The Trump Administration has rejected an agreement between Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation regarding the movement of Cuban ballplayers, as Vivian Salama and Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal report. For the time being, the preexisting state of affairs will continue to govern any Cuban players that seek to join MLB organizations.
When the agreement was announced late last year, the hope was it would end the awkward, often-dangerous process by which Cuba’s best baseball talent made its way to the glory and riches of professional baseball. Generally prohibited from departing the island to sign with MLB clubs, Cubans wishing to play in the affiliated ranks must defect, establish residency in another country, and then seek clearance from the league. That set of circumstances — extra-legal in many aspects — leaves players exposed to human traffickers and other shadowy operators.
The new arrangement was designed with the same essential framework of MLB’s agreements with baseball leagues in Japan and Korea, with a percentage of the player’s contract to be paid as a release fee. In this case, though, the dollars were destined not for a foreign ballclub, but for Cuba’s government-run governing body, the aforementioned Cuban Baseball Federation. In negotiating an agreement involving a Cuban governmental entity, MLB had been relying upon an interpretation of the Cuban Assets Control Regulations — issued by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control late in Barack Obama’s presidency — that it was permitted to make such payments despite the broad Cuban embargo.
All along, there was a risk that OFAC would reenter the picture with a reinterpretation that would preempt any agreement. That’s just what has taken place. The present administration determined that “a payment to the Cuban Baseball Federation is a payment to the Cuban government,” effectively shutting the avenue for making a deal within the existing legislative and regulatory systems.
From a hot stove perspective, the result is that a slate of international players who had been anticipating near-term signings will now remain in Cuban — unless and until they elect to roll the dice on defecting. It’s a notable change for MLB teams as they plot their international acquisitions. For the players, it’s a potentially life-changing turn of events with repercussions that can’t entirely be foreseen. There were many potential problems with the new rights transfer system that had been negotiated, but it did at least hold out the hope of all but halting the human trafficking that lies at the heart of the present state of affairs.