FEATURE -What's in a name? Cuban cigars plant legal seeds for U.S. future
By Zachary Fagenson and David Adams
MIAMI May 5 (Reuters) - Miami cigar maker Jose Montagne has been fighting for more than a decade to protect his catchy Cuban brand name, Guantanamera, from Cuban government trademark lawyers.
But a recent warming in U.S.-Cuban relations could be the death knell of American cigar makers like Montagne who are seeing their legal position erode as they brace for the potential invasion of Cuban cigars into the world's most lucrative cigar market.
A Cuban exile who came to the United States in 1996, Montagne is one of more than a dozen cigar makers in the United States that Cuba's state-owned tobacco company has tried to block from using names referring to the Communist-run island.
Montagne, who began making his cigars in Central America in 1997, maintains that Cuba's government can't monopolize all things Cuban, noting that Guantanamera is a popular song both for those living on the island and worldwide.
"This isn't about money, it's about who we're fighting," said the 50-year-old exile who sports a pale pink polo shirt and a white Panama Jack hat.
Cuban cigars have been sought after around the world since the island's natives presented dried tobacco leaves to Christopher Columbus more than five centuries ago. In the United States, they have taken on a coveted, forbidden-fruit status since a U.S. trade embargo outlawed their import a half century ago.
The consumer magazine Cigar Aficionado has estimated that the U.S. premium cigar market alone is worth as much as $2.6 billion, with Cuba hoping to snap up to 25-30 percent of that if and when the trade embargo is eventually lifted.
To that end, Cuba has strenuously sought to block Cuba-inspired trademarks from being registered in the United States. Continuación...