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Cuban festival draws cigar aficionados from all over the world

Ray Sanchez
South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT)

HAVANA - For some Americans, Cuba's annual cigar festival is an enticing, forbidden fruit for which they risk hefty fines for violating the U.S. ban on travel to the island.

"We don't do anything illegal against the government policies," said Prabpeet Singh, 45, a heart surgeon and Stanford University professor from San Jose, Calif. "But I think to visit any country is the basic right of a human being. We are not taking in any contraband. We just enjoy and finish the cigars here and we go back."

Cuba's 9th annual Habanos Festival, which ended Friday night with a lavish $500-a-head banquet, drew more than 1,000 aficionados from more than 40 countries for a sampling of new product lines, tours of factories where the cigars are hand rolled and visits to tobacco plantations hours outside Havana.

No participants were more tight-lipped than the dozens of Americans who slipped onto the island illegally through Canada or Mexico for the five-day celebration of the world's finest cigars. Under Washington's 43-year-old trade embargo, U.S. citizens and residents are prohibited from traveling to the island in an attempt to stem the flow of dollars to the communist government.

Singh, a cardiothoracic surgeon who traveled here with six other doctors, said he has been smoking Cuban cigars for 27 years, longer than he has been poking into the chests of his patients. He insisted he was not breaking the law by spending money in Cuba though admission to all festival events alone was nearly $1,300.

"I don't see it as a violation," he said, echoing other Americans at the festival. "It's a personal right."

While Bush administration officials have remained adamant about their commitment to the embargo and travel ban, many Americans, including members of Congress, have called for easing restrictions. Last week, Sen. Mike Enzi, a Republican from Wyoming, cosponsored a bill that would remove all restrictions for Americans traveling to Cuba. Nine other senators cosponsored the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act.

"I hope the Americans open up to Cuba," said Singh, a regular at the annual cigar festival. "I think over a period of time they will open up."

Another group of Americans at the festival, mostly real estate men and software designers from Arizona, sipped aged Havana Club rum and puffed aged Habanos at the cigar trade fair on Thursday. They declined to give their names or say how they traveled to Cuba.

"We come legally through a group but we can't bring any cigars back," one man said, declining to elaborate. "You don't want to jeopardize the people that sponsored us."

"Take it down," another said of the U.S. embargo. "It doesn't matter if it has worked or not. It's mean spirited and petty."

"The embargo is ineffective because Europe and Canada are pouring billions into here," another American chimed in.

Habanos S.A., is a joint venture between the Cuban government and the Spanish-French tobacco firm Altadis. A third of the 400 million hand-rolled cigars sold in the world each year are Habanos, but they are banned in the U.S. under the trade sanctions.

Javier Terres, a vice president, said no figures were available on how many Cuban cigars are consumed or sold illegally every year in the United States. While half of the world's cigars are smoked in the U.S., Cuba has 75 percent of the premium cigar market. Sales of Habanos' premium hand-rolled cigars rose 8 percent to $370 million last year despite public smoking bans around the world, officials said.

The festival included bus trips to one of the island's main tobacco-growing regions in the western province of Pinar del Rio.

Jesus Menendez, 39 and a father of two, has been working in one of the plantations for four years. When asked how much he earned, his boss, standing nearby, quickly interrupted.

"Nine-hundred pesos," the boss said, or about $40, nearly four times the salary for most state workers.

"Nine-hundred pesos," Menendez repeated. "But I can't wait until the end of the month to get paid. I ask for an advance every couple of days. Times are tough."

Asked if he ever smoked a Habanos, Menendez smiled. "Never tasted one. I can't. That's for the people over there," he said, pointing to the foreigners taking the tour.

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