By David Adams @dadams7308
A proposal to allow baseball players from Cuba to sign directly with Major League Baseball teams in the United States has been submitted to the Treasury Department for approval, according to a source familiar with the plan.
The proposal, first reported by The New York Times, could end the risky smuggling of players out of the island and get around legal restrictions imposed by the decades-long United States economic embargo against Cuba that severely restricts U.S. companies and citizens from doing business in Cuba.
Instead, it would create legal channel for talented Cuban players to achieve their big league dreams without having to secretly abandon their Cuban teams. Top players on the island earn state-regulated salaries of $40-$200 a month on the island and in recent years have deserted the island in droves, either by walking out on their team while playing abroad or fleeing the island on homemade rafts and smuggler boats.
The Cuban government blames the defections on the sanctions that do not allow contracts with Cuban athletes who pay taxes to the government. Cuba also requires that overseas player contracts be approved by the government, and has lately approved a handful of contracts for players with foreign teams in Mexico and Japan, though not the United States.
The proposal comes only three weeks before President Barack Obama will make a historic trip to Cuba, including attending an exhibition baseball game between the MLB's Tampa Bay Rays and a Cuban national team.
Under MLB's proposal a non-profit entity would be created composed of Cuban entrepreneurs and officials from Major League Baseball and its players’ union, according to the Times, citing MLB’s top lawyer, Dan Halem. A percentage of salaries paid to Cuban players would go to the non-profit and support youth baseball, education and improving sports facilities in Cuba.
The new plan could satisfy the terms of the embargo as it would steer proceeds from deals involving Cuban players away from the Cuban government. The salaries for the Cuban players contracted abroad are currently regulated by the country’s sports agency.
MLB, which runs professional baseball in North America, declined to comment on the proposal. The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces the embargo, also declined to comment saying the approval of licenses is a confidential process.
Obama in Havana
President Obama is due to travel to Havana March 21-22, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit since 1928. "Charting new #CubaPolicy means stronger ties between Cubans & Americans - we all share a love of baseball,” tweeted Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser after the Havana game was announced on Tuesday.
The Rays will be the first MLB team to play in Havana since 1999 when they face Cuba's national team. “The exhibition game between the Rays and the Cuban National Team marks another milestone celebrating the shared passion for the game of baseball between the United States and Cuba,” MLB said in a statement.
Obama’s visit comes 15 months after both countries agreed to take steps to normalize relations after 50 decades of hostility between the former Cold War enemies. The two countries restored diplomatic ties and reopened embassies in Havana and Washington last year.
How will Cuba respond?
MLB officials have been in discussion with officials in Cuba for some months, though it is not clear if the island's authorities approve of the proposal.
"This is one of many possible scenarios," said Peter Bjarkman, an expert on Cuban baseball an author of the upcoming book, 'Cuba's Baseball Defectors.' "What we can be certain of here is that MLB will not pull all the strings and the Cuban government will have a large say in how this all plays out," he added. He warned Cuban officials would likely hold out for an end to the embargo. The Cuban government has owned their own baseball for five decades. It is hard to imagine that overnight they would suddenly now agree to let players move to MLB with all the residual profits going to some middle men and not coming directly to the Cuban baseball federation itself."
The Times reported that the proposal had been discussed informally with Cuban officials.
The Obama administration has been in quiet talks with MLB for some months to find a way around the embargo that would allow American teams to directly hire Cuban players as part of its normalization policy.
Some of Cuba's best players have abandoned the island, establishing residency in third countries to become eligible for the major leagues. There were a record 150 baseball defections in Cuba last year alone, experts say.
Several Cubans have signed lucrative MLB contracts in recent years, including Rusney Castillo of the Boston Red Sox, Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox, Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Yoenis Cespedes of the New York Mets. Abreu, who left his native Cuba in 2013, reportedly signed a six-year, $68 million contract after feeling Cuba and earning free agency status in Haiti. Puig, who left Cuba in 2012 signed a seven-year, $42 million contract.
Long a baseball powerhouse, Cuba was fully integrated into American baseball before the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Several U.S. teams had winter training facilities and farm systems in Cuba to recruit talent and U.S. professional also played on teams in Cuba.