Editorial: Don’t cut U.S.-Cuba baseball ties

It’s unclear whether a deal to enable Cuban baseball stars to safely travel to the U.S. to play in the major leagues is in effect. Sen. Marco Rubio is foolishly attacking it.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Published March 29

For decades under the island’s communist regime, Cuban baseball players have risked their lives to seek freedom and careers in the United States. A new agreement between Cuba and Major League Baseball raised hopes that those dangerous journeys could draw to an end. But only months after being announced, the deal could be unraveling, thanks in part to the backward politics of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. This is a humanitarian mistake that only punishes innocent families.

As the Tampa Bay Times’ Steve Contorno reported, an historic three-year pact MLB and Cuba announced in December could mean a faster and safer flow of Cuban stars to the big leagues. Rather than risk the dangers of defecting and fleeing their homeland, Cuban players 25 and older, and even some younger players, could sign with major league teams. Those teams would pay Cuba’s professional baseball federation a “release fee” equal to 15 to 20 percent of a major-league contract. The players would report to the teams on work visas, and the agreement allows players to return unpunished, with the possibility of rejoining local clubs or the national team.

The pact extends to October 2021 and provides for an extension. But already its future is unclear. Neither MLB nor the Trump administration, which has reinstated some travel and trade restrictions eased by President Barack Obama, would say categorically whether the deal is in effect. Rubio is leading the charge to block it - calling it a “farce” - and his Cold War era views have growing influence in the White House, which is rolling back the momentum for re-engagement with Cuba. These hard-liners are using Cuban athletes to fight yesterday’s war. And it only undermines American leverage with Cuba’s oppressive government.

The U.S. trade embargo was a failure, and Cuban Americans of all ages recognize the need to move on. Democracy won’t come to Cuba overnight. An agreement to provide safe, legal passage for young athletes and the opportunity to pursue their careers obviously will impact only the lucky few. But it could make a real difference for some, and strengthen relationships between families, business enterprises and public and private institutions in both countries. It would improve the prospect of better ties with the next generation. It is too bad but entirely predictable that Rubio is hurting that effort.