The Miami Herald
Wed, Feb. 25, 2004

In Havana, hundreds roll in for cigar festival

HAVANA - (AP) -- With fireworks exploding over an old Spanish fort on Havana Bay, Cuba's Habanos Festival opened this week, drawing hundreds of foreigners for the annual tribute to the island's world famous cigars.

Several hundred people gathered Monday night on the grounds of La Cabana fort, where they were invited to try a special San Cristobal brand cigar made for the sixth annual Habanos Festival.

About 500 cigar merchants and other foreigners were expected at the event running through Friday, said Miguel Campoy, an executive of Habanos S.A., the Cuban-Spanish firm that markets the island's cigars abroad and the festival organizer.

Cigar smoke filled the air over the fort as diners were entertained by salsa music and tropical dancers. Classic Harley-Davidson motorcycles from the 1950s were on display.

Unlike past years, no foreign celebrities or high-ranking government officials were seen at the opening event.

Probably the most recognizable person seen Monday was President Fidel Castro's son, Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart, who sat at a table close to the stage. The younger Castro plays no role in the island's communist government.

Foreigners were paying $1,200 each for the five-day program, which includes visits to tobacco fields and factories, and a final elegant ''Cigar Dinner'' Friday night, traditionally attended by Fidel Castro.

The dinner will be followed by an auction of elaborate humidors fashioned of mahogany and other hardwoods and autographed by Castro. Although the bearded revolutionary gave up cigars decades ago, he continues to champion one of Cuba's most important exports.