Since the 1960s, Cold War tensions between the United States and Cuba have left ordinary Cubans as well as athletes as pawns in an ideological struggle. The common language of baseball has been used as a diplomatic wedge between the two nations. American government laws and corporate MLB policies, however, have created a system where Cuban players must defect from the island, often by working with human traffickers, to play baseball in the United States. The 2018 MLB-FCB deal that would have permitted Cuban ballplayers to play in America was canceled by the Trump administration before it could take effect. This cancelation has negatively affected prospects for normalized relations between the United States and Cuba.
The crack of a bat hitting a ball has long been a familiar sound in New York City as well as Havana. The National League was established in the U.S. in 1876, and the first Cuban league was established only two years later. For the next 80 years, Cuban baseball players freely signed contracts with American teams. Likewise, American players often traveled to Cuba to play in the Cuban winter leagues. After the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro banned professional baseball in favor of an amateur system played simply for “the love of the game.” Despite being labeled as traidores al béisbol or “baseball traitors” by the Castro regime, dozens of Cuban baseball players have defected from the island since 1960 for the chance to compete in America. Players often rely on human traffickers and legal loopholes in order to make their way from Cuba to the United States and the Major Leagues.
During a period of détente in 2014, the Obama administration permitted Major League Baseball (MLB) to negotiate an agreement with the Federación Cubana de Béisbol or Cuban Baseball Federation (FCB) to allow Cuban baseball players to travel to America and play in the Major Leagues without defecting from Cuba. After two years of negotiations, a deal was reached between MLB and the FCB in December 2018. Before the deal could take effect, however, the Trump administration nixed the agreement, leaving Cuban baseball players and MLB stuck in the middle of an ongoing diplomatic struggle characterized by inconsistent government policies toward Cuban migrants and MLB policies that favor human trafficking. This paper will examine past U.S. government and MLB policy, how baseball has been used as a diplomatic tool, why and how players defect, the MLB-FCB deal struck in 2018, and how the Trump administration’s invalidation of the deal impacts prospects for normalized relations.
U.S. Government Policies
The free flow of Cuban baseball players to and from America effectively ended in 1961 with the establishment of the Cuban Embargo under President John F. Kennedy. Under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, Congress authorized the President to “establish and maintain a total embargo upon all trade between the United States and Cuba.” The impact of the embargo was felt immediately, as Cuban players could no longer be signed directly out of Cuba. After the Cuban government refused to allow him to return to the U.S. from his native Cuba, Rogelio Álvarez defected from Cuba in 1963 to continue playing with the Washington Senators. Álvarez’s defection was the first baseball-related defection to take place under the embargo. Only one other defection would occur in the next twenty-eight years; Bárbaro Garbey, already a successful player on the Cuban national team, defected alongside 125,000 others during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift.
Following the establishment of the embargo, American government regulation and legislation expanded the reach of the sanctions. The Cuban Assets Controls Regulations (CACR), passed by Congress in 1963, broadened the sanctions to include Treasury Department regulation of all commercial activity with Cuba. The goal of CACR was to “isolate the Cuban government economically and deprive it of U.S. dollars.” For MLB and its individual teams, CACR meant that agents and scouts could not conduct business in Cuba, which eliminated the possibility of Cuban players being identified and signed by American teams while still on the island.
Congressional legislation in the 1990s was aimed at further isolating the Cuban government. The 1992 passing of the Cuban Democracy Act (CDA) further limited the ability of American businesses and their subsidiaries to perform business activities in Cuba. In 1996, U.S.-Cuban relations were further damaged when Cuban MiGs downed two planes belonging to the American charity Brothers to the Rescue or “Hermanos al Rescate.” In response, Congress passed the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act, commonly known as the Helms-Burton Act. In addition to placing further restrictions on trade with Cuba, the Helms-Burton Act markedly limited the power of the President to unilaterally ease trade restrictions. The downing of the planes and subsequent passing of the Helms-Burton Act signified the low point of U.S.-Cuban relations in the 1990s.
