White House

Cuban baseball players strike out in new Trump administration decision

The Trump administration on Monday said it blocked a historic agreement that allowed Cuban baseball players to join a Major League Baseball team without having to defect because it enriched the Cuban government and used the players as “pawns.”

The administration objected to the Obama-era ruling, saying the agreement between Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation was prohibited because it would allow payments to the Cuban government.

“We look forward to the day that Cuban baseball players can fully contract with Major League Baseball like players from every other country in the world and not as pawns of the Cuban dictatorship,” a senior administration official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

The administration views the Cuban Baseball Federation as an entity of the Cuban government, the official said. “Therefore, the interpretation that had been given to MLB previously was not accurate.”

The Treasury Department sent MLB a letter on Friday explaining that it was reversing the Obama-era decision to authorize a general license, and that payments to the Cuban Baseball Federation were prohibited because “an employer may not make payments to the Cuban government.” Nikole Thomas, acting assistant director for licensing at the Office of Foreign Assets Control, said that MLB would need a “specific license” in order to make payments to the Cuban Baseball Federation.

“In light of facts recently brought to our attention, and after consultation with the U.S. Department of State, OFAC has determined that MLB ‘s payments to the Cuban Baseball Federation are not authorized,” Thomas wrote in the April 5 letter obtained by McClatchy.

The MLB reached an agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation in December that would allow Cuban baseball players to sign contracts directly with professional U.S. baseball clubs. Last week, the Cuban federation announced the first list of players who would be authorized to play under that agreement.

The Trump administration said Monday those players would not be allowed to complete any deals.

National Security Advisor John Bolton hinted at the announcement in a tweet over the weekend charging the Cuban government was using its country’s baseball players and “selling their rights to Major League Baseball” as a means to support Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro.

“The U.S. does not support actions that would institutionalize 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,” said Garrett Marquis, National Security Council spokesperson. “The Administration looks forward to working with MLB to identify ways for Cuban players to have the individual freedom to benefit from their talents, and not as property of the Cuban State.”

The announcement is a political win for some South Florida lawmakers, such as Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who vowed to fight the deal between MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation. He called on 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 Obama administration ruled then that the Cuban Baseball Federation is an independent entity from the government. In 2016, MLB said it obtained a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the Treasury Department to reach an agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation.

In response to Bolton and Rubio’s tweets, the Cuban Baseball Federation posted the following statement Monday on Twitter: “The agreement with #MLB seeks to stop the trafficking of human beings, encourage cooperation and raise the level of baseball. Any contrary idea is false news. Attacks with political motivation against the agreement achieved harm the athletes, their families and the fans.”

Major League Baseball defended its work with the Cuban Baseball Federation.

“We stand by the goal of the agreement, which is to end the human trafficking of baseball players from Cuba”

Baseball executives told McClatchy in December that they had been in regular contact with the Trump administration during the months of negotiations, including in the last several days before the announcement was made that month.

They described opposition to the deal as politically motivated and questioned why the administration was fighting an agreement designed to protect Cuban baseball players seeking to come to the United States from having to make the perilous ocean journey or sign up with dangerous human smuggling operations.

The Trump administration decision was a “a win for human smugglers in the Caribbean basin and a loss for just about everyone else impacted by this policy,” according to Cuba Study Group’s executive director Ricardo Herrero.

“Canceling this deal is just the latest heavy-handed blow by an administration bent on depriving the Cuban government of all resources without any regard whatsoever for the well-being or support of the Cuban people,” Herrero said.

A sports agent and a baseball trainer were convicted last year 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. White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu said in a statement released by MLB in December that he is still harassed by smugglers.

The administration pushed back, accusing the MLB of entering into an agreement that would essentially “institutionalize human trafficking” with the Cuban government since the government would receive a portion of future contracts.

“So one way or the other its human trafficking,” the administration official said. “The question becomes what human trafficking is better than the other. The answer is neither are.”

Nora Gámez Torres of the Miami Herald contributed to this report.

Updates with Treasury letter to MLB.

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.