Sat, Feb 26, 2011 - Page 16 News List

Cuba on the lips

Aficionados from across the world attended the communist country’s annual Cigar Festival, attracted by the event’s glamor and glitz and, most importantly, world-famous smokes

By VICTORIA BURNETT  /  NY Times News Service, HAVANA

A worker boxes cigars at the state-owned Habanos SA Partagas factory in Havana.

Photo: AGENCIES

Simon Chase, a British sage of the cigar world, stood in an elegant hotel salon here on Wednesday before a select group of aficionados, scrutinizing a box of 1970s cigars for evidence of their proclaimed vintage.

One clue, he said, was the style and quality of the seal on the box. Another was the cigars’ old-fashioned, slightly domed ends, or cabezas tumbada.

The group muttered with interest and lit up, using cedar strips, or spills, to avoid contaminating their cigars with lighter fumes. Gray wisps curled into the air, and a brief hush fell as they solemnly considered the US$90 smokes.

The private tasting by some of Cuban tobacco’s most devoted connoisseurs took place on the fringe of Havana’s Cigar Festival, an annual, five-day whirl of grand receptions, talks and plantation visits organized by Habanos SA, a joint venture between the Cuban government and Britain’s Imperial Tobacco.

The event, much of which is staged at a gloomy 1970s convention center, is a somewhat surreal eruption of luxury in a landscape that, after five decades of Communist rule, is an odd melange of tropical exuberance and stern socialism. Cubans are inveterate smokers, and men and women alike suck on huge tabacos that cost about US$0.04. But with salaries of around US$20 per month, very few islanders could afford even the least expensive offerings from Habanos, whose retail prices on the international market can go as high as about US$80 apiece.

Still, the sale of cigars to wealthy foreigners helps bring in hard currency, which the government desperately needs to finance programs like health and education. At a lavish dinner held yesterday to close the festival, organizers hoped to raise as much as US$1 million for the Cuban public health system from the auction of humidors.

“If you love cigars, Havana is what Jerusalem is to a Christian: the Holy Land,” said Bryan Ng, who owns an oyster bar in Hong Kong and was on his first visit to Cuba.

Some 1,200 retailers, distributors and enthusiasts flocked to the Cuban capital this week to fraternize and indulge their penchant for what many consider the world’s finest tobacco.

Among them was a sprinkling of American cigar lovers, who came through third countries or traveled on religious or humanitarian licenses, arriving in time for the festival. Habanos is banned from selling cigars to the US under the trade embargo, but the company says it accounts for about 80 percent of premium, hand-rolled cigar sales in the rest of the world.

Paul Segal, who had his first cigar in Cuba in 2003 when he was on a humanitarian trip to help the island’s Jewish community, was making his fourth visit to the festival this week, bringing with him medicines and other supplies. At home in San Diego, he smokes Cuban cigars only occasionally, if someone brings them as a gift.

“I’m crazy obsessed for cigars,” he said during a master class where hundreds of participants learned to roll their own. “To see the whole process, from the seed to the leaves to the cigar factory, that’s very cool.”

The question of whether the huge American cigar market would open anytime soon hovered over the festival. Habanos officials said they were not banking on any change in American policy, despite the recent decision to further ease restrictions on travel by Americans.

Chase, a consultant who was in the Cuban cigar trade for decades, said Cuba could, in theory, meet added demand from the US, if allowed. Any loss of cachet that would result from no longer being a forbidden product would be compensated for by added sales, he said.

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