Baseball Diplomacy and Major League Baseball Policy
In 1999, the Clinton administration began a process of normalizing relations with Cuba. As a part of the normalization of relations, the Department of State authorized the first games in Cuba featuring American teams since 1959. The Baltimore Orioles traveled to Havana in March 1999 to play a series of exhibition games against the Cuban National Team; however, policy toward Cuba overshadowed the games themselves. The decision by the Clinton administration to hold games in Cuba provoked various responses from politicians and the baseball community with some claiming the games provided the legitimacy that Castro sought, while others claimed a thawing of relations was praiseworthy. The greatest concern of the games, however, was the question of money. Since the 1960s, American law had prohibited the transfer of funds to the Cuban government. As a workaround, all profits from the games were mandated to go to charities operating in Cuba that were not controlled by the Cuban government. The Cuban National Team traveled to Baltimore in May for another series of games under the same requirements.
The media attention focused on the games highlighted the unique place that sports, particularly baseball, have in capturing and forming public opinion in America.
“While Cuban-American exchanges in other professions (orchestra, teachers, etc.) had received some notice, the exchange of baseball teams received wide press coverage. The focus of this coverage was both regarding the respective quality of the teams as well as the potential impact that this type of exchange could have on foreign relations in general. When the games were over, many expected that this type of exchange would continue.”
Despite the hopes of many Americans and the Clinton administration, the Orioles exchange of 1999 was the only such exchange. Republican lawmakers decried the whole series of games as being too friendly to Castro. Orioles Vice-President, Syd Thrift, “lamented to the press that ‘the trip was supposed to be non-political. It was supposed to be just baseball.’” Every action between the United States and Cuba, however, involves a political angle. The failure to capitalize on the popular attention paid to the games ultimately thwarted President Clinton’s attempts to improve relations with Cuba.
The 1999 Baltimore Orioles trip was not the first time that the U.S. government had used baseball as a diplomatic wedge with Cuba. In the 1970s, then-MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn twice attempted to facilitate the playing of exhibition games in Cuba. In 1976, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger authorized the playing of games in Havana, but Cuban involvement in the Angolan Civil War led Kissinger to cancel the games. In early 1977, Kuhn once again reached out to the Cuban government with the proposition for an American all-star team to travel to Cuba to play a Cuban all-star team. The games never occurred because of disagreement between the Cuban Institute of Sports and Commissioner Kuhn about what team would be sent; Fidel Castro wanted to see the Yankees, not an MLB all-star team.
The 1977 debacle left Commissioner Kuhn publicly humiliated and embittered toward Cuba after the proposal fell through in March. One month later, in April 1977, Kuhn sent a letter that came to be known as the Kuhn Directive to all 26 MLB teams. The directive, MLB’s first permanent policy toward Cuba, prohibited any Major League club from negotiating with or recruiting any Cuban player. Although U.S. law already restricted the conduct of business in Cuba, including signing contracts with Cuban baseball players, the Kuhn Directive added further restrictions at the corporate level.
After Cuban pitcher Renee Arocha’s 1991 defection was facilitated by several sports agents, MLB amended the Kuhn Directive “to forbid all major league teams from discussing and negotiating with anyone in Cuba about signing a Cuban baseball player.” “The intersection of MLB guidelines with the Cuban embargo means that any Cuban player seeking to play at the professional level must defect.”
Why Cuban Ballplayers Defect
Since Arocha’s defection, dozens more Cuban players have defected from the island with the goal of playing professional baseball in the United States. Certain athletes defected due to the poor standard of living in Cuba following the loss of Soviet support in 1990. Still others defected “because the government denied them basic fundamental rights and freedoms.” The most common reason for defection, however, is money.
In 1961, Castro dissolved Cuba’s professional leagues in favor of a “government-run, amateur system” with wages comparable to that of the common laborer. Since 1961, wages have scarcely risen. Cuban baseball players made around $17 per month in 2013. Recognizing the problem of defection due to money, “the Cuban Baseball Federation more than doubled the $17-a-month wages to $40 in 2014. Bonuses were awarded for the first time in 2013 with, “baseball players who appear in 70 percent of league games [being] awarded $208. League leaders in hitting and other categories get an extra $41. The team that wins the title gets $2,700 to split.” In addition, the Cuban Baseball Federation began allowing its players to compete in foreign leagues such as Japan, Mexico, or Korea in 2014. For Cubans playing baseball overseas, “anywhere from as low as 10% to as high as 75% of the player’s overseas salary is paid directly to the Cuban sports arm of the Cuban government.” The opportunity to earn more money playing abroad still draws players away from Cuba.
