How the Cuban Revolution Ignited a Rivalry Between Two Multinational Liquor Brands
The family behind the Real Havana Club Rum tells its story in a new immersive theater production in Miami.
There are two competing versions of Havana Club Rum. One is made in Puerto Rico and is owned by Bacardi, while the other is made in Cuba and is owned by Pernod Ricard. The origin of the conflict dates back 60 years to the beginning of Cuban nationalization. But for the makers of the original Havana Club Rum, the drama is still so fresh that now, there's an immersive play in Miami that explains the roots of the rivalry from the point of view of the Arechabala family's eponymous matriarch, Amparo Arechabala. Called The Amparo Experience, the interactive, site-specific play gives audiences a taste of what it was like to build a fortune and almost lose it all to Castro's government—finally setting the record straight about which product is the "real" Havana Club Rum.
For The Amparo Experience, a historic villa in Downtown Miami has been transformed into late-1950s Cuba, with 23 actors, four musicians and two dancers telling 22 different stories on five different "tracks"— all happening at the same time. In an early scene, the main characters introduce themselves, including Ramon Arechabala and his wife, Amparo, whose tale we're reliving. Eventually, a revolutionary bursts in to announce that Castro has taken charge. "Here is where the waters start to rise," Amparo tells the audience. "Where the ocean becomes a border." And so begins the Amparo story.
Audiences then witness a reenactment of the Cuban government's takeover of the Havana Club distillery, which has been in operation since 1878. It's at that point that the Arechabala family decides to flee Cuba, with almost no possessions except the original recipe for Havana Club Rum. The rest of The Amparo Experience is at once harrowing, nostalgic, and occasionally twee. But for the producers, the play is more than just a piece of entertainment—it's an effort to make things right. After testing out smaller early versions of The Amparo Experience in pilot performances in New York and Miami, they decided to go big with a two-month extended engagement in Miami, where the majority of Cuban Americans reside.
"When we did our pilot in Miami, we got a sense that we're tapping into something that people have been craving for some time now," director Victoria Collado said on a panel following a preview of The Amparo Experience. "We hope this opens gates for more empathy and for release. Our dream is to take this wherever, and wherever they want to take us, we’ll tell this story, because it's one that needs to be told—not just for Cuban exiles, but for anybody who has had to leave anything behind."
The Cuban government's version of Havana Club Rum was bought by Pernod Ricard in 1994 and is sold everywhere except the United States. That same year, the Arechabala family's brand of Havana Club Rum was bought by Bacardi, which sells the rum only in the United States—and has been competing with Pernod Ricard over the name ever since. In the end, The Amparo Experience reveals that the Havana Club Rum that's currently made in Cuba isn't the original recipe, while the Puerto Rican (i.e. American) one is. That means the American version is actually more Cuban than the Cuban version, which ironically, many Americans covet more because the embargo makes the Cuban one harder to get.
"What we hope is that human beings can come to this piece and that they can make their own decisions on what their feelings are," says Collado, whose family is Cuban. "Because our ancestors have fought long and hard, and they have screamed a lot [...] They have fought for 60 years and screaming hasn't worked. So what we can do is showcase the entire story and let people see for themselves what they want their opinion on Cubans politics to be."
Victoria Collado and playwright Vanessa Garcia discuss The Amparo Experience in depth on the Immigrant Archive Project website. The Amparo Experience is on view in Miami through June 30.