February 26, 2003

Cuba News / Yahoo!

Yahoo! February 26, 2003.

Hundreds of Cigar Lovers Gather in Cuba

By Anita Snow, Associated Press Writer. Tue Feb 25, 1:41 PM ET

HAVANA - "Que rrrrrrrrrrrrrico!" the Tropicana nightclub singer trilled, strutting in plumed headdress and ruffled train through a cloud of cigar smoke as hundreds of tobacco aficionados paid homage this week to the world's finest stogies.

About 900 people traveled to Havana for the Fifth Annual Habanos Festival, which began Monday night at the city's historic Tropicana. The celebration includes visits to tobacco plantations and cigar factories, and meetings of collectors of cigar memorabilia.

The high point of the yearly gathering is the elegant cigar dinner and auction on Friday night. But President Fidel Castro, who has traditionally attended and helped auction off elaborate humidors stuffed with special cigars for tens of thousands of dollars, was not expected back in time from his current Asian tour.

A new event this year will be a fashion show of clothing created for the tobacco festival by Christian Dior and other international fashion houses.

The Habanos Festival comes as the island struggles to overcome damage to the industry caused by last year's pair of hurricanes in the tobacco-growing western province of Pinar del Rio.

It also comes as the communist-run government fights a growing business in counterfeit cigars. Although often made with stolen Cuban tobacco, the fake stogies carry falsified cigar rings and are packaged in fake boxes marked with well-known labels — Cohiba, Partagas, Romeo y Julieta. Customs officials here reported seizing about 720,000 cigars of dubious origin last year from departing travelers at airports.

Nevertheless, Habanos S.A., the Cuban cigar marketing firm, maintains that exports have not been significantly affected. While refusing to give exact numbers for cigars produced and exported last year, Jaime Garcia of Habanos S.A. told reporters recently that annual export income from cigars remained steady at about $240 million.

"We are expecting an increase" in 2003 export sales, Garcia said earlier this month during a news conference about the cigar festival. Habanos S.A. is a partnership of the Cuban government and the European firm Altadis to market the island's cigars worldwide.

Festival participants visited an exclusive cigar factory Tuesday in the western "El Laguito" section of the city where many of the country's foreign diplomats live.

"Making a cigar is an art," factory director Maria Emilia Tamayo Gonzalez told hundreds of visitors who filed past rows of tobacco workers fashioning the brown leaves into coveted Cohiba cigars.

"This factory has a very beautiful story because it was established by Comandante Fidel Castro with the idea of bringing women into the workplace," Tamayo said.

Factory workers said Castro exclusively smoked Cohibas from their shop before he gave up cigars years ago for health reasons.

Also Tuesday, a trade fair of tobacco-related products was opening at the city's Conventions Palace while the first of several seminars for tobacco experts was getting under way.

The festival's opening Monday night featured a dinner of lobster, beef, chicken and pork, served by candlelight and washed down by Spanish red wine.

Then came the world-famous show under the stars at the historic Tropicana amphitheater, highlighting statuesque women in body stockings accented with a few ruffles and bows.

Balancing towering headdresses dangled with beads and bangles, the sequined dancers pranced and pirouetted across the broad wooden stage as trumpets blared and Congo drums pounded. "Que rico!" — how rich! — one singer trilled.

"Ba-ba-LUUUUUU!" a middle-aged male singer in a glittering gold jacket and bow tie crooned from a platform high above the stage. "Ba-ba-LU, ay-EE!" he cried, invoking the Afro-Cuban deity Babalu Aye.

"Cuba is known for three things," orchestra leader Pachito Alonso, son of the late, great bandleader Pacho Alonso told the crowd. "Rum, tobacco — that's why you are here — and music! So get up and dance!"

