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Foreigners Flock to Cigar Festival

March 1, 2002

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SAN JOSE Y MARTINEZ, Cuba (AP) _ There are certain incongruities to be sure, but the often well-to-do stogie lovers from abroad come back each year for the cigar festival in Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba.

Straw hats on heads, cameras in hand, foreigners by the hundreds are making the annual pilgrimage to the green tobacco fields and curing houses for an insider’s look at the world-famous Cuban cigar business.

Cuba’s annual Habano Festival wrapped up Friday night with an elegant $400-a-head ``cigar dinner″ at the newly renovated Fine Arts Museum in Old Havana. The annual event is sponsored by Cuban tobacco concern Habanos S.A., operated by the government in partnership with the French-Spanish company Altadis.

``My favorite part has been seeing the plantations,″ said Mano Cheung, deputy shop manager of the Pacific Cigar Company Ltd. in Hong Kong. ``As sellers, we want to learn more about the cigars we sell, to see where they come from.″

The Hong Kong merchant spoke after a Wednesday morning tour of the fields of Hoyo de Monterrey brand cigars. The group also visited a weather-beaten two-story wooden curing house where rows of women from their teens to their 60s sorted tobacco leaves on old wooden tables that looked like school desks.

``This is my life,″ said Nelida Blanco, a tobacco worker for 34 of her 68 years. ``Even my husband is a custodian here,″ she said in the workroom where columns were decorated with faded pastel-hued portraits of revolutionary heroes such as Fidel Castro and Ernesto ``Che″ Guevara.

There was also a trade show, an art exhibit with a tobacco theme, and scientific seminars for those who grow the plant that has been an important cash crop here since the 16th century.

More than 600 people from 47 countries traveled here for this year’s event. There were, among the tobacco merchants, just plain tourists out for a good time.

Most of the estimated 60 Americans in the crowd were of the tourist variety, excepting James Suckling. He’s the U.S.-born European editor of New York-based Cigar Aficionado magazine.

While Cuban cigars are coveted the world over for their high-quality, Americans especially seek them out because they are ``the forbidden fruit,″ Suckling said between the receptions and cigar testings.

``Americans have always been fascinated by cigars, especially Cuban cigars″ said Suckling, who has been with the magazine since it began publishing in 1992.

Because of the four-decade old American trade embargo against Cuba, cigars from the island cannot be legally sold in the United States. Nevertheless, Suckling claimed that 6 to 8 million of them are illegally imported each year.

Cigar Aficionado, a slick magazine that rates Cuban and other cigars ``helped make cigar smoking chic and trendy″ in the United States, Suckling said. ``Soon all the stars were smoking, and then there were the American cigar bars.″

While the U.S. furor over Cuban cigars began to wane a bit in the late 1990s, some serious cigar smokers emerged from the craze. Many people were just showing off, he said. ``But others became serious cigar lovers.″

Serious aficionados were among patrons of the new Casa del Habano in Pinar del Rio, which opened this week in conjunction with the festival.

There, in a walk-in humidor, Jorge Luis Milan Dominguez keeps special cedar lined lockers for European clients who want favorite brands set aside and a first chance to buy ``exclusives″ _ the coveted limited editions of special cigars.

The Casas del Habano are the franchise retail stores of Habanos S.A. and the new one in Pinar del Rio was overdue, cigar enthusiasts here say.

``Cuba has the best tobacco in the world,″ Milan said as he sat in a high-backed leather chair in the midst of towers of cigar boxes. ``And, of course, Pinar del Rio has the best tobacco in Cuba.″

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