Baseball is the national pastime of both the United States and Cuba, but players from the Caribbean nation who dream of playing in the Major Leagues have only two options: defect during international tournaments or embark on maritime journeys at the mercy of human smugglers. Both options are extremely dangerous and preclude any chance of return to the players’ homeland.
Toward the end of the Obama presidency, however, an agreement was reached that would have removed the need for players to attempt smuggler-aided escapes from Cuba to fulfill their goal of playing in the U.S. Under the agreement, players would have been permitted to “to retain their Cuban citizenship, travel to the U.S. with their families and return to their homeland in the off-season.” In exchange, MLB clubs that signed Cuban players would have paid up to 25% of the signing bonus to the Cuban Baseball Federation.
Cuba had released the list of the first group of 34 MLB-eligible players.
The U.S. embargo against Cuba makes it illegal for Cuba to enter into financial arrangements with a U.S. entity unless the arrangement is licensed by the Treasury Department. But the Obama administration had determined, with support from MLB, that the Federation was “itself not part of the Cuban government,” allowing MLB to legally negotiate with the Federation.
In a major blow to MLB, the Treasury Department recently backed away from the previous administration’s position regarding the Federation and rescinded the landmark agreement. Thus, MLB and its member clubs would be violating the embargo by paying commissions to the Federation. According to National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis, the Obama-sponsored agreement would have “institutionalize[d] 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.”
The last-minute revocation seems to be directly related to Cuba’s involvement in Venezuela. According to National Security Advisor John Bolton, “America’s national pastime should not enable the Cuban regime’s support for Maduro in Venezuela.”
In response to the sudden turn of events, MLB Vice President Michael Teevan stated, “We stand by the goal of the agreement, which is to end the human trafficking of baseball players from Cuba.”
Thomas “Buddy” Bardenwerper and Andrew Distell are Entertainment and Sports Highlight Contributors for the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law and current first year students at Harvard Law School (Class of 2021).