Humidors Raise Handsome Sum in Cuba

The Associated Press
Saturday, March 3, 2007; 8:19 PM

HAVANA -- Wealthy cigar aficionados toasted the health of ailing leader Fidel Castro and shelled out $728,000 at an annual auction of elaborate humidors that for the first time did not bear the signature of the 80-year-old revolutionary.

Proceeds from the Friday night auction of five wooden-and-bronze humidors stuffed with hundreds of the island's exclusive hand-rolled cigars will go to Cuba's health care system.

The amount raised was similar to past years. But this year's auction, during a dinner at the close of the annual Habanos cigar festival, was the first in the festival's nine years that Castro had not signed the humidors. It was the fourth year he did not attend the closing gala dinner in person.

"The president has not been well. I am sure that you will join me in wishing him a full return to health," said auctioneer Simon Chase, leading a toast among the hundreds of cigar connoisseurs from around the world before he opened the bidding on the chests filled with famous Cuban cigar brands such as Cohiba and Montecristo.

The bearded guerrilla who ruled Cuba for 47 years ceded his power to his brother Raul in late July after undergoing intestinal surgery and has not appeared in public since.

Although he gave up smoking years ago for health reasons, Castro himself had regularly attended the festival's gala dinner during the early years of the annual event launched in 1999 to celebrate Cuba's premium cigars. His expected appearance each year became a major draw for the hundreds of cigar fanatics from around the world.

About 800 people from more than 40 nations attended this year's elegant dinner wrapping up five days of seminars on the qualities of Cuba's finest smokes, as well as trips to tobacco fields, curing houses and cigar factories.

Paying $550 a head, they dined on a seafood appetizer with lobster, shrimp, salmon, vegetables and caviar and a salted beef filet with mushrooms in guava sauce. Each dish was accompanied by a different wine and special cigar. Dessert was chocolate mousse with fruit.

Through Habanos S.A., a partnership of the Cuban government and the Spanish-French tobacco firm Altadis, the island produces more than a third of the world's cigars for export, with sales of $370 million last year. Although a trade embargo on the island prevents Cuba from marketing its cigars in the United States, its hand-rolled smokes are highly popular among Americans and numerous Americans attend the Habanos festival each year.

© 2007 The Associated Press