- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 3, 2002

HAVANA A playful Fidel Castro entertained hundreds of international cigar aficionados at a black tie dinner and auction, joking with his guests and modeling a popular Cuban musician's little white sombrero before it was sold to the highest bidder.
"I'm not going to give a speech which is lucky for you," Mr. Castro told the 600 guests, including some 60 Americans, who traveled to Cuba for the annual Habanos Festival celebrating the island's tobacco. The Cuban communist leader's political speeches often last several hours.
Dressed in his trademark olive green uniform at the dinner Friday night, Mr. Castro tried on a sombrero owned by Compay Segundo, the baritone who gained fame abroad in 1997 with "Chan Chan" on the Buena Vista Social Club album that took traditional Cuban sounds to people around the world.
Mr. Castro, 75 and in power for 42 years, appeared relaxed and happy after a two-day standoff at the Mexican Embassy in Havana was resolved. Early Friday morning, Cuban authorities acting at Mexico's request evicted 21 men who had crashed through the embassy gates in a stolen bus.
Mr. Castro traditionally attends the dinner at the festival. Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and Vice President Carlos Lage Davila were also at the event at the newly renovated Fine Arts Museum in Old Havana.
Compay Segundo, whose real name is Francisco Repilado, offered the crowd an a cappella version of "Chan Chan." As smoke from hundreds of cigars filled the room, many in the audience sang along, clapping their hands to keep time.
The auction, which featured luxurious humidors made of cedar and mahogany and which was filled with a variety of exclusive cigars, wrapped up early yesterday and raised $653,200 to be donated to the Cuban health system, Cuba's Prensa Latina news agency said.
Diners ate lobster and shrimp mousse, duck a l'orange, a variety of Cuban cheeses and rich chocolates, all washed down with European wines. There were breaks between courses to sample Vegas Robaina cigars a brand that celebrated its fifth anniversary at the festival.
It was the second year in a row that a hat owned by Compay Segundo was auctioned at the event. Brazilian businessman Pupi D'Angeieri offered the top bid of $20,000, said Bernardo Gonzalez, spokesman for Cuban tobacco concern Habanos S.A., the festival sponsor.
Habanos S.A. controls Cuba's entire cigar market and is operated by the government in partnership with the French-Spanish company Altadis.
People from 47 countries came this year to celebrate Cuba's cigars, marketed under such brands as Cohiba, Partagas, Romeo y Julieta, Montecristo and Punch.


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