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CASTRO PLAYS COMEDIAN AT GALA BENEFIT

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Arnold couldn't make it. Demi wasn't there. But who needs them when Fidel's at center stage?

On a night more studded with diamonds than stars, Cuba's president watched his signature on boxes of cigars draw hundreds of thousands of dollars at an auction to benefit Cuban health care.Then he took the stage of the Tropicana - usually known for its nearly naked showgirls - and won roars of approval from a well-heeled audience with witty references to President Clinton's sex life.

"Clinton likes cigars," Fidel Castro said, but quickly noted: "Hillary has forbidden it."

Pausing for the audience to burst with laughter, Castro added: "That and other things, I imagine."

"And I also think that perhaps from time to time he has done one or the other," he added.

The $500-a-plate dinner Friday night at the open-air nightclub drew worldwide attention because of rumors that Hollywood stars who had appeared on the cover of Cigar Aficionado magazine might defy the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba.

Americans face penalties as high as $250,000 or 10 years in prison for going to Cuba.

A dense pack of reporters and television cameras scanned the arrivals, making the event seem like Oscar night in the tropics, but there was no sign of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Demi Moore, Matt Dillon or Jack Nicholson.

"Robo-Cop" star Peter Weller turned up, but few recognized him. "It's Peter William!" several Cuban reporters exclaimed, pointing.

None of the celluloid heroes could have outshone Castro - "In Cuba, they call me Fidel," he noted - who has been both lionized and vilified since leading his band of bearded revolutionaries to power in 1959.

The event, sponsored by Cuba's state tobacco company, was to honor the 30th anniversary of the elite Cohiba brand created for Castro in 1966.

The 700 people at the gala appeared to be mostly businessmen, many in the global cigar trade. Scattered among them were a few Americans reveling in an evening of smoking freely.

One man with an American accent insisted, with a wink: "I'm British," though he declined to give his name.

"It's as it should be," he said, looking out at hundreds of plumes of cigar smoke rose toward the stars.

Castro clapped in amazement as boxes of cigars he had signed sold for as much as $60,000.

And he took the stage to sign a 90-cigar box built by Ecuadorean artist Oswaldo Guayasamin. The box went for $135,000 - money that will be spent on a mural-adorned "Chapel of Man" in Quito, Ecuador.

Castro stayed to reminisce about his 50 years as a smoker, insisting that cigars - unlike cigarettes - do not damage a person's health. He said he had quit only to set an example in a national anti-smoking campaign.