March 17, 1997 12:00 PM

WHAT WITH THE SASHAYING chorus girls and white-tuxed businessmen thronging the bar, Havana’s venerable Tropicana Club looked almost the way it did decades ago, when a fruit-bedecked Carmen Miranda danced till all hours. Of course, Cuban leader Fidel Castro had expected a slew of Hollywood celebrities when he toasted the 30th anniversary of the Cohiba cigar, perhaps the world’s most esteemed stogie. As it was, though some 800 guests from Europe, Canada and the U.S. attended, virtually all the invited stars, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Matt Dillon, stayed away, apparently deciding that indulging their passion for a good smoke was not worth the risk of skirting U.S. travel restrictions to Communist Cuba.

Yet even if Castro’s hugely hyped Feb. 28 shindig was a celebrity bust, the allure of cigars shows no signs of fizzling. Cigars earned Cuba a reported $100 million in badly needed hard currency last year, and the charity auction midway through the Tropicana gala fetched nearly $1 million, including one $130,000 bid for a Cohiba-filled humidor signed by Castro himself. In Hollywood, Danny DeVito, Bill Cosby and Tom Cruise have made cigars as much of a macho accessory as Range Rovers or Rolexes, and even female celebs like Demi Moore and Linda Evangelista have appeared, stogies in hand, on the cover of Cigar Aficionado magazine.

Unfortunately for American devotees, hand-rolled Cohibas, which were named after the Ta?no Indian word for cigar, cannot be purchased legally in the U.S. because of the 33-year-old trade embargo against Cuban products. As a result, those who crave a puff must resort to the black market or smoke them abroad. According to Bob Hannay, manager of Desmond Sautter Ltd., a renowned London tobacconist, Jack Nicholson stops in a few times a day to stock up on Cohibas when he’s in town. Other Hollywood aficionados use brokers in, say, London and Hong Kong, who disguise and mail contra-band Cohibas to. their homes. The going price per box of 25: $525 to $700, more than a third higher than the retail cost in London.

Among connoisseurs, Cohibas are considered a splendid smoke, though not significantly better than the best cigars produced in the Dominican Republic or Honduras, where many Cuban manufacturers relocated after Castro took power in 1959. The real seductiveness may simply be that they are forbidden. “More than anything else,” admits Ray Quirantes, owner of Havana Ray’s smoke shop in Miami, “rarity is what makes them desirable.”

One irony is that some connoisseurs have detected a subtle decline in the quality of Cuban cigars, a result of stepped-up production to meet the growing demand. No such complaints were heard at the Tropicana, of course, where Castro hailed the Cohiba for burning evenly and for its fragrant aroma. But then he is hardly an expert anymore. He gave up smoking 11 years ago, apparently for his health.

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