Last December, the MLBPA, the MLB, and the Cuban Baseball Federation struck a deal that created a legal way for Cuban citizens to play in the MLB. Historically, Cuban baseball players faced severe difficulty to escape Cuba and defect to the United States, risking their lives and the lives of family and friends along the way. Cuban players with dreams of playing in the United States hired agents, but not the same type of agent as Scott Boras or others. They hired agents who acted as their smuggler, translator, and liaison. But as jail time has increased for these agents when caught, recent defectors are on their own to find a way to the United States, and some resort to extremely difficult means.
“Most players escape Cuba by taking a boat and trying to make it to the nearest port in Mexico or Haiti. Once there, they are placed in a safe house where a front man makes calls on the player’s behalf to seek the highest bidder. Often, players are not released until the carriers are compensated and reimbursed for the passage from Cuba. Some players also sell a “percentage” of their future earnings to finance the trip or for a cash advance as a means of surviving in the interim. Those abetting the player’s escape want to get their cut before turning him over to an agent, and so sometimes they reach out to agents to make a deal.” – Jesse Sanchez of mlb.com
This includes MLB household names like Aroldis Chapman, Jose Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, Yuli Gurriel, Yoan Moncada, Jose Iglesias, and more. Their difficult path to the United States turned into a successful storyline, but there are so many others who never make it off the island nation of Cuba and into the United States. As many baseball fans know the old myth, the best Cuban baseball players aren’t in the MLB but rather on the Cuban National Team.
So the deal struck in December was an extremely inspirational step towards improving the MLB and the lives of a number of talented Cuban baseball players. Cuban players would be able to play in the MLB without having to defect from Cuba. They would not have to seek out smugglers and risk their lives to chase a dream. In mid March, the first 34 Cuban players eligible to sign with MLB teams was released, and it seemed the front door to the big leagues was finally open. Just as the deals currently in place with Japan and other countries, Cuban players would have to give approximately 25% of their MLB salary to the Cuban Baseball Federation.
On Monday, however, the Trump administration cancelled the MLB and CBF’s deal, declaring it illegal. The White House claims the Cuban Baseball Federation is part of the Cuban government and therefore the deal disregards current US sanctions with Cuba.
The thrust of the government's argument, as laid out in a letter from Treasury Dept. to MLB obtained by ESPN: "A payment to the Cuban Baseball Federation is a payment to the Cuban government." U.S. government sees the CBF as an arm of the Cuban government. Deal nixed accordingly. pic.twitter.com/oQhtn2R9gw
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) April 8, 2019
Benjamin Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor under Obama, stated, “The MLB came to us. They felt profound concern about the danger in terms of human trafficking that Cuban baseball players were subjected to to try to play in the major leagues. This is an indefensible, cruel and pointless decision that they’ve made that will be ending the lives of Cuban baseball players and achieve nothing beyond appeasing hard-line factions in Florida.”
Other reasons for the declaration cite the relationship between Venezuela and Cuba. The White House has vehemently denounced the actions of Nicolás Maduro, the President of Venezuela. As the US increases its sanctions against Venezuela, Cuba has increased its support of Maduro. As to how the three countries unsteady relationship affects baseball is uncertain however. According to current national security advisor John Bolton:
The Cuban regime has served as a primary accomplice to Maduro’s theft of Venezuela’s wealth & resources, and is complicit in Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis. The U.S. is prepared to hold accountable any country or company that facilitates the repression of the Venezuelan people.
— John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) April 6, 2019
The move is an interesting one nonetheless. It clearly seems to take aim at the MLB’s apparently politically-inspired payments to the Cuban Baseball Federation and avoids the human aspect of the situation that the MLB sought to resolve. Not to mention the glaringly ignored fact that the Cuban Baseball Federation is on the same playing field as the MLB in the US – no part of the government whatsoever.