He was one of the few wearing green military fatigues at the Cohiba 30th anniversary party in the Tropicana in Havana, but Cuban President Fidel Castro seemed to be having as good a time as anyone in the international crowd who turned out in formal and evening dress.
Castro spent more than an hour addressing the 800 or so guests, speaking about everything from the history of the Cohiba cigar brand to the follies of President Bill Clinton. None of the Hollywood stars, such as Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger, promised by the international press attended the Feb. 28 event, but the surprise appearance of Cuba's commander-in-chief left most of the crowd nearly breathless as the tall, bearded politician gushed with enthusiasm.
With the warm night air laced with the scent of Robusto Especial Cohibas (robusto-thick double coronas made especially for the evening), Castro admitted to the crowd that he "never stopped dreaming about cigars" despite quitting about a decade ago. "Quite often you dream about forbidden things," he playfully said. "Have you ever done that? We all have dreams of things that are forbidden."
About 100 cigar-loving Americans fulfilled at least one of their forbidden dreams and attended the $500-per-person event despite warnings from the U.S. government that they could be prosecuted on their return. "I am not going to let the U.S. government tell me what I can and cannot do," said one businessman from Florida. "I have every right to be here. This is a fabulous occasion."
Said a slightly more mellowed New York businessman, "This is a chance of a lifetime. I am enjoying every moment of it. It was worth taking the chance."
The Cohiba celebrations began well before the main event Friday evening. The world's cigar-smoking cognoscenti began arriving the weekend before, and for nearly a week hit just about every known bar, restaurant, club and shop where good cigars could be found in Havana. The handful of cigar shops were packed every day with customers. Sales were so brisk that some shops looked as if locusts had flown through and cleared their shelves of cigars. There had been a slight price increase shortly before that week, but it didn't seem to deter anyone from buying a few good boxes. Most large-sized cigars were difficult to come by, although a few boxes of robustos, Churchills and double coronas surfaced in stores.
"It is hard to keep up with all the people here," said Michael Gillis, a cigar merchant from Cape Town, South Africa, who came especially for the event. "It's like one big reunion. First you see a friend in a cigar shop and then you see him in a restaurant. It's really quite wonderful." Other events associated with the Cohiba anniversary, all of which were organized by Habanos S.A., the marketing organization for Cuban cigars, included a trip to the plantations of the Vuelta Abajo, Cuba's premium tobacco growing region, and a visit to the newly renovated El Laguito factory (Cohiba's main production facility) as well as a cigar tasting there.
El Laguito, the main factory for Cohiba, was restored to its turn-of-the-century splendor. What had once been a decaying, grimy building with dank and dingy rooms was transformed into an elegant, baronial jewel for the island. "What do you think of my beautiful factory?" asked manager Emilia Tamayo, the vibrant woman who had taken over El Laguito a few years ago and who had masterminded its metamorphosis. "It is a job only a woman can do. I am so proud of my factory."
It's only fitting that Tamayo runs El Laguito. The factory was established in the early 1960s as a school to teach women the intricacies of cigar production. Until then, the cigar factories and rolling rooms in Cuba were almost exclusively male domains. Under the direct order of Castro, El Laguito was created to change this.
Eduardo Rivera Irizarri, who is credited with creating the blend and original unique shapes such as Lanceros for Cohiba, sat next to Tamayo at Friday's festivities. He hadn't worked at El Laguito for years, but he beamed with pride over the new and improved version of his factory. "This was always a wonderful building, but it was never like this," said Rivera, who was the first manager of the factory. "This is how such a great place as El Laguito should be." When you walk into the expansive entrance of the building, its beautiful flowing balustrade stairway stands regally in front of you in freshly painted yellow and white. To the left and right are large livingroom-sized chambers painted in pale blues, pinks and greens, with rows of work benches and dozens of rollers (all wearing black 30th anniversary Cohiba T-shirts) meticulously crafting Coronas Especials, Lanceros, Exquisitos and Panetelas. All the cigar rolling is downstairs; the second floor of the factory is devoted to aging, processing and blending tobacco as well as boxing and aging cigars. Until recently, only the thin sizes of Cohiba were made at El Laguito. Rollers, known as torcedores, began making a few Esplendidos late last year. Other sizes of Cohiba such as Robusto and the five Siglos are made by the Fernando Roig (formerly La Corona), José Martí (H. Upmann) and Francisco Perez German (Partagas) factories, although technicians from El Laguito closely supervise their production.
"I don't think there is a difference [in the blend] between one factory that makes Cohiba or another," Tamayo said. "Our quality technicians check all these factories from the start, checking the quality of the raw material to the finishing touches." However, she did say that small differences may exist due to such factors as the quality of rolling and the rigorousness of the wrapper selection.
Tamayo has plans to bring the entire production of Cohiba under her direct control at El Laguito. Currently, there isn't enough space to expand the factory's production; however, construction of an adjacent building in back of the old one began a few weeks after the party. "I hope that the building will be done by the end of the year," said Tamayo. "You never know. But it will be built in the same style as the original factory."
