News broke Monday that the Trump administration was nixing a deal between Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Cuban Baseball Federation (CBF) that allowed major league clubs to sign Cuban players. The administration believes the agreement violates the decades-old economic embargo on Cuba, which may be true. But nullifying the deal will have major consequences, as Cuban players who want to compete in the U.S. may once again have to deal with harrowing journeys if they want to escape their own country.
First, some background. For years, Cuban players considered good enough to make it in the U.S. would have to defect, as their government (which runs the CBF) did not want them leaving the country. This often meant they would have to turn to human smugglers.
Cuban players "are often forced to contract with criminal smuggling gangs and pay a fair amount of money from their signing bonuses to smugglers," MLB Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem said in December. "Some are also harassed by smugglers after they sign."
Or take Yankees White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, who said in December he was still being "harassed" by "smugglers and unscrupulous agencies" after defecting in 2013. Complicating matters was the fact that many players would try to establish residency in a third country before going to the U.S. so they could be signed as international free agents instead of having to declare for the amateur draft.
Things weren't this difficult for all players. Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, for instance, said it was as simple as walking out of his hotel while the Cuban national team was in Amsterdam for a tournament in 2009, getting in a car, and leaving. He did, however, have to leave his family behind, and wouldn't be reunited with them until years later.
Late last year, MLB and the CBF agreed to a deal that would end all this. The CBF would allow all players who are at least 25 years old and who have been playing professionally for six years to sign with major league clubs. The CBF could permit younger players to sign with MLB teams as well, if it so desired. In return, whichever MLB team signed any given player would have to pay the CBF a fee equal to a certain percentage of the contract ("20 percent of the first $25 million of a major league contract, 17.5 percent of the next $25 million," etc., according to the Associated Press). Clubs would also have to pay a fee equaling 25 percent of the signing bonus for players under the age of 25 to the CBF.
The process was supposed to be similar to how MLB teams obtain the rights to players from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Under an agreement reached between MLB and Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) in 2017, for instance, NPB teams would receive similar release fees from MLB clubs based on how much money a player signed for.
Earlier this month, the CBF released 34 players who were eligible to sign with MLB teams. Less than a week later, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sent a letter to MLB warning that this could not go on. "Payments to the Cuban Baseball Federation are not authorized," the Friday letter read, according to ESPN, "because a payment to the Cuban Baseball Federation is a payment to the Cuban government."
"The U.S. does not support actions that would institutionalize a system by which a Cuban government entity garnishes the wages of hard-working athletes who simply seek to live and compete in a free society," National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis added to the AP. "The administration looks forward to working with MLB to identify ways for Cuban players to have the individual freedom to benefit from their talents, and not as property of the Cuban state."
National Security Adviser John Bolton expressed similar sentiments on Twitter on Sunday. He also suggested that by paying the CBF release fees, MLB is enabling Cuba to continue supporting the regime of Nicolas Maduro, the disputed president of Venezuela who's trying to hold onto power.
Cuba wants to use baseball players as economic pawns – selling their rights to Major League Baseball. America's national pastime should not enable the Cuban regime's support for Maduro in Venezuela.
— John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) April 7, 2019
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) took things a step further, suggesting Monday that the agreement between MLB and the CBF amounted to "legalized trafficking of persons."
Regime cut a deal with baseball to allow players to leave, but only if MLB pays them a ransom
In essence they want legalized trafficking of persons
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) April 8, 2019
This is a particularly bad argument, largely because it implies that forcing Cuban players to resort to paying shady smugglers to help them defect is a better solution than a deal that lets them come and go between Cuba and the U.S. without risking their lives or those of their families.
The CBF said as much in a statement to CNN: "The agreement with MLB seeks to stop the trafficking of human beings, encourage cooperation and raise the level of baseball. Attacks with political motivation against the agreement achieved harm [to] the athletes, their families and the fans."
To be clear, the CBF is not the proverbial "good guy" in this situation. If the organization really cared about its players' well-being, it would allow them to live where they please. The CBF can easily prevent those players from choosing to be smuggled out of the country by getting rid of the policies that drive them to defect in the first place.
But the Trump administration is at fault as well. "The MLB deal with Cuba solved a horrible human trafficking problem," James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, which promotes normalized U.S.-Cuba relations, told NBC News. "By breaking that deal, the White House now owns this and exposes Cuban players to human rights abuses."
The communist Cuban government undoubtedly has many policies in place that harm its own citizens. But as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and others have argued in Reason, enforcing an economic embargo against the country does nothing to weaken the Cuban government. If anything, it hurts the Cuban people who can't benefit from American investment.
This current situation is a perfect example. The deal between MLB and CBF meant talented Cuban players would have easier and safer access to fame, fortune, and all the trappings that come with them. The Trump administration says it's trying to look out for these ballplayers. But this move will undoubtedly make their lives harder. Unfortunately, it appears that taking a hardline stance against Cuba is more important than giving players the opportunity to safely come to the U.S.
And many players will still want to come over, as the financial incentive is enormous. (Puig has made more than $51 million in his MLB career, Abreu has earned nearly $69 million, and Chapman will have made more than $100 million by the time his current contract is up.) But they might have to risk their lives to do so.
"The biggest impact is going to be the guys who are back in Cuba," Chapman said before Monday night's game. "It's going to be tough, because now the opportunity's being taken away, and some of them still want to play here at this level. And, unfortunately, they might find themselves making difficult decisions in how to get here."