March 2, 2002

Castro lends presence to annual cigar festival

                 HAVANA, Cuba (AP) -- A playful Fidel Castro entertained hundreds of
                 foreign cigar aficionados at a black-tie dinner and auction, joking with his
                 guests and modeling a popular Cuban musician's little white sombrero before
                 it was sold to the highest bidder.

                 "I'm not going to give a speech -- which is lucky for you!" Castro told the 600
                 guests, including some 60 Americans, who traveled to Cuba for the annual Habanos
                 Festival celebrating the communist island's tobacco. The Cuban leader's political
                 speeches often last several hours.

                 Dressed in his trademark olive green uniform at the dinner Friday night, Castro tried
                 on a sombrero owned by Company Segundo, who gained fame abroad in 1997 with
                 "Chan Chan" on the Buena Vista Social Club album that brought traditional Cuban
                 sounds to people around the world.

                 Castro, 75 and in power for 42 years, appeared relaxed and happy after a two-day
                 standoff at the Mexican Embassy in Havana was resolved. Early Friday morning,
                 Cuban authorities acting at Mexico's request evicted 21 men who had crashed
                 through the embassy gates in a stolen bus.

                 Castro traditionally attends the dinner at the festival. Foreign Minister Felipe Perez
                 Roque and Vice President Carlos Lage were also at the event at the newly renovated
                 Fine Arts Museum in Old Havana.

                 Company Segundo, whose real name is Francisco Repilado, offered the crowd an a
                 cappella version of "Chan Chan." As smoke from hundreds of cigars fi lled the
                 room, many joined in a sing-along, clapping their hands to keep time.

                 The auction, which featured luxurious humidors made of cedar and mahogany and
                 filled with a variety of exclusive cigars, wrapped up early Saturday and raised
                 $653,200 to be donated to the Cuban health system, Cuba's Prensa Latina news
                 agency said.

                 Diners ate lobster and shrimp mousse, duck a l'orange, a variety of Cuban cheeses
                 and rich chocolates, all washed down with European wines. There were breaks
                 between courses to sample Vegas Robaina cigars -- a brand that celebrated its fifth
                 anniversary at the festival.

                 It was the second year in a row that a hat owned by Company Segundo was
                 auctioned at the event. Brazilian businessman Pupi D'Angeieri offered the top bid of
                 $20,000, said Bernardo Gonzalez, spokesman for Cuban tobacco concern Habanos
                 S.A., the festival sponsor.

                 Habanos S.A. controls Cuba's entire cigar market and is operated by the
                 government in partnership with the French-Spanish company Altadis.

                 People from 47 countries came this year to celebrate Cuba's cigars, marketed under
                 such brands as Cohiba, Partagas, Romeo y Julieta, Montecristo and Punch.

                 The five-day festival included a trade show, trips to the tobacco-growing region of
                 the western province of Pinar del Rio, and a tobacco-themed art exhibit.

                  Copyright 2002 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.