Chess in Cuba does 'some good'; Area players lose tournament in Havana, relish 'people' contact


When Jose E. "Pepe" Herrera left Cuba in 1955, he thought he might never have a reason to go back.

Last week, he found one: a chess tournament.

As part of Baltimore's contact with residents of the island, the Ellicott City resident and five top-ranked area chess players traveled to Havana for four days to compete with Cuban players.

A mostly teen-age crew of Cubans soundly defeated the Americans. But, for both sides, the visit was an exhilarating reminder that, despite still-strained official relations between their countries, Cubans and Americans have much in common.

"The only way we can get things on the right track is if the Cuban people get to know the American people," Herrera said this week from his home. "We know [a chess match] is not much, but having people-to-people connections like this has to bring some good."

The city program under which Herrera and his companions went to Cuba is called People To People. Begun last year by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the program has helped the countries share music, medicine and, with the help of the Orioles, baseball. Still to come are yachting, tennis and discussions about how historic buildings are maintained in America and Cuba.

The chess game started as an e-mail match with Cuban chess players Aug. 12 -- Schmoke made the first move -- but soon developed into a real excursion.

The increased contact was prompted in part by a historic five-day visit to Cuba in January by Pope John Paul II. For 36 years, the country has been under an economic embargo imposed by the United States after President Fidel Castro's communist regime expropriated all U.S. business interests on the island.

Also in January, President Clinton became the first U.S. president in decades to promote friendlier relations between the countries. Though Clinton insisted the embargo would remain unchanged, he called for fewer travel restrictions, more academic contacts and eased America-to-Cuba transfers of money and food.

"This chess match is an extension of that policy," said Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the National Security Council.

Baltimore's links to the Caribbean nation 90 miles from south Florida are unusual, but not unique. Cities such as Pittsburgh and New Orleans have cultivated ties through sister cities programs and academic exchanges.

'Ahead of the game'

"But with the baseball and the music and now the chess, I would say Baltimore is ahead of the game," said Lee Tawney, a spokesman with the mayor's office.

Wayne S. Smith, a professor of Latin American studies at the Johns Hopkins University, runs the school's exchange program with Cuba, the oldest such program in the country. Smith said the Clinton policy shift was "very small, almost insignificant." For now, he said, cultural exchanges are the key links between the countries.

"All this going on in Baltimore is having a positive effect, of course," he said. "It does change things. It changes attitudes. When you meet someone face to face, it changes the nature of this impersonal adversary."

That's how Harry Cohen saw it. A transportation consultant and an avid chess player, he was invited -- as a member of the Maryland Chess Association and friend of Herrera -- to join the group that left for Cuba a week ago today.

The Cubans were "remarkably friendly," Cohen said. "It couldn't have been nicer."

On the first full day of the trip, Cohen defeated his 16-year-old opponent in their first game, but lost the match. The Cubans won the tournament 7-3.

"He was a wonderful player," Cohen said of his opponent. "I began to wonder if he let me win that game. They downplayed the fact that they nearly killed us."

Popular in Havana

Cohen said he saw signs in Havana -- a lively coastal city full of crumbling buildings and old American cars -- that chess is popular: open-air chess matches in city parks and chess books for sale on the street. Many young people study the game in sports camps, he said.

It is in these young people that many Cuba enthusiasts see hope for the future.

As Smith put it, "After all, Castro won't be around forever."

Castro's many American detractors, particularly some Cuban Americans, remain staunchly opposed to his government. Some oppose Schmoke's efforts to reach out to the country; any friendly gesture toward Cuba, they say, can be seen as an acceptance of Castro's policies.

But, for people like Herrera, the growing links are a positive sign of change.

"When we go over there, I feel we are sending seeds of democracy," he said. Millions of Cubans "have nothing to do with what Castro is doing," he said.

Herrera smiled broadly when he talked about his recent excursions into Havana, where he felt at home enough to easily navigate the streets. He found his former house and took photographs with an employee of his one-time neighbors.

"It was very emotional," he said. "I was covering my face so people wouldn't see me cry."

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