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Havana Corner: Cuba's Cigar Lovefest

Posted: March 1, 2004
Where's Fidel?

Those were the two words uttered in just about every modern language imaginable during the gala dinner on Friday night, February 27, at the VI Festival del Habano, Cuba's lovefest for its most prestigious product, the great cigar. People came from just about every major country in the world for what has been traditionally a good night of entertainment and camaraderie, and Fidel Castro always had been part of it until the recent past. Not this year, amigo.

In fact, it was the second year that the green-fatigue-clad leader of the island didn't make it to the event. Last year he was in the Far East on diplomatic business. This year there was no word on why he didn't come. Maybe he decided to watch the event on television? I saw most of the evening's happenings from a 27-inch television screen about 20 feet from my table that beamed the event by closed circuit to attendees with bad seats. I felt as if I were watching a new reality television program on Cuba and cigars.

The dinner was held at an events center in the area of El Laguito in Havana, a plush neighborhood where many diplomats and wealthy foreign businessmen live. Tables were set in front of a huge pool with a massive stage complete with 100-foot video screens and giant speakers. Guests clad in dinner jackets and elegant evening gowns sat at round candlelit tables, eating and smoking cigars as they listened to a mix of Cuban bands and watched various modern dance groups. The theme seemed to revolve around the glamour and richness of the cigar, and movie clips periodically played on the video screens and televisions showing various cigar-related scenes, such as Michael Douglas smoking in his office in Wall Street.

The cigars smoked at the event were of good quality, except for the cocktail cigar. My Montecristo No. 5 was plugged. The other three cigars were good but rather too young: a Coloniales de Trinidad, a Siglo VI and a special size of San Cristobal de la Habana made for the evening, a rounded-head double corona called the 109. Maybe it was because we were smoking outside, but I found all of them a little flat.

One of the big complaints of the gala dinners over the last six years has been the less than exciting selection of the cigars. Many people bring their own—I had a Punch Double Corona 1995 for my cocktail smoke this year. The food and wine served at Friday night's event was good by Cuban standards.

Nonetheless, the gala dinner was one of the best in memory for the festival. The venue was gorgeous, bringing a class and sophistication that had never been experienced in the event's history. Moreover, close to $440,000 was raised for the island's Ministry of Public Health during an auction partway through the dinner. The sale included five lots of large handcrafted humidors filled with special cigars. The last lot sold for about $250,000 to Altadis S.A., the European company that owns half of Habanos. Made by Cuban craftsman Raul Valladares Valdes, the humidor included a bronze and silver sculpture of two "Terminator"—like hands trimming a tobacco leaf with a chavetta. It was obviously an homage to all cigar rollers in Cuba. The large pedestal it stood on was the humidor and contained 150 Cohiba cigars, 25 each of the following: Siglo VI, Lanceros, Esplendidos, Siglo V, Piramides and Robusto Specials.

Of course, Altadis doesn't need the humidor: it already owns the company. But its quarter of a million-dollar bid was necessary to bring the total turnover of the auction to an admirable level. Fidel Castro had signed all the humidors beforehand, but it just was not the same without the comadante in attendance. I doubt Castro will ever come to the event again.

I saw a beautiful Swiss woman I knew wearing a gorgeous black evening frock as people left the event, and I asked her how she found the evening. She was almost in tears. "Terrible," she said. I thought she might have found the food or cigars less to her liking. "Fidel didn't come again this year," she shrieked.

The morning after the event, I thought about that lovely lady, and I was sorry she was obviously upset. However, perhaps the event, the festival at large, has already outgrown Castro? It has its own life. Thousands of people come to the island during the week of the festival to join in what has become a celebration of cigars and Cuban culture. You run into cigar aficionados in hotels, restaurants, clubs, cigar shops and Habanos events. In fact, the large majority of the smokers who are in Cuba during the festival don't attend the events. Or they attend one or two of the various cocktail parties, seminars and dinners.

I see many familiar faces all over Havana—a number of them from the United States—and they all have a large smile on their faces and a good Cuban cigar in their hands. They all understand that there is something very special, almost unique about smoking a cigar in Havana. And that's what the festival is all about—with or without Fidel.


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