Cuba's Roman Catholic Church calls on government to be more compassionate

By Andrea Rodriguez, Associated Press Writer. Tue Feb 25,10:59 AM ET

HAVANA - Cuba's Roman Catholic Church called on the communist-run government to soften its traditionally heavy hand and be more compassionate with its citizens.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Cuba's top Catholic churchman, signed the pastoral letter made public Monday night at a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Rev. Felix Varela, a priest beloved by Christians and communists alike as a powerful voice for the nation's independence from Spain.

"The hour has come to pass from being a legalistic state that demands sacrifices and settles accounts to a merciful state willing to offer a compassionate hand before imposing controls and punishing infractions," said the document.

Nevertheless, the letter noted the importance of the government's continued prosecution of violent crime, drug use and trafficking, "and all that corrupts and damages other people."

"Many of our brethren have returned to the church in Cuba looking for guidance about the future because there exists in Cuban society a diffuse and generalized fear about what is to come," the cardinal wrote.

The letter also bemoaned this Caribbean island's widespread sexual promiscuity, high abortion and divorce rates, and men who abandon their families.

"In Cuba, the matriarch is progressively becoming an institution and the crisis of the father is increasingly affecting boys as much as girls," the document said.

The prelate also mentioned poverty as a factor in the disintegration of Cuban families, as well as an important reason for emigrating to other countries.

"Although schooling and health care are free, salaries in general do not cover the cost of living," the document said. For many families, it added, the solution is "to leave Cuba."


No hay patria sin virtud / Cardenal Jaime Ortega Alamino

State-funded Cuban ballet company produces world class dancers

By Mar Roman, Associated Press Writer Tue Feb 25,10:02 Pm Et .

HAVANA - It's hot and muggy in the dance studio at Cuba's National Ballet, but the aspiring ballerinas don't seem to notice as they twirl and execute their moves to the piano music with scrupulous precision.

Only a few of these dancers will chosen to be the next Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella at Havana's elegant Gran Teatro. But all remain hopeful, keeping up their daily ballet classes and rehearsals.

"My childhood dream was to be a ballerina, like any Cuban girl" says 26-year-old Viengsay Valdes.

After slipping into her first ballet slippers at age 9, Valdes went on to become one of the few top ballet dancers in a country where the masses, not the elite, are the true classical dance aficionados and the ballet company is among the best in the world.

As Valdes leaves the studio, dozens of girls between 5 and 8 years old file into the room in their colorful leotards, forming lines to await their first ballet steps — and their first taste of the discipline that classical dance requires.

"In Cuba, dancing is so important because it is part of our culture," Valdex said, referring to the island's mix of African and Spanish roots.

Funded by the island's communist-run government, Cuba's classical dance program is world-class, training dancers for a company that has performed in 58 countries and received about 300 international awards.

Founded by Cuban's living ballet legend Alicia Alonso in 1948, the National Ballet of Cuba has managed to forge its own style out of old Russian and Western techniques.

Alonso, an 82-year-old former prima ballerina, retains a strong grip over the company, even though she now has trouble moving and can barely see.

A familiar figure with her proud, turban-wrapped head and wide mouth, Alonso erected Cuba's classical dance program from the ground, training several generations of dancers highly sought by some of the world's best ballet companies.

After having been the company's director, choreographer and teacher, Alonso still decides what the dancers will wear, who will go abroad, with whom they will dance, what they will dance.

Alonso has counted on the support of President Fidel and his revolutionary government since the early years.

"After the revolution triumphed in 1959, Fidel knocked on Alonso's door to offer the new government's help and he promised that he would make (ballet) available to all social classes," said Miguel Cabrera, ballet school historian.

"The government paid for everything from the building to rehearsals, salaries and ballet shoes," Cabrera added.

As a top dancer, Valdes receives a government salary similar to that of an important scientist or doctor: about 600 Cubans pesos (about US$25) a month.

She has toured with the Cuban ballet and as a guest with foreign companies, giving part of her foreign earnings to the government.

"Now my target is to achieve international recognition," said Valdes. "But I will always be linked to this ballet and to my country."


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