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A Night to Remember?

Posted March 17, 2000, 12 p.m. e.s.t.

After an impressive week of plantation and factory visits, tobacco seminars, great smokes and socializing, I expected Il Festival del Habano to end with a bang. Instead, the culmination of the Cuban cigar event was a slight letdown. Held at Havana's Pabexpo convention center on March 3, the gala dinner that closed the five-day event turned political.

Mohamed Zeidan, a Lebanese cigar merchant, paid $230,000 for a hideous humidor that looked like the steel skeleton of Arnold Schwarzenegger's famous Terminator movie character. Zeidan stunned the more than 800 guests from 40 countries when he pledged $100,000 of his bid as a show of solidarity with Elian Gonzalez, the young Cuban boy living in Miami after being found clinging to an inner tube in the Florida Straits more than three months ago. U.S. authorities are still deciding whether he should be returned to his father in Cuba.

For any father like myself, the whole affair is disturbing. Like me, most Cubans I spoke to over the week in Havana think Gonzalez should be returned to his father on the island -- that the Elian controversy is a question of family, not politics. But why bring the whole sad affair into a nonpolitical forum like a cigar festival?

Zeidan, who imports millions of cigars each year to Lebanon, probably had good intentions. (Auction proceeds were used to buy medical supplies for Cuban children.) But the startling gesture came across as a move to better solidify his relations with the Cubans. According to my sources in the Middle East, Cuban cigar sales in Lebanon (approximately 4 million per year) far exceed the per capita consumption of cigars in the country, meaning many of the cigars Zeidan purchases end up in other markets. Stay tuned -- that's a different column.

On a more positive note, approximately $800,000 was raised during the gala dinner. Cuban President Fidel Castro, who attended the event but did not speak, seemed elated with the results. Sitting next to noted Central American author and longtime friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Castro nodded his head in agreement as each lot of cigars sold at the auction went for five- and six-digit figures. The auction, run by Christie's of London free of charge, accounted for $523,000 of the total raised. The remainder of funds came from a $50,000 donation from Pupi d'Angieri, a Palestinian with alleged connections to Yasser Arafat, and Altadis, the French-Spanish conglomerate that recently purchased 50 percent of Habanos S.A., the agency responsible for the worldwide sale and distribution of Cuban cigars.

The seven cigar lots sold ranged from the bizarre (the six-foot bronze human statue holding a humidor bought by Zeidan) to the rare (La Gloria Cubana corona sized cigars, circa 1950). Castro signed each lot. Here is the list of who bought what:

*Pierre Cohen Aknine, the distributor of Cuban cigars for South Korea, paid $44,000 for a humidor commemorating the 125th anniversary of Romeo y Julieta. It contained 50 Churchill-sized cigars as well as 50 large-sized perfectos called Romeos.

*Fotios Soterior, whose identity and connection to the Cuban cigar world no one seems to know, paid $44,000 for a humidor commemorating the 65th anniversary of Montecristo. It contained 100 Churchill-length Robustos, which are 50 ring gauge cigars seven inches long.

*Jose Maria Cases, the agent for Cuban cigars in Andorra, paid $40,000 for a handmade cabinet of Punch cigars. It contained a selection of 100 different cigars, including double coronas and lonsdales.

*Australian Franca Ressi paid $70,000 for a humidor marking the 155th anniversary of Partagas. It included 155 diademas cigars.

*David Tang, the president of Pacific Cigar Co. in Hong Kong, paid $30,000 for two boxes of 1950s-era La Gloria Cubana cigars. Each contained 25 small corona-sized cigars.

*Max Gutmann, the agent for Cuban cigars in Mexico, paid $65,000 for a cabinet in the shape of the colonial castle overlooking Havana called Real Fuerza. It contained 100 San Cristobal de la Habana cigars, 25 each of the brand's four sizes.

*Mohamed Zeidan bought the final lot -- the bronze man/humidor -- for $130,000. Zeidan put the statue back into the auction and paid another $100,000. The lot included 150 cigars: 25 'A'-sized Cohibas, 25 Robusto 'A'-sized Trinidads, 25 Vegas Robania Don Alejandros, 25 Cuaba Salomons, 25 San Cristobal de la Habana El Morros, and 25 Vegueros Dalias.

The Cohiba 'A' (9 1/4" by 47) was the featured smoke of the evening. Not served at a cigar dinner since Cigar Aficionado's Dinner of the Century in Paris in 1994, the Cohiba 'A' smoked like a dream with plenty of mellow, yet rich, flavors.

Many past participants from the United States, most of whom defied U.S. Treasury Department regulations to attend the annual cigar festival, did not attend this year, reportedly, because of the political climate caused by the Elian Gonzalez controversy. Still, a number of Americans traveled to Cuba for the event. "I wasn't going to let politics get in the way of enjoying a good time and a good smoke in Cuba," said one New York businessman. "Everyone couldn't be any nicer in Havana at the moment."

Like I said, politics are politics and a cigar festival should be just a cigar festival. There's nothing worse to taint the good flavor of a Cuban smoke than distasteful politics.

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