A cigar lounge in suburban Detroit is decorated with paintings and photos of famous people with a stogie: John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, even the 1950s Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara.
“We have only one thing in common,” said owner Ismail Houmani, a U.S. war veteran, pointing at a cigar in the fingers of Guevara, a Marxist rebel.
Cuba, however, believes the shop has too much common with its own famous cigar business. Cuba’s government-owned tobacco company is suing Houmani in federal court in Detroit, claiming the name of his four shops, La Casa De La Habana, is illegal because it’s too similar to its own franchised shops, known around the world as La Casa del Habano.
Cuba, of course, can’t do business in America because of a nearly 50-year-old trade embargo imposed after Fidel Castro, with Guevara’s help, turned the Caribbean island into a socialist state. Nonetheless, Cubatabaco claims it still has a right to protect its U.S. trademark even if it can’t export prized Cuban cigars to U.S. shores.
“I love cases like this,” U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy III told both sides last year. “I find it to be extremely interesting and challenging.”
Houmani’s lawyer, Brad Smith, wonders why Cuba would care about a Michigan cigar lounge. “Small potatoes,” he said in an interview.
Cubatabaco’s lawyer, David Goldstein of New York, said in court that a trademark must be protected or “what I have is a worthless piece of paper.”
In Plymouth, a suburb west of Detroit, La Casa De La Habana has been open about a decade. A climate-controlled humidor displays dozens of cigars, some costing $38 each, from Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. There is walk-in business, but customers also can have their own gym-locker-sized humidor with a nameplate for $100 a month.
There are televisions, leather couches and an espresso bar. In downtown Detroit, Houmani runs a 7,000-square-foot location offering martinis, live music and local handmade cigars stuffed with imported tobacco.
“Over a cigar, you can meet some interesting people — doctors, lawyers, judges, movie actors. They want to sit down and relax,” said Houmani, 42, who immigrated to Toledo, Ohio, from Lebanon when he was 18. “I wanted to create something that’s really unique.”
He said he was thinking about Cuba’s reputation for Latin jazz, rum and cigars when he chose the name La Casa De La Habana, which means “The House of Havana” in Spanish. Houmani notes that “Habano,” the word used in the name of Cuban shops, refers to a Havana cigar.
“I’m not selling or advertising Cuban cigars,” he said.
International agreements allow government-controlled businesses like Cuba’s to register trademarks in the U.S., even when dormant under an economic embargo. Still, Smith said the lawsuit should be governed by a simple rule: “You use it or lose it.”
A trademark expert at the University of Michigan law school believes Cubatabaco has a strong case for infringement.
“Cuba’s got reason to hope that it will be able to enter the U.S. market within the foreseeable future,” Jessica Litman said. “Its mark is pretty valuable, and the potential for confusion seems real.”
The judge has urged each side to settle the dispute out of court. Houmani concedes he may have to change the name of his business, although he would prefer to keep “La Casa” in it. He has much admiration for Cuba’s cigars, despite the lawsuit and that country’s communist government.
“It’s the best tobacco in the world because of the soil. It’s God’s gift to the Cubans,” said Houmani, who has smoked Cuban cigars during trips to the Middle East. “As cigar makers, we don’t look at political affiliations.”