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Cigar lovers gather to pay homage to Havana's finest

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

HAVANA -- "Que rrrrrrrrrrrrrico!" the Tropicana nightclub singer trilled, strutting in plumed headdress and ruffled train through a cloud of cigar smoke as hundreds of tobacco aficionados paid homage this week to the world's finest stogies.

About 900 people traveled to Havana for the fifth annual Habanos Festival, which began Monday night at the city's historic Tropicana. The celebration includes visits to tobacco plantations and cigar factories, and meetings of collectors of cigar memorabilia.

The high point of the yearly gathering is the elegant cigar dinner and auction on Friday night. But President Fidel Castro, who has traditionally attended and helped auction off elaborate humidors stuffed with special cigars for tens of thousands of dollars, was not expected back in time from his current Asian tour.

A new event this year will be a fashion show of clothing created for the tobacco festival by Christian Dior and other international fashion houses.

The Habanos Festival comes as the island struggles to overcome damage to the industry caused by last year's pair of hurricanes in the tobacco-growing western province of Pinar del Rio.

It also comes as the communist-run government fights a growing business in counterfeit cigars. Although often made with stolen Cuban tobacco, the fake stogies carry falsified cigar rings and are packaged in fake boxes marked with well-known labels -- Cohiba, Partagas, Romeo y Julieta. Customs officials here reported seizing about 720,000 cigars of dubious origin last year from departing travelers at airports.

Expect export increase

Nevertheless, Habanos S.A., the Cuban cigar marketing firm, maintains that exports have not been significantly affected. While refusing to give exact numbers for cigars produced and exported last year, Jaime Garcia of Habanos S.A. told reporters recently that annual export income from cigars remained steady at about $240 million.

"We are expecting an increase" in 2003 export sales, Garcia said earlier this month.

Habanos S.A. is a partnership of the Cuban government and the European firm Altadis to market the island's cigars worldwide.

Festival participants visited an exclusive cigar factory Tuesday in the western "El Laguito" section of the city where many of the country's foreign diplomats live.

"Making a cigar is an art," factory director Maria Emilia Tamayo Gonzalez told hundreds of visitors who filed past rows of tobacco workers fashioning the brown leaves into coveted Cohiba cigars.

"This factory has a very beautiful story because it was established by Comandante Fidel Castro with the idea of bringing women into the workplace," Tamayo said.

Factory workers said Castro exclusively smoked Cohibas from their shop before he gave up cigars years ago for health reasons.

Also Tuesday, a trade fair of tobacco-related products was opening at the city's Conventions Palace while the first of several seminars for tobacco experts was getting under way.

The festival's opening Monday night featured a dinner of lobster, beef, chicken and pork, served by candlelight and washed down by Spanish red wine.

Then came the world-famous show under the stars at the historic Tropicana amphitheater, highlighting statuesque women in body stockings accented with a few ruffles and bows.

Balancing towering headdresses dangled with beads and bangles, the sequined dancers pranced and pirouetted across the broad wooden stage as trumpets blared and Congo drums pounded. "Que rico!" -- how rich! -- one singer trilled.

"Ba-ba-LUUUUUU!" a middle-aged male singer in a glittering gold jacket and bow tie crooned from a platform high above the stage. "Ba-ba-LU, ay-EE!" he cried, invoking the Afro-Cuban deity Babalu Aye.

"Cuba is known for three things," orchestra leader Pachito Alonso, son of the late, great bandleader Pacho Alonso told the crowd. "Rum, tobacco -- that's why you are here -- and music! So get up and dance!"


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