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Trump administration aims to stop professional baseball deal with Cuba

New agreement aims to cut down on smuggling of Cuban ball players

MLB and its players association sign an agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation that would allow experienced players to come to the U.S. on work visas and sign as free agents to cut down on defection and smuggling.
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MLB and its players association sign an agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation that would allow experienced players to come to the U.S. on work visas and sign as free agents to cut down on defection and smuggling.

The Trump administration is expected to take steps to block a historic agreement that would allow Cuban baseball players from joining Major League Baseball in the United States without having to defect, according to an official familiar with the discussions.

The administration wants to reverse an Obama-era ruling that says the Cuban government doesn’t run the island’s professional baseball league. Such a position gave MLB space to negotiate and reach the deal with Cuban baseball and circumvent the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, who vowed to fight the deal between Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball federation, has been pressing the State Department to review the 2016 ruling and asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo personally to rule that the Cuban government controls the island baseball league and therefore nullify the deal.

“The deal between MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation is both illegal and immoral,” Rubio told McClatchy. “This terrible one-sided agreement will only enrich the regime and further exploit the Cuban people.”

Marco Rubio
Sen. Marco Rubio Chip Somodevilla Getty Images

The crux of the agreement rests on the Obama administration ruling that the Cuban Baseball Federation is an independent entity from the government. In 2016, MLB obtained a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the Treasury Department to reach an agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation.

It is up to Treasury to revoke the license, but it first needs guidance from the State Department. State is currently reviewing the foreign policy guidance from 2016. Once that process is complete, State will provide guidance to Treasury and then OFAC can provide a response to MLB. Without guidance from State, Treasury can’t revoke or grant a license.

The administration did not respond to specific questions about plans to scuttle the deal, but officials have been clear they feel the agreement would “institutionalize a system by which a Cuban body garnishes the wages of hard-working athletes who simply seek to live and compete in a free society.”

“Parties seeking to benefit from business opportunities in Cuba are on notice that the administration will continue to take actions to support human rights and restrict the Cuban regime’s ability to profit from U.S. business,” a senior administration official said.

MLB officials said they had been in regular contact with the Trump administration during the months of negotiations, including in the last several days with top officials at the White House and State Department who were supportive of the arrangement.

“Until the 11th hour, the messaging to MLB was that the administration would not have an issue with the agreement,” said Dan Halem, MLB’s deputy commissioner and chief legal officer.

The agreement is intended to give Cuban baseball players a chance to play baseball in the United States without having to make the perilous ocean journey or sign up with dangerous smuggling operations.

The extent of the danger was highlighted in a recent criminal case against a sports agent and a baseball trainer convicted of operating a sophisticated network that smuggled Cuban players off the island and took them to Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti where they established residency or obtained fake papers to then apply for U.S. visas and work licenses.

Many current and former Cuban baseball players who took such dramatic steps to play Major League Baseball praised the agreement.

“To this date, I am still harassed,” said White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu. “The next generation of Cuban baseball players will be able to sign an MLB contract while in Cuba, they will be able to keep their earnings as any other player in the world, they will be able to return to Cuba, they will be able to share with their families, and they will be able to play the sport they love against the best players in the world without fear and trepidation.”

Major League Baseball officials said they were surprised some politicians oppose an agreement that is designed to end human smuggling and that the alternative is allowing the current system in which players are trafficked to continue.

“We’ve been trying to end this practice and provide a safe and legal path for Cuban players to come to the United States for years,” Halem said.

The deal would allow Cuban baseball players who are 25 or older to play in the United States and then return to Cuba without penalty. The players, who must also have six years of professional experience in Cuba, would be eligible to play as free agents.

In exchange, the U.S. team would pay a one-time release fee between 15 and 20 percent of the total contract to the Cuban federation.

But since the announcement was made, Rubio has questioned its legality, called it a “farce” and expressed confidence the administration will take steps to prevent it.

“I am confident that Secretary Pompeo will overturn it as soon as possible,” Rubio said.

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Franco Ordoñez is a White House correspondent for the McClatchy Washington Bureau with a focus on immigration and foreign affairs. He previously covered Latin American affairs for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. He moved to Washington in 2011 after six years at the Charlotte Observer covering immigration and working on investigative projects for The Charlotte Observer.