Human trafficking is not new, but smugglers have new clients: Cuban baseball players. That became clear with revelations about Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig’s flight from Cuba through violent smugglers who left a trail of death and deceit along the way.
Cuban boxer Yunior Despaigne, who fled with Puig, signed an affidavit claiming that Gilberto Suarez and others financed Puig’s escape to Islas Mujeres and Mexico for $250,000. Realizing Puig’s dollar value to a Major League Baseball team — there are 30 — the smugglers doubled the amount to be paid for his release.
Puig was held until the ransom was paid. As it turns out, the smugglers were working for the notorious Zetas Mexican drug cartel, which allegedly killed one involved in the plot over a dispute about money.
Is the trip worth the risk?
Baseball is a way of life in Cuba. Cuban baseball players are considered national icons; every time one defects, it is an embarrassment to the government. They are leaving to escape poverty and to fulfill a dream of playing for the MLB. In Cuba, a baseball player lives in poor conditions. earning between $12 and $16 a month. In the United States, the minimum salary reported by the MLB in 2013 was $490,000. Some, of course, earn much more. Puig has a $42-million contract with the Dodgers; White Sox star Jose Abreu earns $68 million. The difference in salaries between both countries would be almost comical were it not so sad.
Joe Kehoskie, a baseball agent and president and CEO of Joe Kehoskie Baseball has represented more than a dozen Cuban defectors. In an interview for Issues Reports, which I host 11 a.m. Sunday on WPBT2, Kehoskie says that professional smugglers work with U.S. sports agents to target and seduce players to leave Cuba. The smugglers/agents get up to 30 percent of the value of the player’s contract in return. He paints an ugly portrait of a sport that is considered America’s pastime.
Facing the embarrassment of the growing number of prominent ball players who are fleeing the island, the Cuban regime is softening its position now allowing some to play abroad as long as they return to Cuba to fulfill their commitments at home. Mexico and Japan have taken advantage, reportedly signing deals that range from $980,000 to $1.5 million. There are two catches: The Cuban government receive the players’ salaries, and none can play in the United States. It could become a lucrative business for the communist country that never lets its workers directly negotiate or be compensated by companies.
The Cuban government has long profited from the human trafficking of its best talent. That is the perspective of Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy, who calls out MLB Commissioner Bud Selig as a frequent visitor to Cuba and friend of members of the regime.
Photographs of Selig in Cuba sitting next to Fidel Castro support his view: “The real problem is that MLB does not treat Cuban players in the same way as they do other international players,” says Claver-Carone.
Under MLB rules, only Cubans who arrive in the United States via a third country are allowed to negotiate as free agents; that is where the lucrative contracts lie. MLB policy ignores Cubans who arrive legally by other means such like a visa or wet foot-dry foot. They can only be hired by a team as an amateur draft pick who earns far less. It is a rule the MLB could easily change, thus eliminating the stain of corruption and immorality associated with human trafficking.
There are those who say that the Cuban embargo is the culprit behind the human trafficking of ball players, but that clearly isn’t true. By changing its rules, the MLB could let all Cuban arrivals negotiate as free agents like other international players.
Cuban baseball players might not care how they get off the island, but the rest of us should. Human exploitation is wrong. The Florida Legislature was right in unanimously passing a law that attempts to pressure the MLB to level the playing field for all Cuban ball players. The story is out that sports agents and drug cartels are smuggling Cuban players; MLB needs to step up to the plate and do the right thing for all international ball players, including Cubans.