The Associated Press
Through gestures and bits of each other’s language, teenagers Mara Blesoff of the United States and Lessys Rusindo of Cuba communicated animatedly during a break in their softball game.
“We were talking about the party tomorrow night and she wanted to know if I knew how to dance,” 13-year-old Mara said Tuesday of her new 19-year-old friend. “I really can’t, so maybe she can teach me.”
Mara is among 10 Chicago-area girls who, along with their coaches and many of their parents, are in Cuba this week on a U.S.-government approved sports exchange ó one of the few remaining categories under which Americans can visit the communist island legally.
Jose Goitia / AP
Through hand gestures and bits of each other’s native language, teenagers Mara Blesoff, right, 13, of Chicago, and Lessys Rusindo, 19, of Cuba communicate during a break in their softball game Tuesday.
The two countries have not had diplomatic relations in more than four decades and the United States has imposed an economic embargo on the island nation for just as long.
The Bush administration tightened restrictions on Cuba travel last summer, slashing all so-called “people-to-people” travel that was encouraged under former President Clinton as a way to plant democratic ideals in the country.
In the push to cut off funds to Fidel Castro’s communist economy, U.S. academic travel was largely restricted to courses of at least 10 weeks, eliminating some of the shorter trips American officials complained were pure tourism masquerading as educational travel. Sports exchanges were unaffected.
“We didn’t have any problem at all with our license,” said Mara’s father, Mark Blesoff, an attorney from Oak Park, Ill., who founded the Windmills fast-pitch softball organization 16 years ago. His daughter, Jamine, 25, a former Windmills player, came on the trip as a coach.
Blesoff said the group’s first visit last year also went off without a hitch.
“It’s been an incredible life experience for our players,” he said. “How many teenage girls get to come to Cuba?
“It’s not a perfect field,” Blesoff said, motioning at the dusty lot and dilapidated wooden stadium in Havana where the girls play. “Second base isn’t attached. But that’s not the point. They are making friends, they are learning about another society.”
The group, which arrived in Cuba over the weekend, will head back to Illinois on Thursday. Wednesday night’s highlight is a party dancing to salsa music on the roof of a hotel in historic Old Havana.
Mara Blesoff said she doubted any boys would show up, however, noting “our parents are here.”
“It has been great, because the girls live in different worlds, different societies but they have softball in common,” said 23-year-old Andrea Sanchez, a volunteer coach for the Windmills who played with the organization as a girl and went on to play softball in college.
“It’s the same sport, here or there, and it’s a good way to maintain relations between people of the two countries,” Sanchez said.
The atmosphere was more friendly than competitive during the second of three games the girls were playing this week.
The Cubans won the first two games, but the ponytailed American girls didn’t seem to care too much about the score as they chatted and giggled trying to communicate with their new friends.
“They are so nice, they always give us little presents, like this,” said Lessys Rusindo, the Cuban team’s pitcher, showing off the red sleeveless Windmills team jersey she got during last year’s trip.
The Windmills left behind team jerseys and shorts, batting helmets and equipment still being used this year.
“We are always delighted to receive them,” Miguel Acosta Serrano, president of the Cuban Softball Federation, said at Tuesday’s game. “We hope more American teams will come here to play softball with us.”