From 2009-2017, Cuban defectors playing in MLB signed more than $330 million worth of contracts with MLB teams. Star players Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu (both defectors) signed deals worth $42 million and $68 million, respectively. Prior to his defection, Yulieski Gourriel, third baseman of the Cuban National Team and arguably the best player on the island, earned approximately “13,000 Cuban pesos per month ($491 U.S. dollars per month).” Gourriel’s yearly salary in Cuba was .0006 percent of the yearly salary of the 5-year, $47.5 million contract that he signed with the Houston Astros.
How Cuban Ballplayers Defect
Defection from Cuba is risky and potentially deadly; up to 75 percent of those who attempted to escape by boat in 1994 died at sea. Some players, such as Renee Arocha in 1991 or Aroldis Chapman in 2009, defected in relatively safe circumstances while playing for the Cuban National Team in international tournaments. The more common manner of defection is to leave the island and establish residency in another country before signing with an MLB club. Together, MLB rules and U.S. law create differing eligibility and draft requirements regarding players who establish residency in the United States as opposed to those who establish residency in another country.
Under the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) of 1966, “Cuban natives or citizens living in the United States who meet certain eligibility requirements to apply to become lawful permanent residents (get a Green Card).” In 1995, the United States began interpreting the CAA to mean any immigrant from Cuba who landed on dry land would be permitted to pursue residency in the United States, while those intercepted at sea would be returned to Cuba. Although many Cubans who defect seek permanent residency in the United States under the CAA, baseball players often do not defect to the United States due to MLB signing procedures for residents of the United States. Cuban players who establish residency in the United States are treated the same as all natural-born or naturalized American or Canadian citizens; thus, Cuban immigrants who establish residency in the United States are subject to the Major League Baseball amateur draft and restrictions on monetary amounts for rookie contracts under MLB rules 3 and 4.
Players who choose to establish residency in a third country avoid contractual restrictions and are free to sign with any team of their choosing. This is known as the “El Duque” model after Cuban defector Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, who declined asylum in the United States in favor of asylum in Costa Rica. By accepting asylum in Costa Rica, Hernandez signed with the team of his choosing for millions more than he could have signed for if he was a resident of the United States and proceeded through the draft.
The monetary incentives to follow the “El Duque” model may encourage players to seek out “lancheros” or smugglers to ferry them off the island. Yasiel Puig’s defection in 2012 was documented in the ESPN investigative report “No One Walks Off The Island.” Puig’s journey from Cuba to the Majors involved being smuggled to Mexico by the drug cartel “Los Zetas” for $250,000, being kidnapped by a rival cartel, and funneling $8.4 million to the smugglers once he signed his first contract. Jose Abreu paid $6 million to the “lancheros” who helped him escape Cuba in 2013. ESPN’s Scott Eden described the trafficking of baseball players by writing:
…the smugglers want between 20 percent and 30 percent of the top-line value of a player’s first professional contract. That kind of revenue stream has interested a whole lot of colorful people in the underworlds of several countries: Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and, of course, Miami, USA. In Cancun, long the seat of smuggling rings that specialize in bringing regular civilians out of Cuba as well as ballplayers, turf wars have been waged over the business. Players have been stolen at gunpoint from one group by the next, hits taken out, rivals driven by and strafed, bullet-ridden corpses left lying in the streets.
Any attempts at diplomatic solutions must start with stemming the flow of players via human trafficking and allowing for safer means of coming to the United States to play baseball.
Analysis of 2018 MLB-FCB Agreement
In 2014, President Barack Obama initiated a period of détente with Cuba. The easing of relations was most significantly highlighted by the 2016 visit of Obama to Cuba, where he and Cuban leader Raul Castro enjoyed a baseball game together at Havana’s Latinoamericano Stadium. The greatest impact of the “Obama thaw” on baseball was the administration granting MLB a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control that allowed MLB to negotiate a deal with the FCB that would permit players to sign with MLB teams without defecting from Cuba. In December 2018, MLB and FCB came to an agreement that allowed players over the age of 25 to sign freely with Major League teams. As part of the deal, “[p]layers would come to the United States on work visas, and teams would pay the CBF (FCB)…for the release of their rights.” The payment to the FCB would be between 15 percent and 25 percent depending on the age of the player and other factors. MLB has long had similar deals in place with Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. Many sports agents, writers, players, executives, and certain politicians on both sides of the Straits of Florida had long advocated for an agreement that allowed the FCB to preserve its homegrown talent and maintain its own league structure while funneling certain players to the MLB; the 2018 agreement fulfilled those requirements.