The original factory with its neoclassical pillars and arched doors and windows was long said to be the former Havana home of the Cuban Count of Pinar del Río. It is located in an area known for its large, stately homes and lies about 15 minutes from the center of Havana. Many of the ambassadors' residences are in the same neighborhood. Recent research by Habanos, however, suggests that before the Revolution, the factory was the home of the Fowler family, which owned the Trust Company of Cuba. It was most likely built during the first two decades of this century.
El Laguito houses about 180 workers and produces about 2 million cigars a year. Rollers vary in number, from about 75 to 100, with another two dozen or so students learning the best techniques. The new factory will enable Tamayo to increase the number of rollers to well over 200, more than doubling her production capability. Currently, the production of all 11 sizes of Cohiba totals about 4 million cigars. Tamayo should be able to reach her goal of integrating Cohiba's total production at El Laguito.
"I don't think it is a better thing that we make all sizes of Cohiba here," she said. "But I think everyone wants to have his or her own control of their work. Personally, Cohiba is my business and I want to do it well."
She certainly did everything she could to produce fabulous cigars for the gala dinner and cabaret show. Attendees had the opportunity to smoke a Panetela, Siglo I, and Siglo IV as well as the specially made Robusto Especial, a cigar measuring 7 inches long by 50 ring gauge. It was finished with a "pigtail" at the end, similar to the Cohiba Lanceros. Only 850 of the Robusto Especials were made for the event. For the moment, there are no plans to commercialize this size, although another 2,250 were made for 45 special humidors, each of which was filled with 50 of the cigars. About 2,000 commemorative ceramic jars holding 25 Siglo V cigars were also produced. They are sold for about $2,000 a piece exclusively in cigar shops in Cuba.
During the dinner, Habanos Men of the Year awards for promoting Cuban cigars around the world were presented: Mohamed Zeidan of Lebanon won the retailer category; Jose Ilario, a publisher in Spain, received the award in the communication category; and Jean Dominique Comolli, head of the French tobacco monopoly SEITA, won for business.
A charity auction followed the awards, offering six lots of various handmade humidors, all signed by Castro and filled with Cohibas. The first lot sold for $37,000 to Swiss cigar merchant Rafael Levy. It included two humidors, one containing 25 Corona Especials, 25 Lanceros and 25 Panetelas and the other holding 25 Cohiba Coronas, a size only made in 1982. The second lot went for $60,000 to Zaidan and included one humidor of 10 Esplendidos, 10 Robustos, 10 Exquisitos, 10 Lanceros and 10 Siglo IIs, and one humidor of 25 Cohiba Torpedos. The latter was first made for a Cigar Aficionado dinner in Paris in 1994, and is not available commercially. Max Gutmann, the agent for Cuban cigars in Mexico, bought the third lot for $45,000. It included one humidor of all five Siglo sizes (10 cigars of each) and another humidor of 25 Cohibas measuring 9 1/4 inches by 47 ring gauge, another cigar that debuted at the Cigar Aficionado Paris dinner.
The next lot sold was not in the pre-dinner brochures for the event, since it was a humidor originally given as a present to Castro. The president decided to donate it to the auction after signing the box. "What am I going to do with a humidor of cigars?" he asked the crowd before the box was sold. "They were given as a gift to me, but everyone knows that I am no longer a smoker." The humidor of 50 Cohiba Robusto Especials were produced especially for the anniversary. Only 45 were made, and Castro's box was the first produced. Londoner Nicholas Freeman, the part owner of Hunters & Frankau, the U.K. agent for Cuban cigars, paid $49,000 for it. The following lot was a similar humidor (No. 30 of 45), which sold for $40,000 to fellow Londoner Edward Sahakian of the Davidoff cigar shop.
The final lot was one of 30 special humidors of 90 cigars covering the 11 Cohiba sizes on the market and designed by the famous Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamin. The bold, tall fruitwood box has a brass insert in the lid, with the figure of a naked woman. The lot also included the original oil painting used as a model for the humidor's top. Bidding began at $60,000 and quickly topped $100,000, halting at $130,000. For a second time, Zaidan come out on top. The money for this lot was earmarked for the artist's project in Quito, Ecuador, called the Chapel of Man. Castro described the chapel, with a large gallery with murals painted by the artist, as one of the most important cultural projects of this century for Latin America.
After the auction, Castro quickly rose to the podium. It was difficult to tell whether such a spectacle of pure capitalism unnerved the famous Communist or thrilled him. But he did point out that over the last four years, charity cigar auctions of humidors and boxes with his signature had raised about $1 million for Cuban medical relief. "This is something incredible," said Castro, almost out of breath from the exhilaration of the sale. "I have never seen anything like this. I have never seen an auction before. This has really made an impression." The leader of the Revolution then gave the auction his own historical perspective: "What was on my mind when my box sold for close to $50,000 was that one or two of those boxes would have paid for a large part of the Revolution when I was in the Sierra Maestra."