The Trump administration blocked an agreement that would have let Cuban baseball players come to the U.S. without having to defect, saying the deal would ultimately benefit the Cuban government.
Under the agreement, ballplayers who met certain age and experience criteria could be signed by Major League Baseball teams. A portion of the signing bonus offered to the athletes would have been returned to the Cuban Baseball Federation, similar to the way U.S. franchises pay Asian teams when signing players to come play in America.
But the White House said Monday that it didn’t want to support a process that allowed the Cuban government to profit off America’s national pastime.
“The United States does not support actions that would institutionalize a system by which a Cuban government entity garnishes the wages of hard-working athletes who simply seek to live and compete in a free society," White House spokesman Garrett Marquis said in a statement.
Last week, Cuba’s baseball league said 34 players would be eligible to sign contracts directly with U.S. teams. Had this agreement been in place last year, it would have meant about $2.5 million paid to Cuban baseball in release fees.
The administration’s decision keeps a status quo that many have criticized as dangerous. Elite Cuban players looking to sign with Major League Baseball teams will have to defect from Cuba and then find their way to U.S. soil. Under immigration rules that date back to the Cold War, Cubans who reach the U.S. are generally allowed to remain.
Many professional baseball players have been outspoken about their struggles getting to the U.S. Cleveland Indians outfielder Leonys Martin was kidnapped in Mexico on his way to the U.S., while Cincinnati Reds outfielder Yasiel Puig was arrested during one of his defection attempts. Chicago White Sox All-Star Jose Abreu tore up his fake passport and ate it on his flight to America.
“The MLB deal with Cuba solved a horrible human trafficking problem," James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, said in a statement. "By breaking that deal, the White House now owns this and exposes Cuban players to human rights abuses. It is a cynical, cruel and gratuitous act that is aimed at appeasing a vocal band of obstructionists bent on continuing a failed 60-year policy of isolation."
The agreement between Cuba and MLB was reached late last year, during the Trump administration, although the negotiations were taking place under a special license that dated back to the Obama era. President Donald Trump has long vowed to tighten regulations on Cuba that were eased during his predecessor’s administration, a process that has taken on added urgency as the White House seeks to punish Cuba’s government for its support of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
The decision was applauded by Florida lawmakers who criticized the Obama administration’s efforts to improve relations with Cuba.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio tweeted that the Cuban government essentially wanted "legalized trafficking of persons" in the accord with MLB. Senator Rick Scott, also a Florida Republican, said that Cuba was "exploiting its own citizens and their baseball careers to fund its oppressive agenda."