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For the last fourteen years, General Cigar (one of the world’s largest cigar companies) and Cubatobaco (the Cuban state tobacco monopoly) have been engaged in a bitter litigation over the name Cohiba. Though the battle may rage on as legal battles often do, General is certainly smoking a cigar in celebration right now as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned an injunction barring the company from using the Cohiba trademark.
The Cohiba brand began in the 70s as a boutique line exclusively for Fidel Castro and high-ranking members of the Cuban Communist Party. Its production was tightly and securely controlled, in part to ensure quality but also to prevent sabotage of the cigars with poison in an assassination attempt. Introduced to the public in 1982 during that year’s World Cup in Spain, the Cohiba name quickly became synonymous with top-quality Cuban cigars.
Many American cigar aficionados are already aware that brands like Cohiba, Partagas and Hoyo de Monterrey are originally Cuban lines, and have remained so everywhere else in the world except the United States. Ask for one of these cigars in any other country and they’ll hand you a Cuban, but in the U.S. you’ll get a completely different cigar made in Honduras or the Dominican Republic. General Cigar trademarked numerous Cuban brand names in the U.S. market, and since the Cuban Embargo prevents Cuba from entering the U.S. cigar market, there would ostensibly be no trademark dispute. General Cigar started a very profitable run selling their version of the classics.
At least that’s what they though, until Cubatobaco brought General to court in 1997. Three years later, some of the charges of unfair competition were dismissed, but the court put an injunction on General from selling Cohiba-branded cigars on trademark infringement grounds.
Flash forward to 2006: General emerged victorious on appeal, with the Second Circuit court overturning the injunction on grounds that the Cuban Embargo rendered any trademark dispute moot. But Cubatobaco pressed on, eventually convincing the court to reinstate the injunction against General Cigar in 2008.
In light of the constant appeals, General never actually had to stop selling Cohibas in America. Lucky for them, this litigation took no toll on their marketing efforts in the states (we can’t say the same for their legal department). The quality of the Dominican-made Cohibas continues to improve, and only the most green cigar smoker would confuse a Dominican Cohiba with the Cuban version.
This long and litigous journey is still not over, with Cubatobaco weighing its options to press the fight. The company vigorously defends its trademark around the world, most recently intercepting a bootleg case of Cohiba rum, a product that the company simply doesn’t make. However, in light of the mounting and vast expense of the Cohiba cigar battle, they may finally have to back off a bit and realize that the embargo has them up against a legal wall.
We’ve gone on record saying that we don’t expect the Cuban Embargo to end anytime soon, and we foresee a long future of selling General’s Cohiba, Partagas and Hoyo de Monterrey lines, along with many other premium brands that while different, are certainly not inferior to their Cuban counterparts.
When and if the embargo is lifted, expect some major legal fireworks to erupt from Cubatobaco. In the meantime, we’ll be puffing our Cohiba “Red Dots” and enjoying the freedom to smoke whatever we want… well, except for Cubans!