When I visited Cuba last year, there were symbols of Havana Club rum all over the island. It was in every bar I visited and all over the gift shops. Just like the country’s famous cigars, drinking Havana Club felt like something you had to do, otherwise did you even go to Cuba? A close examination of the label of the bottle said that the company was founded in 1878. But it should say an entirely different date depending on who you ask. The Cuban Revolution is at the core of this inconsistency and I got to experience how it changed the course of the brand’s history in the most unexpected way.
Today there are two Havana Club brands: One made in Cuba by a joint venture between the government and French liquor conglomerate Pernod Ricard, and the other made in Puerto Rico by Bacardi. If someone were to ask you which one was the REAL Havana Club, the answer may seem straightforward but it’s a lot more complicated than you’d think. Bacardi says it’s their’s and they put together an immersive play called Amparo, written by Cuban-American playwright Vanessa Garcia and performed by a cast with Cuban roots, that will make you instantly feel their side of the story.
The purpose of this experience is “making sure that people know the truth about the authentic Havana Club,” Roberto Ramirez Laverde, Havana Club brand executive at Bacardi, told HipLatina. “About the injustice of other companies liasing with the Cuban regime and profiting from stolen property that was confiscated from Arechabalas. To make sure that they understand the truth and know that we are the authentic Havana Club.”
The history of Havana Club starts in 1862, when José Arechabala arrived in Cuba from Gordejuela, Spain to start a new life. He founded the company that would become Arechabala Industries 16 years later and it introduced Havana Club in 1934. Fast forward to the official start of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, when the government nationalized Arechabala Industries, making themselves the new owner of the company and the Havana Club brand. This is the moment that Amparo zeroes in on.
Guests get to follow different characters, which represent the conflicting views Cuban people had during that tumultuous time, and how that intersected with the Arechabalas. I went on a journey with Calixto, a working man who becomes radicalized by friends who support the revolution and redistribution of wealth on the island. Your heart races as you move through the story and realize how high the stakes are for everyone involved — you get to feel what it was like to go through the revolution, which was Garcia’s goal. It came down to life or death for some people.
Ramon Arechabala, the head of the company at the time, had fallen in love with and married Amparo Alvaré (the namesake of the play). The world of the newlyweds comes crashing down when their company is taken over, and once again when Ramon is arrested years later in 1963. “He was given options,” Paola Arechabala, daughter of Ramon and Amparo, told HipLatina. “Either you stay and you’re with the revolution, or you leave the country, or you spend the rest of your life in prison.“ Ramon chose to leave with his wife and son, without a dollar to their name.
It is at this point in the play that all of the guests converge in a large room with the spirit of all the characters we started with, and the experience culminates with beating our chests to the rhythm of live drums, promising to share the story of the real Havana Club.
Having something your family worked hard for be taken away is traumatic, a point that was driven home masterfully by the emotional roller coaster crafted by Garcia. Unfortunately for the Arechabalas, the slaps to the face at the hands of the Cuban government didn’t end there, since they continue to use the Havana Club trademark to sell rum to this day. The Cuban government is unable to do it on US soil because of the trade embargo, but thanks to their partnership with Pernod Ricard that began in 1993, millions of bottles of Havana Club are sold elsewhere around the world every year.
That was surely infuriating for the Arechabalas, who like many immigrant families who come to the US, had to find new trades. Ramon became a car mechanic for Ford Motor Company, Paola shared. The Havana Club trademark they owned in the US expired in 1973 and the Cuban government registered it for themselves in 1976. But Ramon did not give up on Havana Club, and made a brilliant move in 1994 that put the family right back in the game. You see, the Cuban government seized their trademark and distilleries, but they forgot to take one thing — the Arechabala recipe. Ramon turned to Bacardi and sold it to them for $1.25 million, as well as some of the profits from the sales of the rum, according to The Washington Post. It was an ideal partnership thanks to their shared history. Bacardi also started in Cuba and was even an Arechabala competitor back in the day. The family was exiled but their company was able to survive after the revolution because it already had operations in other countries before the government seized their Cuban assets.
Bacardi became a fierce advocate for the brand and it has done everything in the book to sell the Arechabala recipe under the Havana Club name they created. The company lobbied hard to get the Cuban trademark thrown out on the grounds that the company was illegally taken from the Arechabalas. Bacardi was able to get a law on the books in 1998 — known as the Bacardi Act — that recognizes trademarks registered by expropriated Cuban companies, effectively cancelling the Cuban government and Pernod Ricard’s Havana Club trademark in the US. This allows Bacardi to sell the Arechabala rum with Havana Club brand in the US today.
But this war isn’t over. The European Union and World Trade Organization does not consider the Bacardi Act to be legal. The ball is currently in the US government’s court, and it is unlikely to address this issue any time soon since President Donald Trump has made it clear that he isn’t keen on improving relations with Cuba. Implementing new sanctions and travel restrictions is all of the proof we need. And as long as there is a trade embargo against Cuba, their version of Havana Club will not be sold in the US.
While the future of the Havana Club trademark sits in purgatory, Bacardi and Pernod Ricard are engaged in a different battle — semantics. Pernod Ricard thinks Bacardi’s Havana Club is a fraud because it’s made in Puerto Rico, while their version is made in Cuba. Bacardi feels their version is the real one because it’s made with the original Cuban recipe. The authenticity lies in the soul of the brand and amplified by a company with Cuban roots giving it amparo, which means refuge in Spanish. When people say that the family recipe made by Bacardi isn’t Cuban, Paola feels angry and personally insulted. “To me it’s actually unfathomable that people believe [the version made by the Cuban government and Pernod Ricard] is real.” She hopes the play can change things. Next time you order rum consider it’s history, it might not go down as smoothly depending on your politics.