WASHINGTON: After decades of defecting to the United States to play in its rich leagues, top Cuban baseball players may now be able to join up directly.
As part of its opening to the Communist-ruled island after a five-decade embargo, the White House announced Tuesday new rules that will permit US businesses to hire Cubans to work in the United States and pay them full salaries.
That could be the key breakthrough that Major League Baseball and Cuba’s pros have needed to get away from being forced to defect through what has proven to be in recent years a veritable human trafficking network.
Andrea Gacki, a senior US treasury official, said the new rule is not targeted toward any one business sector.
However, she added in a briefing to journalists: “This is going to give important benefits to Cuban nationals looking to live and work in the United States without forcing them to make the decision to defect to the United States.”
Meanwhile, in the same briefing, Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security advisor, said the change “does address the ability of Cuban athletes who could earn salaries in the United States to do so.”
“That’s obviously been one of the issues that Major League Baseball (MLB) has been discussing with Cuba,” he said.
Since a US-imposed Cold War-era embargo slapped sanctions on Cuba in 1961, more than 100 Cuban players have played in the US majors, with many defecting.
Earlier this month MLB submitted a proposal to the Treasury Department which would allow Cuban players to sign directly with US pro teams.
Approximately 125 prospects have left Cuba in the past 20 months seeking contracts, according to a report on the league’s website.
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.
Some of the issues involve Cuba’s reticence to give up its best players without any benefits.
The country has always insisted that the players direct a percentage of their salaries back to the sport association that helped produce them.
But the rules announced Tuesday stipulate that US companies can hire and pay Cubans to work inside the United States “provided that the recipient is not subject to any special tax assessments in Cuba.”
MLB lawyer Dan Halem said in a report published on the league’s website early this month that the discussions are partly focused on such issues.
“If they ask for compensation for players knowing it’s problematic, we floated the concept of potentially contributing to a not-for-profit entity,” he said.
The move comes just days before US President Barack Obama makes a historic visit to Cuba. The March 20-22 visit will finish with Obama attending a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.