WASHINGTON — The pending merger of American beer giant Anheuser-Busch and a Belgian company that brews and sells beer in Cuba is thrusting John McCain into the middle of thorny Cuba-U.S. relations.
McCain's wife, Cindy, owns the third largest Anheuser-Busch distributor in the country — which means she would stand to profit by partnering with a company that is in business with the Cuban government.
McCain is a staunch advocate of the embargo, which bars most American companies from doing business in Cuba. Among the yet-to-be-resolved issues in the $52 billion deal is whether Belgian giant InBev — expected to operate under the name Anheuser-Busch-InBev — will continue to market its Cuban line of beer, and what that may mean for U.S. distributors.
Two of McCain's top Florida supporters, Miami Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, assailed the InBev-Anheuser Busch deal earlier this month, saying they are "deeply concerned'' that Anheuser-Busch is about to be purchased by a company "with ties to the Cuban dictatorship, a state sponsor of terrorism.''
A spokesman for the Diaz-Balarts said Tuesday night the two congressmen stand by their statement.
Complicating matters for McCain: A Cuban exile family with a long tradition of brewing beer in pre-Castro Cuba claims that InBev has illegally been using the trademark beer name Cristal, which the family created in Cuba before its company was seized by Fidel Castro's government in 1960.
"There are legal figleafs that can be applied here, but the crux of the situation is that property rights are being trampled on,'' said Nicolas Gutierrez, an attorney for Key Biscayne's Blanco Herrera family.
According to financial disclosure statements, Cindy McCain also owns stock in Anheuser-Busch and would stand to make as much as $2 million in profit if she sells the shares after the merger.
McCain's campaign did not respond to questions about whether Cindy McCain's distributorship in Arizona, Hensley and Co., would continue to market InBev products after the merger goes through. The private company, with annual sales estimated at between $150 million and $200 million, already distributes InBev products, including Stella Artois, Beck's and Lowenbrau.
A longtime McCain supporter said the Arizona senator has maintained a rigid firewall between himself and his wife's business operations, and new owners won't change matters.
"Making a connection between InBev, John McCain and Cuba policy is a ridiculous stretch of the imagination,'' said Ana Navarro of Miami, who has known McCain for years and serves as a co-chair of his National Hispanic Advisory Council. "First, because John McCain has nothing to do with the operation of his wife's business and secondly, her business has nothing to do with Anheuser-Busch's sale. Does Publix (a grocery store chain) control the decisions of Frito-Lay?''
InBev isn't saying whether or not it will keep what it calls its "modest'' Cuban interests.
European countries have no hurdles to doing business in Cuba, and a spokeswoman for InBev said the company "continuously reviews'' its commercial activities to ensure compliance with international laws.
Marianne Amssoms, InBev's vice president of global external communications, said the company's Cuban interests are all handled out of Europe. She did not address the Blanco Herrera claim but said the company's Cuban interests "do not violate U.S., EU or international law.'' She said the company, which holds the No. 2 position in the Cuban beer market, currently brews, distributes and sells Beck's, Bucanero, Cristal and Mayabe in Cuba through a joint venture with the Cuban food ministry.
She said the business in Cuba is less than half of 1 percent of InBev's global business. According to the company's website, its plant in Holguin, in eastern Cuba, employs 570 full-time workers.
A spokesman with the U.S. Treasury Department, which along with the State Department oversees provisions of the embargo, said the agency could not yet comment on whether the embargo would apply or how the new company would be affected by the embargo law.
Gutierrez said he hopes the renewed attention on InBev will result in a resolution for the Blanco Herrera family, which approached InBev in 2001 about the use of the Cristal brand, to no avail.
"îAll of this could have a resolution if McCain were to come out and say, 'I'm not getting involved in the corporate dealings, but I denounce InBev operations in Cuba and I denounce especially the use of confiscated property,' '' Gutierrez said.
Ramon Blanco Herrera, whose relatives opened the brewery in Cuba in 1888, said the family members are seeking "respect'' for their property claims.
"It's one thing for a communist Cuban government to traffic with stolen property,'' he said in a written statement. "It's another issue altogether when a respected multinational corporation like InBev knowingly traffics with our property without our consent or authorization.''
He said he doesn't believe the situation creates an issue for McCain.
"We expect that either candidate will uphold the rule of law as it relates to our Helms-Burton claims,'' he said. The Helms-Burton law seeks to punish foreign companies that use property in Cuba expropriated from Cuban nationals who have since become U.S. citizens.
"InBev needs to address this issue with us, as well as the corresponding U.S. authorities that have direct responsibility for approving the AB takeover,'' Blanco Herrera wrote. "We intend to make sure that all U.S. authorities are aware of the issue and expect that they will persuade InBev to respond.''