US blocks MLB deal allowing Cubans to legally ‘play ball’

US blocks MLB deal allowing Cubans to legally ‘play ball’

By Luke Vargas   
Flickr photo: Mike Rastiello
Flickr photo: Mike Rastiello

By strictly enforcing a decades-old embargo, is the U.S. driving Cuban athletes back into business with human traffickers?

NEW YORK – The U.S. blocked a deal between Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Cuban Baseball Federation this week that would have formally allowed Cuban players to sign with American teams without having to illegally leave the island.

That deal was agreed to late last year and entailed MLB clubs paying fees to the Cuban Baseball Federation amounting up to a 20 percent fee of a Cuban player’s contract.

The MLB argued the deal was a better alternative to the current way many Cuban players end up in the major leagues – defecting during foreign exhibition games or paying human smugglers to whisk them out of the country, often without their families.

A Treasury Department official summarized the Trump administration’s objection to that deal in a letter to the MLB, contending that the Cuban Baseball Federation was an organ of the island’s government and should remain subject to a strict U.S. embargo.

Roberto González Echevarria, a professor of comparative literature at Yale University and author of “The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball,” agreed with that conclusion:

“Every dollar that goes to that dependent entity winds up in the hands of the regime, mostly of the military, who run everything that involves money in Cuba.”

Critics say blocking the MLB’s deal will push Cuban ballplayers back into business with unscrupulous smugglers, something the MLB said it hoped to avoid. Others accuse the Trump administration of putting partisan political considerations ahead of the interests of Cuban athletes by embracing positions designed to appeal to Cuban exiles.

González Echevarria said those arguments ignore the true culprit beyond the exploitation of Cuban ballplayers.

“If a Dominican player were to leave the Dominican Republic to play for the Yankees, he could do so, but not a Cuban – he cannot leave. A baseball player certainly can not do it. It was the regime itself which did not allow people to leave Cuba, and they had to take to the sea, and then of course they fell into the hands of people who take advantage of the situation.”

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