Cuba has relaxed its strictures against athletes playing abroad, which is great news for organized baseball and its followers in places like Japan, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
But not for fans of Major League Baseball here in the good old U.S.A. To play here, athletes fleeing the repressive Havana regime must still engineer furtive defections from their island nation, often involving dangerous boat trips and almost always coming at the cost of leaving loved ones behind. The great irony is that these traumatic passages are now made necessary primarily by our rules, not by Cuba’s.
Cuba’s state-run newspaper, Granma, recently announced that Cuban athletes will be allowed to sign contracts with, and play for, professional teams in other countries. Previously, Cuban athletes were restricted to playing for national teams and competing for Cuba in international events, earning fixed salaries of around $20 a month. Athletes seeking greater opportunities had to flee.
The new Cuban policy does come with some restrictions. The Havana regime reserves the right to force Cuban players to perform at home in national leagues and to seek official approval prior to trips abroad. While Cuba has relaxed travel restrictions on ordinary citizens, it continues to monitor travel by skilled workers, including scientists and athletes, who it claims have greater obligations to the state.
Athletes seeking to play for American teams will, however, face even larger obstacles on our side of the border. The five-decade-old U.S. embargo prohibits almost all transactions with Cuba. That would almost certainly include paying salaries to Cuban players, especially since a portion of such salaries would make its way to the Cuban government via taxes.
John Sullivan, a spokesman for the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, confirmed that, in order to legally play in the major leagues, Cuban players will still need to “prove that they have permanent residency outside of Cuba.” Major League Baseball, for its part, said in a statement, “MLB and its clubs have and will continue to act in accordance with the laws and policies of the United States government.”
The Cuban policy seems to be mainly a response to continued defections by top athletes. Around the same time that the policy was announced, a 23-year-old relief pitcher named Raicel Iglesias disappeared during practices for the country’s national championship series. He was, reportedly, later found attempting to leave the island by boat and was detained by Cuban authorities. Had he been successful, his would have been the fourth defection from Cuba’s national squad this year. One of those earlier defectors, first baseman Jose Dariel Abreu, is now reportedly being courted by the Red Sox to strengthen a team that already appeared in this year’s World Series. A total of 21 Cuban-born players appeared on major league rosters this season. It is impossible to know how many more, like Iglesias, were unable to make the journey or decided not to try.
The stringent embargo, known in Cuba as “the blockade,” is an anomaly in U.S. diplomatic and trade relations. U.S. sports leagues are perfectly free to sign athletes from China, Vietnam, Belarus and Kazakhstan, all of which have governments at least as anti-democratic as Cuba’s. Relations between the U.S. and China may be occasionally strained, but we still exchange around $536 billion worth of goods a year. And while President Obama recently spent around 15 minutes on the phone with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, there have been no similar phone calls so far across the Florida Straits.
As of 2009, only 36 percent of Americans supported continuing the trade embargo, according to a Gallup poll. A slight majority, 51 percent, favored ending the policy, while the remaining 13 percent had no opinion. Cuban-Americans, however, particularly in Florida, have pushed to keep this Cold-War relic in place.
As I have written here before, for 50 years the embargo has failed to prompt the Cuban government to change its ways. It has, meanwhile, done a remarkably good job of isolating Cubans from exposure to democratic ideas and of providing a scapegoat for the regime’s economic failures.
Cuban-American baseball players disagree on how Havana’s policy change will play out. Dayan Viciedo, an outfielder who defected in 2008 and joined the White Sox, told The New York Times, “If guys can go play in Mexico or the Dominican or Venezuela and make some money, it could make a difference in the decision to come here.” Alexei Ramirez, who left Cuba in 2007 and also plays for the White Sox, countered that “The best league and the best players are here [in the U.S], not in Mexico,” adding that “good players will always want to play against the best.”
With its new policy, Cuba has given American officials a chance to step up to the plate. It’s time to play ball.