Light one for Fidel

Fidel Castro is throwing a party next week. It's to celebrate the 30th birthday of his - and the world's - favourite cigar, the Cohiba, and invitations are scarcer than a ticket to the Oscars.
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We're at Rao's at nine on a Thursday evening. There's no more elite restaurant in New York, although it's on a run-down street in Harlem. Outside, the exhaust pipes of limousines steam; inside, smoke hangs above the bar in coils. The clientele are all celebrities, millionaires or "wiseguys", aka gangsters. At Rao's, an ordinary guy can't even buy a reservation.

At one table a movie producer sits with a TV sportscaster, who rubs shoulders with a "connected" manufacturer of garments. Next to him are a celebrity private detective, a willowy teen model, and an FBI agent who wears a $10,000 solid gold Rolex. They have all lit cigars, but not just any 50- cent stogie. All six are sucking on $50 Cohibas, manufactured in Cuba.

"Jimmy won't allow any other kind of cigar," says the FBI agent, referring to a hood who is said to own Rao's. "It's a Cohiba or nothing." The private eye laughs. "Try this," he says, handling the cigar with reverence, as if he were passing a communion cup. I pull the smoke into my mouth: it's a taste both deep and mysterious, made more so by the six pairs of eyes watching my every inhalation. No words of praise are necessary. My audience of Cohibaistes require simply that my face carry a mask of happy transcendence. As more than half of them are carrying guns I'm happy to comply, even though the cigar's red hot gases are beginning to strip the lining of my throat.

The personal cigar of Fidel Castro has been inspiring scenes like this since it was invented 30 years ago. Cohibas have attained a cult status. For the seriously wealthy American, a stock of Cohibas means more than a Rolex or a Porsche, which anybody can buy. In Britain, a single Cohiba Esplendido, the top of the range, costs about pounds 23, but is freely available. In the US, Cohibas carry an illicit thrill: the fact that they cannot be imported legally does not stop pounds 60m worth of them turning up every year. The US trade embargo against Cuba just makes the Cohiba more desirable.

Next week Castro has invited more than 600 celebrities and business leaders for the ultimate celebration of the cigar's international cachet. Among those thought likely to attend are actors Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jack Nicholson, Matt Dillon and Demi Moore, and the model Linda Evangelista, all of whom are regularly photographed puffing. "We have seen more people than ever take up cigars," says Niki Singer at Cigar Aficionado, a magazine that didn't exist three years ago but now sells more than 250,000 copies worldwide. "Most of the new smokers are in their twenties and thirties and a significant proportion are women."

The Cohiba dinner will be held at Cuba's famed Tropicana Club. "The guest list is a closely guarded secret," says John Kavulich, president of the United States-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a man whose office wall is decorated with the tops of more than a thousand Cohiba boxes. "Arrangements have been made for Americans to travel legally. There will be 10 different types of Cohiba available. For Cohiba smokers it will be heaven on earth."

The Cohiba celebration comes as the US Congress enforces measures from the anti-Castro Helms-Burton Act, which provides for penalties against any US trading partner who does business with Castro. Sir Leon Brittan has condemned Helms-Burton and wants retaliatory measures. There is little doubt that Castro's cigar-fest is a gentle reminder to the US that cigar lovers will go to almost any lengths for a box of Cuba's most famous product, trade embargo or not. It is as if Castro is saying that a Cohiba can induce the kind of lust that makes a man forget about his principles.

"The Cohiba has sex appeal and it's partly because the product's illegal," says Bart Gerber, owner of Churchill Fine Cigars in Arizona. "For a wealthy man, especially one who was young in the Sixties, it has the romance of marijuana. It's a little rebellious."

There can be few more gilded forms of rebellion: the Cohiba's illicit attraction, especially now that world demand for cigars is so high, does not come cheap. A box on the black market - ask at Rao's for the name of a dealer - will cost $800 in New York.

Like any good drug, the price of a Cohiba increases rapidly as it gets towards its end user. Outside the Palacio de Tabaco in Havana, any number of keen young men accost tourists with the offer of a Cohiba Esplendido for a dollar. Inside the palace - a bulky turn-of-the-century warehouse, in the shadow of the Museo de la Revolucion, the same cigar will cost $5 (pounds 3). Some British travellers to Cuba subsidise their visits by buying the maximum 50 cigars that they are allowed by UK Customs, bringing them back to Britain and selling them to upmarket restaurants for two or three times the cost price.

Smugglers who bring Americans their favourite smoke are taking big risks. If caught, they can be charged under the 1912 Trading With The Enemy Act, which carries a maximum penalty of $250,000 and 10 years in jail. Plenty are apprehended. Last year, customs officials at New York's JFK airport made 23 arrests and seized cigars with a "street value" of more than pounds 10m.

Fidel Castro ordered the manufacture of Cohibas in 1967 because he wanted an extraordinary cigar to smoke at diplomatic functions. They were made at a factory that was a state secret for the next 17 years. The word "cohiba" is native Cuban for "tobacco" and some scholars believe the island's name is derived from a slang version.

Then, as now, the Cohiba was rolled by hand although not, as the legend would have it, on the thigh of a young woman. The cigar is teased into shape on the palm of the hand, its coarse crushed leaves shaped into a sausage before being placed inside a single capote leaf which is much finer with a soft, smooth texture like wet silk. A year after their creation, and despite the trade embargo against Cuba instigated by President Kennedy, Cohibas were turning up in America. President Johnson smoked them freely and President Nixon kept a stock inside a humidor which played the US national anthem when opened. The cigar's mystique has been amplified by the other strange places it has appeared. Before the fall of the Soviet Union Communist officials had relatively easy access to Cohibas, but no longer. Consequently, in troubled former Soviet republics like Chechnya, a Cohiba can buy one a way out of trouble and war correspondents there swear by them as a means of securing safe passage.

The popularity of cigar smoking is reflected in the number of bars dedicated to the habit that have opened in New York since 1995. The latest, Havana, features plush red velvet sofas and deep recesses framed by silk curtains where couples can get hot over a pair of panatellas. Whether all the new smokers actually enjoy the product is debatable. Like any kind of fashion victim, the arriviste stogie tokers look uncomfortable with their new prop. They may even be trying to suppress the nagging thought that they will soon smell like their grandfathers, who used to smoke all those old coronas.

The cigar bars don't "officially" sell Cohibas but the contraband Cubans do turn up and always cause a stir. "The Cohiba says something about a man," says Floyd Andrews, who manages Havana. "It's very macho, the word itself, 'Cohiba', has a big man ring about it. I think that's one reason some guys pay so much for them. They don't feel manly enough unless they have that Cohiba."

"A Cohiba is like a passport," says the private detective at Rao's, as he lights his second of the evening. "When you pull one out, it demands respect. Those who know will give it that, those that don't aren't worth bothering with. Anyone can go out and buy a bottle of Dom Perignon. A Cohiba - that changes everything"n