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U.S. and Cuba practice softball diplomacy

By Shasta Darlington and Ed Hornick, CNN
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Softball diplomacy with Cuba
  • U.S. has had a travel ban to Cuba since the late 1950s
  • House committee is looking into whether or not to lift the ban
  • Senior softball players are in Cuba to play against Cuban counterparts
  • There's a real friendship between us," says Roberto Castelo of Cuba.
  • Cuba
  • Softball

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- A metaphorical timeout has been in place between the United States and Cuba for nearly 50 years. But that could all be changing with the help of sports.

Fifty-six Americans flew to Havana this week for a series of games with Cuban counterparts. The games are friendly, but these veteran players take their softball seriously.

"Well we sort of got a handle on softball diplomacy and big things start in small places and maybe this will be the spot for it," said Stu Gray of the U.S. team, from the Seniors Softball Association of Eastern Massachusetts.

For the opposing pitcher, it's working.

"This bolsters ties between the two countries ... There's a real friendship between us," said Cuban softball player Roberto Castelo.

Players from the two baseball-crazed nations are all over 55.

"I'd like to see more Americans have the opportunity to come to Cuba and see what Cuba is today. And I think the Cubans appreciate Americans," said U.S. softball player David Brisson.

And that idea is gaining traction in Congress.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, a Democrat, said Thursday that the U.S. government has no right to restrict American tourists from traveling to Cuba.

"It is the only country in the world where our people are not allowed to go," said Rep. Howard Berman, D-California, at the start of a hearing on whether it is time to lift the travel ban.

Every year, foreign travelers escape to Cuba's exotic shores and Spanish colonial streets, pumping in an estimated $2 billion into the island's economy.

Despite the chilly relations, Alexis Trujillo, Cuba's deputy tourism minister, told CNN in May that the island is ready to welcome back its neighbor to the north.

"We are open to the world. It is they [the U.S.] who cannot come," Trujillo said.

And Trujillo's comments come as Cuba faces a deeply troubled economy. Travel, one analyst said, could be a boon for the island nation.

"Certainly the Cubans are in very dire financial straits. ... They need and want and look forward to having more tourism with the United States," said Ann Louise Bardach, of the nonpartisan Brookings Institution. "There's no question that Cuba looks forward to having increased travel and contact with the U.S. There's no question that tourism is the cash cow."

U.S. citizens are allowed to visit Cuba, an island shrouded in a virtual blackout to the U.S. and other parts of the world, but must apply for special licenses to do so. Though it is illegal, some citizens travel to a country such as Mexico or Canada and then into Cuba.

Berman, meanwhile, added that by an objective measure, the nearly 50-year travel ban "simply hasn't worked."

Fidel Castro led the 1959 revolution that overthrew Cuba's Batista dictatorship. The United States broke diplomatic ties with the nation in 1961. The next year, the U.S. government instituted a trade embargo. Both policies remain in effect.

The State Department officially recognizes the country, according to its Web site, as "a totalitarian police state which relies on repressive methods to maintain control. These methods, including intense physical and electronic surveillance of Cubans, are also extended to foreign travelers."

But not everyone is on board with opening travel between the two countries.

At Thursday's hearing, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the ranking Republican on the committee, argued against lifting the ban, which, she stressed, is not total.

"What has the Cuban regime done? Has it unclenched its fist? Did I miss that?"

While the political and diplomatic clinched fist hasn't changed, the notion of sports diplomacy is nothing new between the two countries.

In the 1970s, a series of table tennis matches helped ease tensions between the United States and China.

A decade ago, the Baltimore Orioles staged an exhibition game in Havana aimed at improving relations, which soured under successive administrations.

This is the first trip to Cuba for the Massachusetts club. They came to bridge a divide created by decades of political hostility -- but also because for these softball veterans, Cuba is mecca.

It's a pilgrimage they say they needed to take.

The Cuban team was used to hard-ball, so underhand pitching suffered at first. During one game, the Americans were dealt their first defeat -- but you wouldn't know it from the smiles.

CNN's Jim Acosta contributed to this report.