The Cuban Institute for Sport, INDER, supported the deal and praised its positive impacts on human trafficking by saying in a statement, “The contract will contribute to stopping illegal activities like human trafficking that for years have put the physical integrity and life of many talented young Cuban baseball players at risk.” INDER stated the deal would provide a “‘collaborative, non-political and stable relationship between the CFB and the MLB” that would guarantee the ability of Cuban players to “be able to play in the American professional Leagues without losing their residency in Cuba or their link to Cuban baseball.”’ When the deal was announced, sportswriter Matt Provenzano called the deal, “an unambiguously good thing for baseball, for the United States, for Cuba, and the world.”
The MLB-FCB deal, however, was not without its detractors. A Trump administration official said the deal “would institutionalize a system by which a Cuban body garnishes the wages of hard-working athletes who simply seek to live and compete in a free society.” Florida Senator Marco Rubio called the deal a “farce.”
Current players Jose Abreu and Yasiel Puig praised the MLB-FCB deal with Abreu, saying that players, “will be able to keep their earnings as any other player in the world, they 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.” Puig’s acknowledgment of the safe pathway the deal created was clear when he stated, “to know future Cuban players will not have to go through what we went through makes me so happy.” Major League Baseball spent more than $2 million in 2017 and 2018 lobbying in support of the deal.
Prospects for Normalized Relations
In sharp contrast to the Obama administration’s policy of normalizing relations with Cuba, the Trump administration rolled back certain Obama-era efforts to normalize relations, including introducing new sanctions. In 2019, the Trump administration “increased economic sanctions significantly to pressure the Cuban government …[w]ith these actions, U.S. policy toward Cuba has again shifted to a policy of strong economic pressure.” In line with the Trump administration’s policy of pressure on Cuba, the Department of the Treasury reversed course and nullified the MLB-FCB deal. The Obama administration maintained that the FCB was not a government entity, which allowed for the possibility of monetary transactions between MLB and the FCB. Trump administration officials claimed the opposite and revoked the deal because “the Cuban Baseball Federation is part of the Cuban government and therefore no payments could be made to the federation under U.S. sanctions.” This claim is contrary to the Cuban government’s statement that the FCB is not a government entity but instead is a subsidiary of the Cuban Olympic Committee, which is a non-governmental entity.
As long as no safe pathway to the United States exists, Cuban baseball players will continue to defect from the island. This process of defection harms the United States on two fronts. First, the inability of defectors to return to the island after being exposed to the capitalist, multi-party system of the United States limits the prospects for democratic reform on the island. Second, when players defect, they often rely on and pay a large portion of their contract to human traffickers for the chance to play professional baseball in America. With no agreement that allows Cubans to play baseball freely in America, human traffickers will continue to be utilized and paid for the service they provide. An agreement, such as the 2018 MLB-FCB deal, may permit payments to the Cuban government, but it would also significantly reduce the amount of money paid to traffickers. With or without a deal, an entity—criminal smugglers or the Cuban government—will get paid. The United States must decide which option, allowing smugglers to make money from players or permitting payments to the Cuban government, is better aligned with its national interest and values.
The cancelation of the MLB-FCB deal by the Trump administration, along with the repealing of various other Obama-era policies, has placed the United States back in a pre-détente relationship with Cuba and diminished prospects for normalized relations. In order to move beyond a zero-sum, Cold War-style diplomatic relationship with Cuba, baseball diplomacy must be a key aspect of negotiations between the two nations. To begin this process, the United States must develop a clear and cohesive strategy as opposed to the antithetical political policies of diplomatic thaw, which occurred under President Clinton and President Obama, and the increased pressure of President Trump. As evidenced by the slew of legislation regarding Cuba since 1959, Congress has been the primary determiner of American foreign policy toward Cuba, including restricting the power of the executive to unilaterally ease trade restrictions. Since 2000, however, Congress has ceded foreign policy actions regarding Cuba to the executive branch. This devolution of powers has allowed the inconsistent, executive-directed policies that have dictated U.S.-Cuban relations in the 21st century.
In order to move forward, Congress must take a more active role in guiding American foreign policy toward Cuba. The first step in this increased role should be the passage of legislation permitting the 2018 MLB-FCB deal to move forward as agreed upon, regardless of the status of the FCB. This Congressional action would still allow the primary author of foreign policy, the President, to maintain political and economic pressure or allow for détente with the Cuban government, while simultaneously mandating an olive branch between the two nations. With baseball established as the common language of U.S.-Cuban diplomacy, the two countries may finally be able to “play ball” at the negotiating table.
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