 1998 federal law, currently the subject of an appeal, banning the renewal of trademarks by nationalised Cuban companies.
Likewise, cigars sold in the US under the Cohiba brand are manufactured in the Dominican Republic by the American company General Cigar, which has its own claim to the name. It has no connection with the Cuban brands sold in other countries. Fuller's ageing brothers and sisters, who are now mostly in their 70s, are reluctant to talk about the case, which found Fidel Castro, his brother Raul, the current Cuban president, and the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces guilty of torture and inhumane treatment.
But Martinez said he saw it as a way to secure the Fuller family compensation that they otherwise would not receive. "The case has a big heart, a bigger mind, and, hopefully, lots of legs," he said. "But we are in court, so we will make our best arguments in court and the judge will decide."
Friday, September 11, 2009