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A Cuban-American Baseball Breakthrough

Cuban baseball player Yoenis Cespedes at bat for the New York Mets.
Yoenis Cespedes in 2015. Photo by Keith Allison.

Exactly 60 years ago today, Fidel Castro entered Havana after the fall of the Batista regime. It was not long before thousands of his countrymen, many of whom initially welcomed him as a liberator, began fleeing the island by any means available – an exodus that continues today.

Many past and present baseball stars have been part of this desperate diaspora. Some have horrific tales to tell of their encounters with secret police, human traffickers, sharks (the pelagic kind) and other hazards of the illegal and dangerous journey. That may soon change, however, with a little luck and a little restraint in anti-Castro politics in Washington, D.C.

Major League Baseball struck a deal with the Cuban Baseball Federation last month that would allow Cuban players to play in the U.S. (or Canada, in the case of the Toronto Blue Jays) without having to defect. The deal will run through Oct. 31, 2021. Both sides report that the U.S. Treasury Department has signed off on the agreement, although the White House or the State Department could still conceivably intervene.

The financial terms are reportedly similar to those that govern players from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. These terms include a “release fee,” which the MLB team will pay to the player’s Cuban club. Cuba also retains a claim to players until they are 25 and have played at least six years in the country’s domestic league, although the agreement leaves open the possibility of individual deals for younger players. Players with less than six years of experience may also be able to come to North America to play for minor league teams. And Cuban players will receive work visas that give them permission to travel freely to and from Cuba, meaning they will not have to choose between their careers and the chance to see their families.

The deal represents a huge improvement in the fortunes of Cuban players. For years, Cuban baseball players who wanted to play here have had to flee their country illegally, sometimes turning to criminal organizations to facilitate that flight. Defection includes the risk of incarceration if caught, as well as potential monetary demands or extortion from those who arrange the trip. Numerous Cuban-born baseball players have testified that coming to the U.S. was an undertaking that put their very lives in danger. This is not to mention the emotional toll that leaving behind family and friends entails. Under Cuban law, defectors must wait eight years before being allowed to visit family who remain on the island.

As an example of how this agreement could change lives, consider a pair of brothers: Yoenis and Yoelkis Cespedes. Yoenis, the older brother, began his MLB career with the Oakland A’s, transferred briefly to the Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers, and now plays for the New York Mets. At 33, he is a two-time All-Star and a two-time winner of the Home Run Derby. Yet his journey to the major leagues was a grueling one. Yoenis fled Cuba with a handful of family members but was separated from them during the trip, leaving them to face a journey of nearly two years. During that time, various family members endured jail, detention, threats of deportation and even a stint marooned on a Caribbean island without food or water. The group ultimately arrived in the United States in early 2013, which meant they could take advantage of the Cuban Adjustment Act and the former “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy; today, they would have faced yet another challenge in securing permission to stay in the country.

Yoenis’ younger half-brother, Yoelkis, was not among the family members who made that treacherous journey. Back in Cuba, Yoelkis is currently playing in the Cuban national baseball league’s postseason and working to differentiate himself from his brother’s success. Under the new agreement, the 21-year-old, slick-fielding “small Cespedes” would have a good chance to take his talents to America without having to endure the ordeal that his big brother experienced.

Yet despite the good it will do for athletes, the deal between MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation is not a universal hit. Prominent Cuban-Americans including Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Florida, and his fellow Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio have publicly criticized the deal. They, like many other Cuban-American critics, focused mainly on the fees that Cuban officials would receive; Diaz-Balart likened the agreement to human trafficking.

I am deeply sympathetic to the feelings of my Cuban-American neighbors in South Florida who can’t abide the Havana regime and oppose anything that might enrich or further entrench it. But when a policy of economic isolation fails to bring discernible results in nearly six decades, it is time to let it go in the interest of other approaches that are more promising. Even the most stringent sanctions did not topple the regime Fidel Castro and his heirs installed, nor did the decline of the regime’s original Soviet sponsors.

A strong case can be made that, to the contrary, by insulating the island from the economic gravitational pull of its northern neighbor, American efforts to isolate Cuba only prolonged and deepened its misery – especially it the absence of similar sanctions from even our closest allies.

As I write this, two of my personal friends are visiting Cuba. They have no family there, no government ties and no humanitarian causes to promote. It has simply become so easy for Americans to fit their trips into the permitted cultural and educational categories that de facto tourism has become accepted, even though it is still technically prohibited. One of my friends arrived and will depart Cuba by jet, the other on a cruise ship.

Personally, I have no intention of visiting the island while it remains under sanction, and I am in no rush to enjoy its debatable comforts, even absent those restrictions. I don’t begrudge other people their choices, but I do think it is appalling that Americans can travel to Cuba in safety, and even in luxury, while Cubans who want to ply their trade in America must risk their freedom and often their lives to do so.

I suggest we view the baseball agreement as a starting point. If it is to continue beyond its 2021 sunset date, we must reach other, related agreements in the meantime. At a minimum, Cuban ballplayers who choose to resettle in America should be free to bring close family members along. We should also demand at least some progress toward establishing a mechanism to resolve financial claims by Cuban-Americans and American businesses for property the regime forcibly expropriated or forced owners to forfeit.

Such actions would lead toward a greater normalization of relations between the two countries. Some of my fellow Floridians will oppose this. I think I understand their feelings, at least to the extent that I can without sharing their history. But ultimately, it makes no sense to continue to sanction Cuba and imperil its people when doing so has accomplished nothing in almost 60 years. We don’t impose similar sanctions against similarly repressive trade partners like Vietnam and China, after all.

In a best-case scenario, the baseball agreement can serve as a vehicle to get closer to a resolution of longstanding issues that have made the passage from Cuba to America so dangerous for all Cubans, not just for elite athletes. It will demonstrate that, as baseball devotees (including Fidel Castro) on both sides of the Florida Straits have long known, this sport is more than just a game.

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One Response to "A Cuban-American Baseball Breakthrough"

  • John Laburda
    January 8, 2019 - 9:32 am Reply

    Well done – really should be a boon for MLB

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