The Dallas Morning News
Saturday, July 24, 2004

Rum maker longs to return to Cuba

Castro loyalists say Bacardí would recoup seized property by force

By TRACEY EATON / The Dallas Morning News

HAVANA El Coco, they called it. It was a 98-year-old palm tree that withered and died in 1960 after Fidel Castro took power.

It stood in front of the Bacardí rum factory. Now company executives hope to plant a new coconut palm, after Mr. Castro is gone. They say they'll put it in the same patch of green earth where the first tree sprouted in 1862.

They want their land back, too. And their distillery and their office buildings.

Castro loyalists say it's not going to happen. The rebels defeated U.S.-backed Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista in 1959. And there's no turning back, they say.

The Cuban government seized about $1.85 billion in property after the revolution, according to Cuba Certified Claims, a nonprofit group that represents many of the original property owners.

The group and Bush administration officials say the United States cannot have normal relations with Cuba unless the claims are settled.

The Bush administration in May unveiled a transition plan for Cuba aimed at bringing democracy to the country, boosting the economy and settling the thousands of property claims.

The Bacardí company has been among the most active in trying to recover its properties. The company's original factory was built in Santiago de Cuba, the island's second-largest city. Two brothers, Facundo and Emilio Bacardí, ran the operation.

Bacardí officials contend that Mr. Castro's government illegally seized the company's distillery and other assets in 1960. The Bacardí family fled and family members eventually set up shop in the Bahamas. The company is now the world's leading rum producer and sells its products in 170 countries.

Cuban officials attending the International Rum Festival in Havana in June alleged that Bacardí has sought to oust Mr. Castro through violent means.

And a White House letter dated June 1964 and declassified in 1998 says, "Attached is a memorandum from CIA describing a plot to assassinate Castro which would involve U.S. elements of the Mafia and which would be financed by Pepín Bosch."

The late José Pepín Bosch was then the director of Bacardí.

Hernando Calvo Ospina, a Colombian journalist and author of the book, Bacardí Rum: A Hidden War, said Mr. Bosch also wanted to bomb Cuba's oil refineries in hopes of creating blackouts that would turn the masses against Mr. Castro.

The New York Times wrote about it, and the plan was scrapped, the book says.

Bacardí executives have been instrumental in lobbying for tougher economic sanctions against Cuba, Mr. Calvo Ospina said. They have also helped fund such anti-Castro organizations as the Cuban American National Foundation, which has been accused of financing plots to murder Mr. Castro, he said.

Patricia Neal, a Bacardí spokeswoman, denied the accusations.

"We're not going to be engaged in those types of things," she said.

Leaders of the Cuban exile community in Miami also rejected the claims.

"There's no truth to any of it," said Francisco "Pepe" Hernández, former president of the Miami foundation. "Neither Bacardí or the foundation have taken part in any of that. It's typical of the regime, an effort to try to destroy us morally in the mind of the public."

Cuban officials insist Bacardí has funded anti-Castro groups.

"We have proof they've participated in this kind of financing," said Eduardo Bencomo, president of CIMEX, the largest dollar-earning Cuban company and the distributor of the island's leading brands of rum.

Bacardí's quarrel with the Cuban government goes beyond politics and money. The company has been locked in a trademark war with Cuba for more than four decades. It claims the rights to the Havana Club label. Cuba and Pernod Ricard, a French company that distributes Cuban-made Havana Club rum, dispute that.

If the ban on trade with Cuba were lifted, Havana Club would likely have trouble keeping up with the demand at first, said Edward Hamilton, author of The Complete Guide to Rum and Rums of the Eastern Caribbean.

"Good rum takes years to mature. It would be difficult to meet the initial demand, and the quality would most likely drop in the near term."

For now, though, Cuban rum is quite good, said Mr. Hamilton, a resident of Culebra, Puerto Rico.

"The older Cuban rums generally have hints of lightly roasted nuts, a little smoky vanilla and caramel taste in the body and a light charred wood note in the finish," he said. "These characteristics can be found in many rums, but it is the balance of these flavors that makes Cuban rums distinct. And they vary from distillery to distillery much the way Cuban food varies."

Rum at the Santa Cruz distillery east of Havana is aged in oak barrels imported from the United States more than 30 years ago.

"This industry is ours," said Juan Carlos González, 53, a rum master at the distillery. "It's a part of our culture. You come across three or four friends and you don't think of offering a bottle of whiskey or brandy. You offer rum."

Mr. Bencomo is also a rum aficionado and has hosted 67 delegations of American business people over the past two years.

"We meet and I ask them, 'Do you want a shot of rum?' They all say yes."