By ANITA SNOW
HAVANA (AP) -- Billowing smoke cast a veil across the room as hundreds
of businessmen from around the world puffed on Cuban cigars and bid tens
of thousands of dollars on humidors at an auction attended by President
Among the highest prices bid in the early morning hours of Saturday:
$130,000 for a wooden humidor set in a 6-foot-tall bronze sculpture of a
man holding a cigar.
The auction, conducted by Christie's of London, was the final event in
weeklong second annual International Habano Festival.
After the auction, organizers said that $800,000 collectively was raised
the purchase of medicines for Cuban children from the sale of seven fancy
humidors filled with premium cigars.
"This is my first visit here and I'm sure to come back next year," said
38-year-old American real estate investor who gave his name only as Jeff in
apparent fear of getting into trouble with the U.S. government for traveling to
the communist island. He wouldn't give his hometown.
"I've smoked about 20 cigars since I got here three days ago and have a
more days to go," said the man, who wore a specially made white
long-sleeved shirt with metal buttons fashioned like a hand holding a cigar.
Under U.S. Treasury Department regulations, legal travel by most
Americans to Cuba is made impossible by restrictions on spending money
on the island. U.S. citizens who break those regulations can receive written
warnings and even fines if the government discovers they traveled to Cuba
without a special license.
Officials of Habanos S.A., the national cigar company, say that the United
States remains the largest potential market for Cuban cigars because of its
geographic proximity and American fascination with the product.
But the U.S. embargo of nearly 40 years blocks the importation of Cuban
cigars into the United States. Nevertheless, cigar company officials here
estimate that about 6 million cigars annually enter the United States as
There was a smattering of Americans in the group of about 800 lovers of
Cuban tobacco who dined in candlelight and with classical music at the
"cigar dinner" held before the auction at Havana's Pabexpo convention
center. But, like the real estate investor, they were reluctant to talk with
The $350-a-plate meal that began Friday night featured lobster cooked in
Havana Club rum, pumpkin soup, Moet & Chandon Champagne and a
dessert of raspberries and blackberries soaked in rum and arranged next to
a large piece of chocolate shaped like a tobacco leaf. White and red Chilean
wine flowed, and Cohiba and Punch brand cigars were offered between
Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and Vice President Carlos Lage were
the highest ranking Cuban officials at the dinner.
But after the plates were whisked away, diners burst into applause as Castro
showed up around midnight in his traditional olive green uniform for the
auction. Castro, a former cigar smoker, gave up the habit years ago.
Positioned at a table near the auctioneer, he sat next to Colombian writer
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a longtime friend and frequent visitor to the island.
Although Castro's attendance was not announced ahead of time, it was
largely anticipated. The 73-year-old leader, now in his 41st year in power,
signed the auctioned humidors and personally greeted every participant
when the dinner finished in the early hours of Saturday.
He also commented to reporters on the two main issues absorbing his
interest in recent weeks, criticizing the United States for not moving more
quickly to return 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez to his father in Cuba and insisting
on the innocence of a Cuban diplomat expelled from the United States last
week because of suspicions of espionage.
Natayla Bondarenko, a Russian woman who imports and distributes Cuban
cigars in Moscow, said she hoped that the new partnership announced
several weeks ago between Habanos S.A. and the European firm Altadis
will help business in Moscow, where Cuban cigars are in great demand.
Habanos in early February sold 50 percent of its shares for $500 million
Altadis, a partnership of Tabacalera of Spain and Seita of France, which
collectively control 25 percent of the world cigar market.
Cuba exported 148 million cigars last year, of which 128 million were
hand-rolled. Western Europe is the largest market for Cuban cigars --
accounting for 90 million cigars, or 65.5 percent of the total.
Copyright 2000 The Associated Press.