March 4, 2000
Cigar lovers celebrate world's most famous tobacco at Havana auction

                   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
                   Fidel Castro.

                   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 the
                   weeklong second annual International Habano Festival.

                   After the auction, organizers said that $800,000 collectively was raised for
                   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 a
                   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 few
                   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 to
                   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.