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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cuban Cigar Festival Sparks Up

HAVANA -- A broad smile spread across his deeply creased face as world- renowned Cuban tobacco grower Alejandro Robaina presided over the opening of this year's international cigar festival, launched inside a 16th-century Spanish fort with lots of rum, salsa and smoke from the world's most coveted stogies.

"This a pleasure for me," said Robaina, who turns 84 on March 10.

This year's annual Habano Festival celebrates the fifth anniversary of the cigar brand created in his honor, the Vegas Robaina. The five-day festival opened Monday.

Over at the next table, Fidel Castro's eldest son, Fidelito, puffed away on a cigar as one of the island's hottest music groups, Polo Montanez and his band, entertained hundreds of foreigners with their Latin-style country dance music.

Compay Segundo, the nonagenarian of Buena Vista Social Club fame, had originally been scheduled to perform as well but was in Los Angeles where he was up for a Grammy on Wednesday night.

Robaina said he was also celebrating an especially good tobacco-growing year that yielded some of the finest cigar wrapper leaves he had seen in some time. The wrapper -- known in Spanish as the capa -- is the last cover that holds together a hand-crafted cigar and is crucial to ensuring it burns evenly and provides an exceptional smoke.

"We have had a special year," he said. "We now have wrappers to last for two or three years."

The general quality of the tobacco crop in the last year has been high, as well as the quality of the finished cigars, said Robaina.

Nevertheless, he allowed that exports had fallen in recent months, especially since the start of a world recession aggravated by last September's terrorist attacks on the United States.

"When the economy is like this, it's normal" for Cuba cigar exports to fall, said Robaina. But he said he was sure that sales would pick up "because the quality [of the cigars] is getting better and better."

The Cuban tobacco company that sponsors the annual festival, Habanos S.A., has not issued any export figures for the past 12 months. Shortly before last year's festival, Habanos S.A., a mixed enterprise operated 50-50 by the Cuban government and French-Spanish company Altadis, announced that in 2000, the country had produced 153 million cigars for export, up from 118 million in 1999.

In the next five days, about 600 cigar enthusiasts from 47 countries will try new brands, visit tobacco plantations and go to a $400-a-head dinner traditionally attended by Castro.