Cuba's cigar festival does more than just blow smoke
HAVANA - (AP) -- A broad smile spread across his deeply creased face, world
renowned Cuban tobacco grower
Alejandro Robaina opened this year's international cigar festival inside a 16th-century Spanish fort with lots of
rum, salsa and smoke from the world's most coveted stogies.
''This is a pleasure for me,'' said Robaina, who turns 84 on March 10.
This year's annual Habano Festival
celebrates the fifth anniversary of the cigar brand created in his honor, the Vegas Robaina.
Over at the next table, Cuban leader Fidel Castro's eldest son, Fidelito,
puffed away on a cigar as the music group
Polo Montanez and his band entertained hundreds of foreigners.
About 600 cigar enthusiasts from 47 countries are trying out new brands,
visiting tobacco plantations, and going to
elegant receptions and a $400-a-head dinner traditionally attended by Fidel Castro during the five-day event.
The guest of honor, Robaina said he was also celebrating an especially
good tobacco growing year that yielded
some of the finest cigar wrapper leaves he had seen in some time. The wrapper -- known in Spanish as the capa
-- is the last cover that holds together a hand-crafted cigar and is crucial to ensuring it burns evenly and provides
an exceptional smoke.
''We have had a special year,'' he said. ``We now have wrappers to last for two or three years.''
The general quality of the overall tobacco crop in the last year has been
high, as well as the quality of the finished
cigars, Robaina said.
Nevertheless, he admitted that exports had fallen in recent months, especially
since the start of a world recession
aggravated by last September's terrorist attacks.
Cuba's cigars are among the world's most expensive. A box of 25 Cohíba
''espléndidos'' costs $383.75 at one of
Havana's many tobacco retail shops.
At least 70 percent of the Cuban cigar exports go to Europe. The other
30 percent is divided among other world
markets, including the Middle East, Asia and Canada. The U.S. trade embargo on communist Cuba prohibits the
sale of Cuban cigars in the United States.
Shortly before last year's festival, Habanos S.A., a mixed enterprise operated
50-50 by the Cuban government
and the French-Spanish company Altadis, announced that in 2000 the country had produced 153 million cigars for
export, up from 118 million in 1999. Habanos S.A., which sponsors the festival, has not issued any export figures
for the past 12 months.
Castro's government has honored Robaina numerous times over the years.
Robaina has worked in his family's tobacco growing business in western
Pinar del Río province since he was 10.
He admits that he has started to turn over many of the larger responsibilities of the enterprise to his son and his
grandson. But he denied recent reports that he is planning to quit.
''I could never retire,'' he said. ``I could never stop working.''