Thursday, 23 June 2011

The COSMOS CLUB and the Embargo

I met many US citizens in Cuba despite the embargo that was initiated in October 1960. I should mention that this embargo is almost completely unilateral. The United Nations passed many resolutions urging the US to lift it's embargo by overwhelming majorities. In 1994 for example only the US, Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau voted against. Check it out here. I'm sure more recent examples are available.
Of course this policy does not reflect the views of US citizens any more than the world wide bank-bailouts or the recent Greek bailout reflect the views of the public in the nations affected. Democracy in our time means you get to choose which puppet pretends to represent you. Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse. You still get Disneyland.

Nevertheless there are idealistic people everywhere who try to make a difference. I had the pleasure of meeting such a group of people. They did not destroy property or wave placards, they did not shout at people or insult those of other opinion. Their efforts involved meeting people, making friends, exchanging ideas and playing Chess! I wrote about them briefly before but now I will allow Robert Lubic to tell you about his Cuban adventure in his own words.

                                            A CUBAN CHESS BREAKTHROUGH

            Forty years and one month after the Ping-Pong Breakthrough between the People’s Republic of China and the U.S.A. in 1971, followed by President Nixon’s momentous trip to Beijing and the eventual establishment of diplomatic relations  between the two nations, the Cosmos Club Chess Group traveled to Havana, Cuba, for another momentous trip. The journey began on Friday, May 13, 2011, when the Cosmos team of eight players and one translator-photographer boarded a charter flight from Miami, Florida, to Havana, followed by chess matches on Saturday, the 14th, and culminating on a May 15, 2011, visit to the grave site of Cuban chess Grandmaster José Raúl Capablanca, one of the greatest chess players in the world and world chess champion from 1921 to 1927. Although Capablanca’s name might not be familiar to non chess playing Americans, his fame is so great that all Cubans, whether involved in chess or not as well as many others throughout the world are well aware of his fame.  
            The idea for a chess match between the Cosmos Club Chess Group and a chess team from Cuba, first came to me in the spring of 2009. I am chairman of the Cosmos Inter-Club Chess matches and, in this capacity, had scheduled tournaments with teams in London, Paris, and Washington, D.C. From past experience, as a director of international legal studies programs abroad in the Soviet Union, Poland, as well as other international sites, during the years that I taught International Trade Law, I knew how important chess was in Marxist societies where there is a limited number of recreational activities. I had been to Cuba twice before and observed the interest in chess by young and old on the street corners in Havana. As a result, I had arranged a meeting with the First Secretary of the Cuban Interests Section (CIS) in Washington. Because of the lack of formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, neither nation has an embassy in the other.
            The First Secretary of the CIS was quite positive and agreed to go to lunch at the Cosmos Club, together with me and the head of the CIS, Ambassador Jorges A. Boleños. The Ambassador was also quite positive, advising me that he would try to obtain an invitation from the Cuban government for the proposed chess match. Unfortunately this is where it stood for approximately the next twelve months, despite continual inquiries from me to the Ambassador and a new CIS First Secretary who was chosen to serve as our new liaison. Finally, out of the blue, I received notice on November 30, 2010, from Ambassador  Boleños that the Cuban National Institute of Sport, Physical Education, and Recreation (INDER) had issued an invitation to the Cosmos Club Chess Group to visit Havana to play in a chess match in January of 2011 or any other date that might prove convenient.
As a result, I assumed incorrectly that practically all of the serious handicaps to the  proposed match had been overcome and began to assemble the Cosmos Club Chess Team according to those who wished to participate. Eventually a team of eight player and one photographer-translator were selected. Among them were the chess team captain, Arnold Leibowitz (a well known constitutional and administrative lawyer), and his wife Sandra who served as the photographer-translator; Professor PC Huang, the chairman of the Cosmos Club Chess Group and a Bio-Physics professor at Johns Hopkins University; Dr. Hugh Hill, an emergency hospital physician and his daughter Andrea; Sophy Burnham, a well known author, Ray Berg, an eminent actuary and probably the best chess player on our team; and finally yours truly, Chairman of the Cosmos Inter-Club Chess Group and my wife (also a chess player), Benita.
The initial application for a license was filed on December 12, 2010, with the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Treasury Department, containing the names of the nine members of our team plus three non playing chess wives. As a result of a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court many years ago in what is known as the Paul Robeson (a well known African-American singer and Communist) ruling, the U.S. Government is forbidden to refuse anyone a passport if they are not a security risk. In view of that decision, the embargo placed against travel to Cuba precludes the expenditure of U.S. currency in that nation without special permission from OFAC.  I was quite surprised when OFAC refused to issue a license to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to travel to Cuba (despite its most recent triumphant appearance in North Korea), because the Board Members were not part of the orchestra. Shortly thereafter, on January 4, 2011, I received notice from OFAC of its denial of the Cosmos Club application on the ground that three wives accompanying the group were not chess players and that I had accepted an invitation from the CIS of a sightseeing tour for our group in Havana, which constitutes tourism and is therefore in violation of the embargo.
As a shot in the dark, I immediately filed a new application, removing the names of the three wives and providing notice of the groups’ decline of the tour of  Havana. On April 28, 2011, I received notice from OFAC of the issuance of a license to the Cosmos Club Chess Group to engage in a chess tournament in Cuba. Although elated by this information, it soon became apparent that this was not the end of the Group’s troubles.
