MLB, Cuban Baseball Federation sign agreement to limit defections, trafficking of players

Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association reached a historic agreement Wednesday with the Cuban Baseball Federation.

The agreement, which MLB owners voted on Wednesday afternoon, is designed to give Cuban players an alternative to a journey that often takes them to third countries such as Mexico, the Dominican Republic or Haiti where they establish residency and then try to sign MLB contracts.

“This puts them at considerable hardship. They are often forced to contract with criminal smuggling gangs and pay a fair amount of money from their signing bonuses to smugglers,” said Dan Halem, MLB deputy commissioner. “Some are also harassed by smugglers after they sign.”

“Dealing with the exploitation of smugglers and unscrupulous agencies will finally come to an end for the Cuban baseball player. To this date, I am still harassed,” said White Sox first baseman José Abreu. The future generation of Cuban baseball players, he said, “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.”

Under the agreement that has been under negotiation for the past three years, any Cuban player 25 years or older with at least six years of professional experience in Cuba would be eligible to be released from a Cuban Baseball Federation (FCB) contract to potentially play in the majors. “Those players could come in as free agents and sign with any club,” Halem said.

He said younger Cuban players also might be released with the approval of the FCB.

If a Cuban player under 25 years chooses to defect in the future, such a player could still sign with an MLB team but would be subject to a waiting period of one to two years.

“This is designed to discourage smuggling. Smugglers want to be paid right away,” Halem said.

“To know future Cuban players will not have to go through what we went through makes me so happy,” said Yasiel Puig, now a Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder. “I want to thank everyone who was involved in making this happen and thank them personally for allowing an opportunity for Cuban baseball players to have the ability to come and show how talented they are.”

The Cuban players’ salaries and bonuses will be deposited in the bank account of their choice, Halem said. Under the agreement, the Cuban government would not charge the players “any special tax” beyond that assessed on any other Cuban national who works abroad, he said.

The FCB would get release fees from major league clubs that sign the Cuban players under the same rules that govern foreign players from Japan, China and Korea who come to the United States to play. The Cuban agreement is similar to accords signed with leagues from those three countries.

If the agreement had been in effect for the prior signing period from June 2015 to July 2, 2017, the total release fees paid to the FCB would have been around $2 million.

“It could be less or it could be more in the future,” Halem said. “We don’t think the money is that significant.” And he added, the payments to the FCB are to be used for baseball purposes.

There were 26 Cuban players in major league baseball during the 2018 season, and 17 Cuban players on 2018 opening day rosters.

MLB officials said the agreement complies with U.S. regulations for doing business with Cuban entities and that in 2016, MLB received guidance from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control that an agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation would be possible under existing U.S. law.

“The players would sign in Cuba and come to the U.S. on work visas and bring their families or not,” said Halem, who is also league’s chief legal officer. The players could return to Cuba during the offseason or they could live in the United States and apply for residency, he said.

In the past, because Cuban players’ only alternative to realize their MLB dreams was to defect, it often resulted in long family separations.

The agreement, which only covers players under contract with the FCB, expires on October 31, 2021, unless both sides agree to extend it.

The Cuban and U.S. leagues began negotiating the agreement even before former President Barack Obama visited Cuba in March 2016 to cement his historic opening with Cuba.

During that visit the Tampa Bay Rays played against the Cuban national team, the first such exhibition since 1999 when the Baltimore Orioles played in Cuba. At the time of the Obama visit, Cuban baseball officials said they would be willing to let Cuban players pursue their MLB dreams, but only as long as they were treated the same as other foreign players in the majors.

“An historic day for world baseball!” the Cuban Baseball Federation tweeted after the agreement was announced. “We have reached an agreement that will make the Cuban presence in the Big Leagues orderly.”

The FCB also noted in a statement that “Cuban players will be able to play in the American professional leagues without losing their residency in Cuba or their link to Cuba baseball.”

“The agreement took three years to negotiate because there were a lot of sticking points,” said Halem.

The Trump administration didn’t seem very impressed with the historic agreement.

“The administration is actively assessing the Obama-era policies that Major League Baseball appears to have leveraged to enter into this arrangement with the Cuban Baseball Federation. 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,” said a senior administration official.

But the bottom line is that both sides hope the agreement will make a dent in the trafficking of players and provide an alternative to a player defecting from the island.. “When players defect, there is no guarantee that they will sign with our clubs,” Halem said. “They don’t really know how they compare with MLB players.”

And some who are unable to sign MLB contracts end up stuck in third countries with no recourse, he said.

“For years, Major League Baseball has been seeking to end the trafficking of baseball players from Cuba by criminal organizations by creating a safe and legal alternative for those players to sign with Major League Clubs,” said Commissioner of Baseball Robert D. Manfred, Jr. “We believe that this agreement accomplishes that objective and will allow the next generation of Cuban players to pursue their dream without enduring many of the hardships experienced by current and former Cuban players who have played Major League Baseball.”

“This is a great example of how U.S.-based and Cuba-based organizations can negotiate and agree on win-win solutions that recognize and protect the interests of all stakeholders,’’ said Gustavo Arnavat, a Cuban American who is co-chair of Mercury Public Affairs and the former U.S. executive director of the Inter-American Development Bank.

Franco Ordoñez, a Washington reporter for McClatchy, contributed to this report.