Baseball Diplomacy: Impact of Major League Baseball on the Cuban Embargo and Emigration

Daniel Mooney
Vol. 37 Associate Editor

Reports indicate that United States and Cuban officials and Major League Baseball have been holding private meetings in the past months to figure out a way to allow Cuban baseball players to come to the United States legally to play in the MLB.[1] These talks are the latest in a string of attempts by the Obama administration to warm relations with Cuba.[2] These attempts will culminate in late March when President Obama will become the first U.S president to visit Cuba since 1928. The president, while in Cuba, will attend an exhibition game in Havana featuring the Cuban National team and the Tampa Bay Rays.[3] Over 200 Cuban baseball players have defected from their home country to play professional baseball. Cubans are subjected to more complex MLB rules than other baseball players for several reasons. First, Cubans are forced to defect from Cuba to play professional baseball.[4] The MLB bars “the discussion or negotiation with anyone in Cuba regarding the signing of any player in Cuba.”[5] Ergo, no scouts or team representatives can contact any Cuban player while they are in Cuba. This policy essentially forces Cubans who have MLB aspirations to abandon their home and establish residency in another state. Second, most of these players opt to obtain citizenship in a country other than the United States due to MLB draft rules. Players usually command a much more lucrative contract in free agency than through the draft. But if a Cuban player is granted asylum directly in the United States then they are required to enter the MLB draft rather than sign a contract in free agency like other foreign players.[6] Finally, if a Cuban player enters the draft and is passed over then they are unable to obtain free agency.[7] Despite these rules, many players continue to opt for defection which increasingly has caused international legal issues including human smuggling and potential violations of the US-Cuba embargo. Since the first embargo in the early 1960s, many Cubans have chosen to travel the short, albeit treacherous, ninety mile stretch of ocean to the coast of Florida. Despite crackdowns over the past few decades, the illegal immigration has continued in force since the 1960s.[8] Many high profile Cuban prospects hire effective professional smugglers equipped with boats faster than enforcement vessels, knowledge of the waters, and the skills to traverse the ninety mile stretch in safety and anonymity.[9] These smugglers charge exorbitant prices and are often connected to drug cartels or organized crime. Perhaps the most high profile recent case is that of Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig who, after five tries was successfully smuggled out of Cuba by Los Zetas, a Mexican drug cartel allegedly involved in cocaine and smuggling. [10] Puig was reportedly then “sold for $250,000 to a Floridian “manager” who would receive 20% of Puigs future MLB earnings.[11] Puig, while an extreme case, is far from the only MLB player forced to pay large sums to people involved with and directly supporting drug cartels.[12] Further, recent Cuban defections to the US have flown in the face of US legislation passed in the 1990s intent on forcing a regime change. The Cuban Democracy Act (“CDA”) of 1992[13] and the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act of 1996[14] strengthened the existing embargo sanctions. These acts intended to globalize the US embargo by discouraging other states from investing in Cuba and granting a cause of action in U.S. federal courts to U.S. citizens whose property was taken.[15] These restrictions have exacerbated the legal issues potential Cuban defectors face both at home and after a successful escape. A direct legal pipeline for Cuban players into the MLB would go a long way towards solving the issues presented above. The steps the Obama administration has taken over the last year to loosen bans on trade and travel are a step in the right direction. The direct pipeline would help curb dangerous and illegal defections as well as cut ties with smugglers and cartels. From a broader perspective, allowing players to remain a Cuban citizen while playing in the United States would help warm relations between the two countries and hopefully speed up Cuba’s democratization. Similar to the “ping pong diplomacy” that helped fix international issues between the US and China, “baseball diplomacy” could shape the next generation of US-Cuban relations.

  [1] Aaron Davis, With Obama Visit Cubans Hope for Home Run in Baseball Diplomacy, Wash. Post (Mar. 6, 2016), [2] Id. [3] Id. [4] Rachel D Solomon, Cuban Baseball Players, The Unlucky Ones: United States-Cuban Professional Baseball Relations should be an Integral Part of he United States-Cuba Relationship, Hofstra L. Rev. 153, 159 (2011) [5] Kevin Baxter & Fernando Dominguez, Baseball Si, Cuba No; Castro’s Island May be a Gold Mine for Major League Talent, But Under His Regime, We May Never Know to What Extent, Sporting News, Mar. 21, 1994, at 12. [6] Solomon, supra note 4, at 160. [7] Id. [8] Id. at 167. [9] Id. [10] Jesse Katz, Escape from Cuba: Yasiel Puig’s Untold Journey to the Dodgers, L.A. Mag, 23, 23 (2014). [11] Id. [12] Id. [13] Solomon, supra note 4, at 154 [14] Id. [15] Id. at 157