Feb. 27, 2005 — -- Cuba put on its annual cigar festival this week. And while President Bush's crackdown on travel to the Caribbean island kept the usual entertainment personalities and executives away, there were plenty of Americans among the cigar aficionados from around the world feasting on shellfish, sipping rum and smoking the world's most popular premium cigars.
Cuba sells some 120 million hand-rolled premium cigars each year, 70 percent of the world market not including the United States, where they are banned under the 43-year-old trade embargo on the communist-run country.
Some four million genuine Cuban cigars and a few million fakes are consumed in the United States each year, trade sources estimate, despite being prohibited under the embargo.
"It's like anything you can't get. It always tastes better," said Paul, an American sitting on the veranda of the Club Havana puffing on a Montecristo, Cuba's best-known and most expensive cigar.
Paul and a group of his American friends were dining at what was once an exclusive beachfront club frequented by former dictator Fulgencio Batista. On the outskirts of a crumbling but still enchanting Havana, the club is now open to foreign visitors.
Paul said 15 of his friends from different U.S. states had come to the festival through Canada. (The American visitors asked ABC News to withhold their last names because they were in Cuba illegally and risked being fined on their return to the United States.)
Five or six of the Americans were millionaires, according to Paul. Most were ex-military, some Vietnam vets, and one older man was visiting for the first time since 1954, when, as a captain in the U.S. Marines, he had been invited by a U.S. general he was friendly with to a three-day party hosted by Batista.
"It was like a dream," Joe reminisced of the night life back in 1954. He described the gala dinner complete with Mafia boss Meyer Lansky sitting at the head table, and said he had a conversation with one of the Gambino brothers.