February 26, 2003.
Hundreds of Cigar Lovers Gather in Cuba
By Anita Snow, Associated Press Writer. Tue Feb 25, 1:41 PM
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
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,"
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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."
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
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
"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
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
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
"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."