The Wall Street Journal
Concerned it could undermine protections for American intellectual property rights holders
A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers said they are concerned about the Obama administration’s decision last month to award a trademark for Havana Club rum to the Cuban government.
In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew on Tuesday, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D., Fla.), along with 23 other lawmakers, said they feared granting the trademark could undermine protections for American intellectual property rights holders.
Most of the congressional signatories to the letter—17 of 25—are from Florida, where President Barack Obama’s Cuba policy remains a divisive issue.
Of the Democrats who signed on, eight of 11 are from Florida. Ms. Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, hasn’t enthusiastically embraced Mr. Obama’s policy shift with Cuba. She has said previously that she is considering the policy shift and hopes Mr. Obama will use it to press Cuba to improve human rights.
“I’ve been firmly committed to protecting the intellectual property rights of American companies, and I was pleased to join this letter with Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and many of my Florida colleagues,” she said in a separate statement, without singling out Cuba.
Ms. Ros-Lehtinen said the U.S. decision to grant the trademark to Cuba was “politically motivated” by the Obama administration’s move to normalize ties with Cuba.
“This original family’s factories and trademarks were confiscated by the Castro regime and the U.S. government should not take any action which would embolden any foreign entity that could confiscate U.S. trademarks and intellectual property,” she said.
The Office of Foreign Assets Control decided last month to grant a license to state-run Cubaexport to renew an expired trademark registration for Havana Club rum in a move that has reignited a decadeslong battle tension between Bacardi Ltd. and the Cuban government over the use of the Havana Club trademark in the U.S.
Bacardi left Cuba after the 1959 revolution and later acquired the rights to the Havana Club trademark from its prerevolutionary owner, whose distillery was nationalized. The U.S. previously had recognized Bacardi’s claim to the Havana Club name under a law that aims to protect owners of Cuban companies that were nationalized after the Cuban revolution.
The decision to grant Cubaexport the trademark would allow the Cuban government to sell Cuban-made Havana Club in the U.S. for the first time in decades once the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba is lifted.
That is unlikely to happen before President Barack Obama leaves office in 2017, but experts, lobbyists and lawmakers in favor of the shift have said they expect it will in the next five years.
Bacardi had been selling Havana Club-branded rum in the U.S. since 1994. That rum is made in Puerto Rico because of the economic embargo. Pernod Richard SA, which has a joint venture with the Cuban government, has been selling a Cuban-made version of the rum outside of the U.S.
Amy Federman, a Bacardi spokeswoman, said, “Bacardi is pleased to see that members of Congress are standing up for property rights and looking into this issue.”
The company has filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records to explain why the U.S. decided to return the rights to use the name Havana Club back to the Cuban state company, which runs a joint venture with a global rival liquor company.
On Thursday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), a signatory to the letter, will chair a hearing on the Havana Club trademark battle and property claims. U.S. and Cuban officials met to talk about billions of dollars of competing property claims for the first time last December.
The claims, valued on the U.S. side to be between $7 billion and $8 billion, are among the most contentious issues the two sides will address as they push for full normalization. Cuba, for its part, said at the United Nations this year it is owed about $121 billion for damages from the economic embargo.