Rubio calls deal to allow Cuban players to sign with MLB ‘a farce,’ vows to overturn it

As representatives of Cuba’s baseball league held informational meetings with players across the island this week on a new deal that will make it easier and safer for them to play Major League Baseball in the United States, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio questioned the legality of the agreement.

In a move negotiators say is designed to prevent smuggling of Cuban baseball players off the island, sometimes via perilous sea passages arranged by people traffickers, MLB and the MLB Players Association signed a deal earlier this month with the Cuban Baseball Federation (FCB) that would offer Cuban players an alternative to defection.

But in a tweet Thursday, Rubio questioned whether the Cuban Baseball Federation was truly independent of the Cuban government and whether MLB could legally sign such a deal.

“Legality of recent agreement between MLB & Cuban Baseball Federation rests on Obama era ruling that federation not controlled by Cuban govt. This is not just factually incorrect, it is a farce & I am working to get it overruled as soon as possible,” Rubio posted on Twitter.

MLB officials said Friday that prior to announcing the agreement — which had been under negotiation for the past three years — the organization had been in touch with officials from the Trump administration and there was no indication that the deal was anything other than legal.

In 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department concluded that the FCB isn’t part of the Cuban government. An attorney familiar with the negotiations said its status is considered similar, for example, to the U.S. Olympic Committee, which is independent of the U.S. government.

When President Donald Trump came to Miami in June 2017 and signed a memorandum of understanding that toughened U.S. policy on Cuba, the administration also noted that it didn’t want to hurt U.S. businesses that already had agreements in place with Cuban entities.

“U.S. businesses that have contingent or other types of contractual agreements with the Cuban government that were agreed to prior to the time the new regulations come out will be allowed to continue with their transactions,” according to a government fact sheet put out last year.

“We are surprised that some politicians oppose an agreement that is designed to end human trafficking, that our players who were victims of human trafficking support, and that provides no economic benefit to MLB,” the league said in a statement on Friday. “The alternative to entering into the agreement is allow the current system in which players are trafficked to continue, and that was not an alternative acceptable to MLB and the Players Association.”

Under the agreement, any Cuban player 25 years or older with at least six years of professional playing experience in Cuba would be eligible to be released from a contract with the Cuban Baseball Federation, come into the United States as a free agent and sign with any MLB club. Younger “amateur” players also could be released with the permission of the FCB.

The Cuban Baseball Federation began three days of meetings Thursday with professional players to explain the new agreement that will allow Cuban players to sign Major League contracts while they are still in Cuba and to maintain their links with their families and Cuban baseball.

Although the new agreement took place immediately on Dec. 19, the earliest the FCB could release a younger “amateur” player to sign a contract with an MLB club would be July 2, 2019. For Cuban players 25 years and older, the first time they would be eligible to sign contracts would be during the free agency period following the next World Series, which would be in November 2019.

Rubio also has objected to the MLB agreement because he said “the regime will impose a new income tax on the players earnings, even though the income is being earned by playing in the U.S.”

However, MLB officials have said that under the agreement no special taxes are to be assessed against Cuban players and their income is not to be taxed beyond the levels that any other Cuban’s salary would be taxed. The tax issue was important for MLB Players Association, which was at the table during the negotiations.

Under the agreement, a club contracting a Cuban player would pay a one-time release fee between 15 and 20 percent of the total Major League contract to the FCB. That fee would be in addition to a player’s contract, so if a Cuban player signed a $1 million contract, $1 million would go directly to the player and an additional $150,000-$200,000 would be paid to the FCB as the release fee.

On a Minor League contract, the FCB would receive 25 percent of the signing bonus for a Cuban player.

The MLB noted that under the former system “players reportedly pay human traffickers a large portion of salaries and bonuses in return for getting them out of Cuba.”

The FCB has said the release fees would be used for baseball purposes.

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi

Mimi Whitefield has covered Latin America and the Caribbean for more than two decades. The Miami Herald’s former Rio de Janeiro bureau chief and a 2017 winner of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, she now focuses on Cuba coverage.