Exploring and Living in Cuba

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Tuesday, 10 January 2017 14:34

Rum wars: Havana Club vs. Havana Club

Rum lovers and history buffs should visit Havana’s Museo de Ron while in Havana, Cuba. There are guided tours where one can learn all about the history of rum and the process of how it is made from start to finish. The tour is extremely worth while, but the guide we had spoke very poor English. My son and I are bilingual and would have been better off taking the tour with a Spanish-speaking guide.

The tour showcases Havana Club rum, Cuba’s stellar brand and whose circular red logo is omnipresent on the island. Unfortunately, this Cuban version of Havana Club rum is not sold in the U.S. due to the embargo. However, this has not deterred visitors from the States who have been returning with their suitcases replete with bottles of Havana Club and cigars due to the somewhat loosening of restrictions for travelers.

On Sunday January 2 2017, the program 60 Minutes aired a piece on the controversy around the Havana Club trademark and its distribution rights. Simply put, there is a turf war between Havana Club rum produced in Cuba and it’s counterpart that is made in Puerto Rico by Bacardi. The controversy has arisen with Pernod Ricard, which currently produces the Havana Club made in Cuba, battling with Bacardi over rights to the brand name with both sides laying claim to the name.The Havana Club battle is one of the most heated trademark disputes in recent history. It’s been going on for two decades now—and it’s become even more intense now that trade restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba are lifting. By the way, America’s drink about 40 percent of the world’s rum, so there is a huge potential market and a lot at stake.

Originally, Bacardi and Havana Club rums were rival spirits, and their founding families the Bacardis and the Arechabalas, respectively — were fierce competitors. Facundo Bacardi, started his company in 1862. Rum historians credit him with pioneering Cuban-style rum: lighter than other types, perfect for cocktails, but also aged and blended into fine sipping rums. The Arechabala company, founded in 1878, and other Cuban rum-makers worked in the shadow of Bacardi for many years.

In the 1930s with Americans in mind the Arechabalas introduced Havana Club. Years later Bacardi became a major producer of Havana Club, buying the brand from the Arechabala family. Both rum-making families fled Cuba in the 1960s after the government nationalized the island’s distilleries. However, this did not stop the Cuban government from continuing to produce Havana Club rum at the facilities that it expropriated. In fact, the Cuban version is now produced in a joint venture with French liquor giant Pernod Richard. As a result sales have grown even without selling the product in the U.S. market, because of the trade embargo imposed in 1962 against Cuba.

In 1994, Bacardi filed its own application for the U.S. trademark for Havana Club. It paid the Arechabala family $1.25 million for any rights to Havana Club that the family still possessed, plus a portion of any sales of Havana Club. Ever since then, Bacardi and Pernod Ricard have battled on legal and commercial fronts for ownership of the name. Bacardi appeared to win the rum war in 2006, when the Cubans and Pernod Ricard were not allowed to renew the trademark. However, now the dispute is back in U.S. District Court in Washington, where both sides are seeking a ruling on who owns Havana Club trademark.

Only time will tell how this all sorts out. So stay tuned for more updates.

Monday, 26 December 2016 11:49

Cuba For Sale - People & Power

Half a century ago, when Fidel Castro's revolutionary forces entered the Cuban capital Havana, the new leader pledged to improve the lives of the poor by putting an end to capitalist excess.  

One of the revolutionary government's key measures was the elimination of the property market as a lucrative business. Housing was declared a human right, private rental was abolished and most Cubans were given free properties to live in.

But with a US embargo declared on the revolutionary island and its finances dependent on an inefficient state-driven economy, the government ran out of money and vast parts of Havana fell into decline.

In a radical move, Raul Castro opened up the economy in 2011. Property laws were reversed and Cubans were allowed to buy and sell their homes once more.

The government says its revolutionary vision hasn't changed and that the reforms are aimed at safeguarding rather than dismantling socialism. But will the re-introduction of private property make Havana's urban poor worse off? And how will the government deal with the growing, wealthy new class that the regime once fought so hard to defeat?

In Cuba for Sale, reporter Juliana Ruhfus and filmmaker Seamus Mirodan investigate the impact of the country's recent economic changes and whether the re-introduction of private property heralds an end to Cuban socialism.

Monday, 26 December 2016 11:08

El Viejo y el Mal

The title of this article is word play on the title of Hemingway’s prize winning novel, "El Viejo y El Mar." In this case the translation of the title is “The Old Man and Evil,” referring to the legacy of the late Fidel Castro.

As a result of Castro’s dictatorship Cuba is truly an impoverished country locked in a time warp, where the average monthly salary hovers around $25 dollars and where there is no real freedom of expression, opportunities, dissent or human rights. Many of those who clamor for change are imprisoned. Because of this situation fifteen percent of the islands citizens are in exile in an effort to make a better life for themselves. The revolution was really about Fidel and his socialistic vision and not the Cuban people. He created a system of educated people who had little hope of getting ahead in life. I must admit that the man was a political genius to be able to stay in power for almost 50 years.

The government that Fidel left to his brother does have its supporters among some of those who have lived under the system all of their lives and who do not know nothing else.

However, as I have alluded to in many of my articles, there is no reason to lose hope. Raúl has made some cosmetic changes but democracy and real change has yet to occur. Given the events of the last few years, I feel positive about the country moving in the right direction. But the million dollar question is, How long will the process take?

It is hoped that with the improved relations with the U.S., more widespread and accessible Internet and an influx of new ideas, once again Cuba will regain its spendor as “The Pearl of the Caribbean.” I am betting that it will.

Monday, 15 August 2016 10:42

Those Little Polish Cars

Cubans have had to make do with automobiles manufactured over 60 years ago.

The 126 horse-power Fiat which is commonly called a Polski is very popular in Cuba. The year 2016 has been the year of these diminutive vehicles according to the president of Amigos del Motor, a Cuban car club. It is estimated that there are about 10,000 Polskis circulating in Cuba. Some of them are out of service while many are still running. Cuba’s self-taught mechanics have managed to keep classic American cars working for decades. Now they are putting their skills to use by repairing and customizing these relics from the cold way. Many of these cars now have improved suspension, more potent motors, new upholstery and improved sound systems.

Considering the average salary in Cuba is only 25 dollars per month, not everyone can afford a Polski which only cost a few thousand dollars. Those fortunate enough to have some type of private employment or money sent by relatives who are outside of the country are the only people who canbuy one of these vehicles.

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