MLB seeks safe passage for Cuban players

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Members of the Tampa Bay Rays revel after a victory. AFP FILE PHOTO

Members of the Tampa Bay Rays revel after a victory. AFP FILE PHOTO

LOS ANGELES: Major League Baseball (MLB) is in discussions with the US government to try and alleviate human trafficking associated with Cuban athletes defecting to play baseball in the United States.

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MLB has submitted a proposal to the Treasury Department which would allow Cuban players to sign directly with pro teams, MLB lawyer Dan Halem said in a report published on the league’s website on Wednesday.

There has been increased pressure recently on MLB and the White House to create a way to allow for safe passage for players from the communist-ruled island to the US leagues.

Approximately 125 prospects have left Cuba in the past 20 months seeking contracts, a report on the league’s website said.

Since a US-imposed Cold War-era embargo slapped sanctions on Cuba in 1961, more than 100 Cuban players have played in the majors, with many defecting.

Under that embargo US firms and citizens are forbidden from doing business in Cuba.

For the past several months, talks between MLB and the US Treasury Department have been going on behind-the-scenes to try and come up with an alternative system of allowing players to play in the major leagues without breaking the embargo.

Halem said that the plan includes the creation of a license that allows Cuban players to receive a visa. A portion of the athletes’ salaries would go to a non-government group to improve facilities and sports education on the island.

Cuba has always insisted that the players direct a percentage of their salaries back to the sport’s association that helped produce them.

“We are laying the groundwork for a potential new system in the event of future negotiations with the Cuban Baseball Federation,” Halem said.

“If they ask for compensation for players knowing it’s problematic, we floated the concept of potentially contributing to a not-for-profit entity.”

The pipeline of players leaving Cuba for big-money major league US contracts has become a profitable one, with those helping athletes leave the country raking in millions of dollars from players for their services.

In February, a Miami-based sports agent for several MLB players from Cuba was arrested after a federal grand jury indicted him on human trafficking charges.

Bart Hernandez was among the targets of a federal probe looking into methods used to bring defecting Cuban players into the US. Hernandez’s clients include slugger Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox.

The visa plan comes as President Barack Obama gets set to attend a baseball game during a landmark visit to Cuba later this month, becoming the first sitting president to visit the island in 88 years.

The Tampa Bay Rays will face the Cuban national team in an exhibition game on March 22 in Havana. It marks the first time a Major League team will play on the island since 1999.

AFP

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