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US, Cuba sailors compete in first regatta since diplomatic thaw

HAVANA, Cuba — Cuban and American sailors competed Tuesday in the first regatta since their countries’ decision to seek normal ties after more than five decades of Cold War strains.

Featuring five two-person catamarans from each side, the Havana Challenge was the first regatta authorized by the U.S. since 2004 — and the first since the December announcement of the process of normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States.

“We are the first group of Americans with a permit from the U.S. government with permission to participate in sporting event in the water in Cuba,” sailor George Bellenger told AFP.

He was aboard one of the catamarans — flying tiny U.S. and Cuban flags — speeding in the Caribbean just off Havana’s landmark Malecón seafront, within sight of the Hotel Nacional and the U.S. Interests Section.

When the neighbors do restore full diplomatic relations, it will be the site of the new U.S. Embassy in Cuba’s capital.

Read more Tico Times Cuba coverage

The regatta was organized by boating clubs in Cuba, and in Key West, the Florida island closest to Cuba.

At Havana’s Hemingway marina before the event, the two sides got organized and chatted like old friends. They even carried some of each other’s belongings in ride-along powerboats.

That included the Cuban side’s cooler full of cans of Tukola, the Cuban answer to Coca Cola.

Signs of friendliness

“It is really a great thing for people to see the friendliness that is starting to emerge between the Key West and Havana city clubs,” said Cuban coach Vicente de la Guardia.

“We are not equally matched with the boats; ours are really old. But their athletes are really good.”

Dozens of Cubans gathered on the Malecón to watch. Above, tourists were doing the same at the stately Hotel Nacional.

“Today is a special day. You just don’t see this every day,” said Cuban skipper Alexander Rey, 17.

Amid all the excitement, goodwill and stifling midday heat, no one paid any attention to who won the regatta.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced in December that the two countries were ending a half-century of enmity and would seek full diplomatic relations. They currently have downgraded ties and Interests Sections only in each other’s capital.

Castro and Obama also held a historic meeting in Panama in April on the sidelines of a regional summit.

Obama has relaxed a few restrictions on travel to and from the Americas’ only Communist-ruled country, but the trade and financial embargo the U.S. has imposed since 1962 still is in effect.

A fourth round of talks on restoring full ties is due to be held in Washington on Thursday between top-level U.S. and Cuban officials, a senior State Department official said.

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