MARCH 2, 2016
Major League Baseball has submitted a proposal to the Treasury Department that outlines a new pathway for baseball players from Cuba to sign directly with big league teams in the United States. If approved, it could represent a sea change in relations between the two countries and drastically reshape how Cuban players find their way to the major leagues.
For decades, Cubans have had to play for minuscule wages — now $40 to $200 per month — or defect from their island homeland to pursue baseball careers in America. A Cold War-era embargo that only Congress can remove is still in place and largely prohibits American companies and citizens from doing business in Cuba.
Under the proposed plan, according to M.L.B.’s top lawyer, Dan Halem, an entity made up of Cuban entrepreneurs and officials from baseball and its players’ union would be created. A percentage of salaries paid to Cuban players would go to the new body, which would function like a nonprofit organization and support youth baseball, education and the improvement of sports facilities in Cuba.
The proposed body could satisfy the terms of the embargo, M.L.B. contends, because no money would go directly to the Cuban government.
M.L.B. said it had yet to receive a response from the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces the embargo. Officials there declined to comment, citing the confidentiality of the license application process.
It is also not clear where the Cuban government stands, although Halem confirmed that the idea had been discussed informally with Cuban officials.
Cuba could still insist that a portion of the salaries for the Cuban players be directed to the country’s sports agency, which typically administers foreign contracts for players.
That may be difficult for the United States government to approve, but recent changes by the Cuban government to promote private business could offer clues as to how baseball could structure an arrangement.
The White House has been in behind-the-scenes talks with Major League Baseball for months on how best to navigate the complex web of legal and regulatory hurdles that govern business between the two countries and to create a new system that would allow American teams to acquire Cuban players directly.
Senior White House officials believe that resolution of the issue would represent an important symbolic moment in the thaw between the two nations, highlighting the potential for Americans and Cubans to bond over a common cultural obsession even as their governments remain divided over politics and policy.
President Obama will travel to Havana on March 21, becoming the first sitting United States president to visit in 88 years. The Tampa Bay Rays will play the Cuban national baseball team in an exhibition game on March 22, and Mr. Obama is expected to attend.
Cuban officials have also expressed interest in finding a safer path to the major leagues for their players.
“To play in that type of baseball — in the United States — where the majority of the greatest players in the world want to be, you need to give up something big here, your dignity of being Cuban,” Higinio Velez, the president of the Cuban Baseball Federation, said in December. “We hope that, in the future, Cuban players can go anywhere in the world and play, representing their federation, and that there are not intermediaries that take advantage of them.”
While the decision on drafting players from Cuba is pending, there is urgency for such an accord.
Waves of Cuban ballplayers are leaving the island: According to OnCuba, a Miami-based magazine, 150 players left Cuba last year. Many are still seeking contracts with big league organizations. Often they travel in the hands of smugglers and under other dangerous circumstances.
Bart Hernandez, a sports agent, was indicted last month on charges of human trafficking related to bringing Cuban players to the United States. Another agent recently cut ties with a player who defected; the agent said he had received a death threat from the player’s trainer in the Dominican Republic.
Because of complex immigration and free-agency rules, Cuban players must establish residency in a third country to enter the market for American teams and cash in on a lucrative contract, as stars like Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Aroldis Chapman of the Yankees have done in recent years.
In recent months, as lurid stories of human trafficking have become public, M.L.B. has considered issuing a moratorium on signing Cuban defectors, but it is concerned that that would cut off an outlet for Cubans seeking professional careers.
Such a policy could also be subject to a legal challenge. The Justice Department investigated the Baltimore Orioles for discriminatory hiring practices in 2000 when the team’s owner, Peter G. Angelos, was accused by Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, of not signing Cuban defectors. The Orioles were eventually cleared.
A working relationship with the Cuban Baseball Federation may be the best way forward.
Baseball’s players’ union and the Cubans would have to sign off on the proposal, but it could settle the question of what is legal under United States law, opening the way for more substantive talks between the union and the Cubans on issues such as which players could be signed, how much of their salaries would be earmarked for M.L.B.’s proposed organization and how players might continue to compete in international tournaments for Cuba.
“We’re trying to devise a better player acquisition process,” Halem said during an M.L.B. good-will tour of Cuba in December.
Discussions, which he called “very preliminary,” began last summer.
“This is like in the infancy, and we’re still trying to get a better read from our government,” Halem said.
Changes in Cuba in recent years have given citizens more freedom in the private sector and given indications of how baseball might proceed. The Cuban government has allowed more citizens to engage in cuentapropismo, or self-employment, in ventures like opening restaurants and food stands, working as clowns at birthday parties and driving taxis. Baseball players could be granted special licenses to follow a similar model, with the government taxing their American salaries.
Worker cooperatives are another possibility. Ballplayers could form a group, as farmers and restaurant workers have done, and negotiate directly with major league teams.
“It would be wise to look at the Cuban economy, where reforms have already been undertaken,” said Matthew Aho, a special adviser on Cuba at the New York law firm Akerman L.L.P. “In recent years, we’ve seen an increasing tendency to allow Cubans to participate in private economic activity. Cubans see the exodus of their players leaving, so there is an incentive to cooperate in a solution.”
As if to underscore that belief, the Cuban government allowed several defectors — Puig and the Chicago White Sox’ Jose Abreu among them — to return to Cuba as part of the good-will tour and to visit with family members they had not seen since leaving Cuba.
Still, when the brothers Lourdes Gourriel Jr. and Yulieski Gourriel deserted a Cuban club after the Caribbean Series several weeks ago, the government issued a sharp statement, saying the Gourriels had abandoned their team in “an open attitude of surrender to merchants of professional baseball for profit.”
Amid the continuing conversations, the indictment of Hernandez, the sports agent, shows why an accord is badly needed.
Leonys Martin, an outfielder with the Seattle Mariners, left Cuba in 2010. In legal filings, he claimed that he was held hostage by armed smugglers in Mexico and that his family was held captive in Miami while Hernandez and his agency, Praver Shapiro Sports Management, negotiated a contract so Martin could pay a ransom for their release. (In a statement, a lawyer for Hernandez said he was innocent of the charges.)
Charles Hairston, a sports agent, recently told Fox Sports that he cut ties with the 16-year-old Cuban prospect Lazaro Armenteros, who had defected, after Armenteros’s trainer in the Dominican Republic threatened Hairston’s life.
“Nobody can deny that our stock of Cuban baseball players, for the most part, involve smuggling, kidnapping, extortion and extreme danger,” said Martin’s lawyer, Paul H. Minoff. “We want to make sure Cuban players can still reach the major leagues, but as a society we can’t turn our backs on what that often means for these players.”