Trump administration's nixing of MLB player transfer
deal with Cuba is bad policy
Andrew Zimbalist, Forbes
There are 23 Cuban-born players on major league team rosters and another 108 on minor league teams. Some of baseball’s most exciting stars are among this group, including Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes, Aroldis Chapman, Leonys Martin and Yuli Gurriel. All of these Cuban-born players had to defect from Cuba, and many did so following physically dangerous routes, often with the assistance of smugglers. These smugglers demand a share of the players’ income, and several continue to haunt the players today.
In order to avoid the peril and the human trafficking, in 2016 Major League Baseball sought and received permission from the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the U.S. Treasury Department to negotiate a player transfer system with the Cuban Baseball Federation, known as the FCB. MLB and the FCB reached an agreement that was similar to the agreements that MLB has with baseball organizations in Japan, South Korea, China and Mexico. In addition, the new system would have allowed Cuban players to live in or visit Cuba and would have promoted the integration of Cuban players into the major leagues. It also would have provided for MLB scouts to travel to Cuba to identify promising players, avoiding the situation where a Cuban player defects but is then not signed to a professional contract and is stuck in a third country without employment and unable to return home.
Upon hearing of the agreement, Abreu, a Chicago White Sox slugger, commented that “knowing that the next generation of Cuban baseball players will not endure the unimaginable fate of past Cuban players is the realization of an impossible dream for all of us. Dealing with the exploitation of smugglers and unscrupulous agencies will finally come to an end for the Cuban baseball player.” Despite bipartisan support in Congress, the Trump administration rejected the accord this week.
The Trump administration claims that Major League Baseball’s player transfer deal with the Cuban Baseball Federation violates U.S. law because it constitutes trading with the Cuban government. The claim is wrong on two counts. First, there are a number of carve-outs in the existing embargo legislation that have allowed and continue to allow U.S. companies to trade with and make payments to the Cuban government. Second, it has been recognized by OFAC and the International Olympic Committee that the FCB is independent of the Cuban government.
Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, likely the architect behind the scuttling of the player transfer deal, argues that allowing the deal would facilitate Cuba’s support of the Maduro government in Venezuela. This contention is absurd. The real aid has been flowing the other way, from Venezuela to Cuba, but has slowed to a trickle. Other than sending doctors and teachers to Venezuela, Cuba does not have the resources to support Maduro in any meaningful way.
Certainly, the dollars that could flow to Cuba from the player transfer deal would have no impact on Maduro, or even on the Cuban economy. The player transfer deal would have enabled Cuban players to be signed by MLB teams, and 15% to 20% of each player’s guaranteed contract value would have been paid to the FCB. In Japan, South Korea, China and Mexico, a similar payment is made to the player’s former team.
MLB estimates that if the transfer deal were allowed, 33 players would have become eligible for transfer on July 2. Based on an average bonus of $200,000 per player, the payment to the FCB would have been approximately $1.5 million. In contrast, U.S. airline, financial and telecommunications companies have legally made payments to the Cuban government in excess of $100 million in recent years. Further, the transfer deal stipulated that any money received by the FCB would be spent on the development of baseball in Cuba.
So once more, the Trump administration has invented a rationalization out of whole cloth to justify a policy that is counterproductive and deleterious. For Cuban ballplayers, it will mean more fear, danger, uncertainty and separation from their families. For U.S. baseball fans, it will mean a diminution in the talent stream that they can enjoy on the playing field. For U.S.-Cuba relations, it is the perpetuation of an embargo policy that has utterly failed in its effort to depose the Castro regime year after year since 1960.
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