The Miami Herald
Feb. 27, 2002

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.

                      GOOD YEAR

                      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.

                      CUTTING BACK

                      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.''