Upon receiving the license from OFAC, I immediately telephoned our liaison at the CIS, only to find that he had gone back to Cuba without naming a replacement. This left me in a quandary since it was important that we be advised of the chess venue in Havana and that the dates of May 14th and 15th were acceptable for the match. After continually telephoning the CIS, I was finally put in touch with the press attache’, Sr. Juan Jacamino, who would be the group’s new liaison for the Cuban match. Finally, after considerable apprehension, I was given the email address in Cuba of Sr. Jose L. Vilela of INDER. It was then that I was informed, approximately three weeks before our group was scheduled to depart for Havana, that the 46th annual Capablanca in Memoriam Chess Tournament, which is considered one of the most important chess tournaments in the world, would be taking place at the same time as our scheduled visit to Cuba. As a result, I was advised that the Cubans would be unable to host us. at the time we were scheduled to come to Havana for our proposed matches on May 14 and 15, 2011. I immediately sent an email to Ambassador Boleños, requesting his assistance since we had been pursuing this matter for over two years. Within a couple of days I received another email from Sr. Vilela, that due to the assistance of Grandmaster Silvino Garcia, the President of the Cuban Chess Federation, arrangements would be made for us to travel to Havana and engage a team of eight Cuban Chess players on the dates requested. With dates of the match confirmed, the members of our group agreed that we would keep the matter confidential until we returned from Cuba, for fear of one of the anti-Castro members of Congress blocking our trip.
Our group arrived in Havana late Friday afternoon, May 13, 2011, from Miami, Florida, by charter and were greeted by a delegation of Cuban chess luminaries including Srs. Vilela and Garcia. After taking photographs, we went by chartered bus to the Parque Central Hotel, a five stat hotel in the center of Havana, which had been  arranged by us. That evening, the group dined at a Palador, a privately owned restaurant which Castro permitted to be operated by the owners of the residence where located.  The food and service, as differing considerably from the state owned restaurants, was excellent.
The next morning, May 14th, we took taxis to the Havana Riviera Hotel, one of the several operated by the American Mafia in the days before Castro and directly under the management of the infamous gangster, Meyer Lansky. The four women in our group were presented with bouquets when we arrived at the hotel. We then played against a team of eight Cubans according to our skills as determined by Team Captain Leibowitz. The Cuban graciously permitted all of our team members to initiate play with the white pieces, which is usually an advantage among good chess players. Unfortunately, all of our members lost their matches except Roy Berg, our best and oldest player (83 years old) who had a draw. We were then asked if we would play against a group of Cuban youngsters (6 to 12 years old) who were in the lobby of the hotel waiting for the Capablanca in Memoriam Chess Tournament to begin at 3:00 pm.  Once again our team lost the majority of matches but not as badly as duriong the first round. We were then taken to lunch, followed by a lecture on Cuban chess. It was there that we learned that one of our hosts, Grandmaster Garcia, the President of the Cuban Chess Federation, as a young boy was a favorite opponent of Ché Guavera. Sr. Garcia also told us about a game he played against Fidel Castro during which the latter refused to accept a draw. Finally, Roy Berg from our group told about a time in New York City when he visited the Manhattan Chess Club and played a speed chess match with a thirteen year old Bobby Fisher, the U.S. chess phenom. Subsequently, after returning to the U.S., I researched the Internet to learn that  the last time a U.S. chess team had played in Cuba was in 1966 and that during one of the matches, Fidel Castro had defeated Bobby Fisher.
After the chess lecture we went to the ballroom of the hotel to watch the tournament consisting of some of the best chess players in the world.. After observing several matches which were shown on an electronic screen in the main lobby of the hotel, our group was driven to the Capablanca Chess Club which is the main focus of chess in Havana. That evening, we attended a performance by the world famous Cuban National Ballet company where we watched an excellent presentation of Swan Lake. The next morning the group traveled to the Christopher Colon Cemetery to lay a wreath on the grave of Grandmaster Capablanca. That afternoon the group walked around Havana and, in the evening, attended a small cabaret showing of the Buena Vista Social Club. The next morning the group split up with members returning to Miami on various days, the last of which was Thursday, May 19, 2011, when Arnold Leibowitz and his wife, Sandra, and yours truly and my wife, Benita, returned by charter to Miami and then to Reagan National Airport in Washington.
Every member of our group was fascinated with what they saw and the kindness of everyone in Cuba that they met. No one in our group felt intimidated at anytime regarding where they could go or what they could photograph. In other words, none of us observed any security officials. The Cubans who hosted us were considerably accommodating. During our stay in Havana we observed relatively few Americans; almost all of the tourist groups we saw were Canadian or European..
 Whether we continue this chess rivalry between the Cosmos Club Chess Group and Capablanca Chess Club depends upon the circumstances although the Cubans did indicate that they would like to have us return. Regarding a visit by a Cuban chess team to Washington, it depends who will underwrite their costs. It is, however, not inconceivable that our chess match with the Cubans might lead to a chess breakthrough (similar to the Ping-Pong breakthrough in China in 1971), which could lead to President Obama going to Havana the same as President Nixon traveling to Beijing.  (2023 words)
By Professor Robert Bennett Lubic, Professor of Law Emeritus and Chairman of the Cosmos Inter-Club Chess Group.

Thanks Bob for your report and for allowing me to read it and publish it in my Blog.

Best wishes,
                   Alex (aka Doubleroo)

1 comment:

  1. Please excuse my sloppy search. Here is a more recent example (2010. Only US) and Israel against.187 nations vote in favour of Cuba