The White House on Monday declared that an agreement to offer Cuban baseball players “a safe and legal path” to Major League Baseball teams is illegal.
Major League Baseball suffered a strikeout Monday when the Trump administration ruled that a four-month-old agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation is illegal due to its connection to the Caribbean island’s communist government.
The purpose of the recent deal between MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation (FCB) was to create “a safe and legal path” to sign Cuban players to U.S. teams.
“The objective of the agreement, which is the product of years of negotiations with the FCB, is to end the dangerous trafficking of Cuban players who desire to play professional baseball in the United States, a practice that has been documented in legal proceedings and media reports and which has caused significant hardship to Cuban players and their families,” MLB said when the agreement was reached with FCB in December.
At that time, FCB became the fourth foreign professional baseball league to enter into an agreement of this nature with MLB, joining Nippon Professional Baseball, the Korea Baseball Organization and the Chinese Professional Baseball League.
Since the imposition of the U.S. government’s Cuban embargo in 1963, Cuban baseball players have been subject to the Cuban Assets Control Regulations. These regulations not only governed U.S. business dealings with Cuba involving goods, but also in the movement of people, known as “deemed exports.” Thus, MLB teams looking to bring on board a Cuban player needed to obtain a license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), an often arduous and time-consuming process.
To help ease the licensing process, Cuban-born players were encouraged to take up residency in non-U.S. embargoed countries — often with assistance from human smugglers — at great personal expense and risks to their well-being before they could be approached by a Major League team.
Cuban players started to defect to the U.S. in 1991, with Rene Arocha leading the way. But those who were willing to make this journey remained a trickle.
In addition to the U.S. government’s Cuba embargo, MLB maintained its own strict rules on how to handle Cuban players who defect to the U.S.
In 1999, the L.A. Dodgers became the first team to violate the MLB’s rules. The team allegedly recruited two players in Cuba and helped them defect to the Dominican Republic, from where they could springboard to the club’s minor league teams. The Dodgers not only lost their contracts with the two players but were ordered to pay the MLB a $200,000 fine.
The MLB has remained eager to find ways to more freely tap Cuba of its baseball talent. In 2002, the Bush administration approved for the first time since the embargo an exhibition game between the Baltimore Orioles and Cuba’s top team in Havana. Fidel Castro famously attended the game. But it wasn’t enough to melt the U.S. embargo’s rigid conditions.
Under the new MLB agreement reached in late December, the FCB must release all players under contract to the FCB who are at least 25 years old and have six or more years of MLB-approved playing experience to sign with MLB clubs. The FCB also may release younger players to sign with Major League clubs. Once a player is released by the FCB, he is free to negotiate and sign with any Major League club without leaving Cuba, subject to the same collectively bargained rules applicable to all international players.
When it’s time for the player to report to the United States or Canada for baseball activities, he is required to apply for the standard work visa, which also will allow him to travel with his family and to return to Cuba during the off-season.
To comply with OFAC’s regulations, Cuban players must take the additional step of providing the MLB club with a sworn statement that they are neither a prohibited member of the Cuban government nor the country’s communist party.
Last Wednesday, the Cuban Baseball Federation released the names of 34 players who were eligible to join U.S. teams as early as this year. The Trump administration crushed the hopes and dreams of these promising athletes with the stroke of the pen.