Capitalizing on Communism

The cuban Cohiba [left] is known as the world’s best cigar. Unlike most other cuban brands, it did not exist before the revolution, but was ordered into production by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in the sixties. At first produced only for Castro’s private consumption and diplomatic gifts, by the late seventies the brand had become world famous and the government began selling Cohibas internationally.

Intended to symbolize the best of the Cuban revolution, Cohibas are of extremely high quality. Not only the nature of cuban soil and traditional techniques contribute: the socialist economy is centralized, and thus allows for one product to be given absolute priority. Only a national selection of the best harvests, materials, cigar-rollers, and quality controllers can produce this level of consistent quality. They are sold at very high prices that reflect such costs of production. Ironically, in the rest of the world Cohibas are seen as symbols of wealth and status, not socialism, especially in the United States, where they are sold illegally due to the embargo on Cuba at even higher prices. As a result, counterfeits from Cuba and elsewhere are proliferating.

In 1978 the Delaware-based General Cigar Co. took advantage of this situation and registered a second (Dominican) Cohiba cigar [middle] in the U.S., with some opposition from the Patent and Trademark Office, creating a kind of legal counterfeit.Cuba had little legal recourse, also due to the embargo.

In 1997 New York-based Direct Marketing (GDM) starting selling a third (Dominican) Cohiba [right] on the U.S. market, but was quickly sued by General Cigar. Citing “marketplace confusion,” General Cigar forced GDM to remove the cigar’s name from the label, but allowed the famous logo of the Taino Indian head (even though it is part of the Cuban Cohiba’s graphic identity). In the meantime, sensing an opportunity in this precedent, Cuban authorities are, in turn, suing General Cigar Co. for trademark violation, trying to recapture their valuable brand name for the U.S. market in anticipation of the lifting of trade sanctions.


Andrea Robbins and Max Becher 1998

Light Work

Cuban, General Cigar, and GDM Cohibas

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