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Havana Corner: Hot Nights, Cool Days in Havana

Posted: March 11, 2003

Relaxed and cool is the best way to describe this year's cigar festival in Havana, when Cuba's capital was full of cigar lovers from all over the world.

President Fidel Castro's absence from the gala dinner, which concluded five days of parties, dinners, seminars and visits to tobacco plantations and cigar factories, highlighted the relaxed nature of the event. Castro was in the Far East visiting China and Japan during the festival, which began February 24 and ended February 28.

However, the absence of Cuba's supreme leader certainly affected the charity auction of special lots of cigars held during the gala dinner. Most of the lots sold for well below expected prices. Take, for example, the sensational handcrafted dresser full of 2,000 cigars, including all the major brands produced in Cuba as well as many special sizes such as Bolivar Gold Medal, Partagas Salomon No. 2 and Cohiba Gran Corona. It sold for $60,000, when the suggested price was more in the region of $100,000. Two lots did not even attract bidders during the auction, until Altadis, the part owner of Habanos S.A., offered to pay a total of $232,500 for them.

Nonetheless, the auction managed to raise half a million dollars for the Cuban Ministry of Public Health. Last year's sale raised $653,000. "The auction still went very well," said Gonzalo Fernandez de Navarrete, of Habanos, the global marketing and distribution company for Cuban cigars and the event's organizer. He added that all the lots were signed by Castro. (Click here to see each lot and its respective sale price.) "We can't always rely on Castro being there," he said. "The event has to stand on its own."

The Festival del Habano almost has become more than a cigar event to the island. It has become a celebration of the best the island has to offer in culture, from great music to superb smokes.

Besides a welcome cocktail reception at the Tropicana Club that included the introduction of two new sizes of Trinidad -- the Robusto A (a 7-inch, 50-ring gauge Robusto and the Coloniales, a 6-3/4-inch, 44 ring size known as an eminentes) -- the fashion dinner was the event of the five-day celebration.

It was a wild combination of outrageous Cuban music, gorgeous Cuban women and opulent food, wine and cigars. Held at a government protocol house near the El Laguito cigar factory, the dinner featured a 100-foot catwalk, giant murals of tobacco plantations and huge-screen videos. Some of Cuba's hottest supermodels were enlisted to strut their stuff in front of the mezmorized dinners. The models, wearing clothes from Christian Dior and Maurizio Galante as well as Cuban designers., included Carla Paneca, a former Miss World, and "la China" Yoandra Suarez, a popular movie star on the island. The show also featured standup gigs by such famous bands as Sintesis, X Alfonso, Chucho Valdés and Egberto Gismonti.

The entertainment finished around 11:30 p.m., leaving many of the participants on an energetic high. Hundreds piled out of the event and immediately drove to the nearby nightclub, Macumba, to finish the evening with more music, more women, more rum and more cigars.

Attendance for the seminars on Friday was rather low, and many of those present looked weary but content. However, sleep was never listed as a required part of the festival program.

Photos courtesy of Havana Production Co.


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