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Cuba's Cigar Summit

Cigar Lovers the World Over Descended Upon Havana in February to Celebrate the Past, Present and Future of Cuban Cigars
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99

It was no coincidence that Cuban President Fidel Castro joked about the quality and counterfeiting of Cuban cigars during a surprise speech at a gala dinner this February in Havana. The two subjects had been the top concerns for nearly everyone attending a five-day cigar festival called Habanos 2000, a celebration not only of the approaching millennium, but of the past, present and future of Cuban cigars as well. * "We are doing everything we can to combat this problem with counterfeits," said Manuel Garcia, a vice president of Habanos S.A., the government organization that globally markets and distributes Cuban cigars. Habanos organized the event, which attracted more than 1,000 cigar lovers, merchants and producers from around the world. "But there is only so much that you can do. Cuban cigars are like other expensive luxury products, such as Cartier watches or Chanel perfumes. They are all counterfeited." * Despite the widespread concern with counterfeits, the festival organizers devoted only one of the dozens of seminars and speeches to the topic. This left many participants leaving the event with little hope for improvement. "Counterfeiting is a huge problem in

Mexico," said Max Gutmann, the agent for Cuban cigars in that country. More than 2.8 million genuine Cuban cigars were sold there in 1998, but Gutmann estimates that "80 to 90 percent of all Cuban cigars sold in Mexico are counterfeit. We are trying to combat this problem but we are losing the battle." Nicholas Freeman, chairman of the United Kingdom's Cuban cigar agent, Hunters & Frankau, agreed. "Why are you solicited so much for counterfeit ci-gars in Havana?" he asked the panelists of the counterfeit seminar, which included a member of Habanos, a Cuban Customs official and a Canadian private investigator. "Can't it be stopped?"

Wilfredo Rodríguez of Cuban Customs said his organization confiscated about 530,000 fake cigars last year, compared to 275,000 in 1996. "A big problem is that many of the counterfeit cigars come from places outside of Cuba, such as Jamaica and Mexico," he said. To give Cubans their due, recent crackdowns on cigar peddling in the streets of Havana have greatly reduced the number of fake smokes sold to tourists.

The Cubans also may now have to deal with international crime syndicates that are dealing in phony habanos, according to panelist Rick Leswick, a private investigator specializing in counterfeited products in Canada. "Organized crime is involved in cigar counterfeiting now," he told the audience. "It is a good conduit for laundering money...counterfeiting knows no boundaries." He later added that his company had "discovered cocaine cartels that have gotten out of the coke business and into the cigar counterfeiting business. The profits are there but the penalties are not."

"The problem is even worse in America, where people cannot legally buy the real product," said Habanos's Garcia.

Cigar Aficionado estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the "Cuban" cigars in the United States are counterfeit. Only 6 million to 8 million legitimate Cuban cigars enter the United States each year.

Event participants were equally concerned with Cuba's insistence in rapidly increasing its cigar production. In 1998, Cuban factories produced 160 million handmade premium cigars and shipped nearly 130 million by the end of the year. This was a production increase of about 60 percent from 1997 and more than double the exports from just three years ago.

During his keynote speech to 600 guests at a seminar on the state of premium cigars, Marvin Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado, questioned how quality could be maintained with such large increases in production. He urged the Cuban government to rethink its strategy of planned production increases to 200 million cigars for this year and up to 240 million in 2000. (For a transcript of the speech, see "Cigars in the New Millennium," page 206.)

There were no poor quality or fake cigars smoked at the grand finale of the festival, The Dinner of the Millennium. Held at the grounds of the El Laguito Protocol Salon, the venue had been used only for official state events prior to the cigar dinner. More than 1,000 people packed the 1960s-era building, dressed in everything from slinky designer dresses and black woolen dinner jackets to jeans and snakeskin trousers. It was Central Park meets Gorky Park, with just a tiny bit of trailer park.

This was the fourth major gala cigar dinner for the Cubans, and it was clearly their best. The food, service and wine were unmatched for such a large-scale event in Cuba, although much of the success was due to the Spanish Meliá hotel group, which used its own staff for cooking and waiting. The dinner included such ambitious creations as poached salmon steaks stuffed with a fresh vegetable mousse and served with a light cream sauce and caviar. The wines from Spain's Rioja producer, Marques de Riscal, as well as Champagne from Moet & Chandon, put just about everyone in a festive mood. A thick and caramel-like Cognac from the House of Bisquit served at the end of the meal carried a Cohiba label. It's expected to be commercially available this year.

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