Oddly Enough

Castro signing cigar humidors for big Habanos fest

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cigar aficionados should not expect to see ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro strut out to greet them at the annual Habanos festival, but they will be able to bid for humidors signed by him.

The maker of Cuba’s famous hand-rolled cigars said on Tuesday that five elaborate humidors to be signed by Castro will be auctioned for charity at the closing gala dinner on March 2.

“There’ll be five humidors signed by the Comandante,” said Enrique Babot, marketing director for Habanos S.A., a joint venture between Cuba’s communist state and Spanish-French tobacco group Altadis.

The chance to meet Castro has drawn well-heeled cigar smokers from across the world to the lavish banquets each year, but the aging revolutionary has missed the last three.

Emergency intestinal surgery forced him to relinquished power to his brother Raul Castro on July 31. He has not reappeared in public since. A video clip released two weeks ago showed the 80-year-old leader had put on weight but still looked frail.

Humidors signed by Castro and filled with Cuban cigars were auctioned for 610,000 euros ($730,000) last year. The proceeds go to cancer research in Cuba.

Castro, once a cigar-chomping guerrilla, gave up cigars in 1986 and has said tobacco is a poison and boxes of cigars are best given to one’s enemies.

Some 1,300 aficionados and retailers are expected for the Habanos festival starting Feb 26.

For five days they will puff away at the world’s finest cigars, tour factories to see the cigars being rolled by hand and visit tobacco plantations outside Havana.

The Cuban cigar industry will unveil an entirely aged version of the Montecristo No. 4, perhaps the top-selling cigar ever, Babot said. The Reserva de Montecristo will have binder and filler leaves, not just the wrapper, that have been fermented and aged for three years, as Cuba moves to add value to its sales.

Habanos’ sales rose 10 percent last year to $370 million, despite the fact that Cuban cigars are barred from the United States, the world’s largest market for cigars.

“U.S. trade sanctions have not affected our sales. On the contrary, there is more and more demand for Habanos in other places,” Babot said.

More than 400,000 cigars are sold each year worldwide, half of them in the United States. Cuba sells 60 percent of its cigar output to Europe where smoking restrictions have begun to hurt sales, and is looking to Asia for sales growth.