Major League Baseball has submitted a proposal to the Treasury Department that outlines a new pathway for baseball players from Cuba to sign directly with big-league teams in the United States. If approved, it could represent a sea change in relations between the two countries and drastically reshape how Cuban players find their way to the major leagues.
For decades, Cubans have had to play for minuscule wages in their island homeland — now $40 to $200 per month — or abandon their country to pursue baseball careers in America. A Cold War-era embargo that only Congress can remove is still in place and largely prohibits U.S. companies and citizens from doing business in Cuba.
Under the proposed plan, according to MLB's top lawyer, Dan Halem, an entity would be created made up of Cuban entrepreneurs and officials from MLB and its players' union. A percentage of salaries paid to Cuban players would go to the new body, which would function like a nonprofit and support youth baseball, education and improving sports facilities in Cuba.
The proposed body could satisfy the terms of the embargo, MLB contends, because the league says no money would go directly to the Cuban government.
The league has yet to receive a response from the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces the embargo. Officials there declined to comment, citing the confidentiality of the license application process.
Nor is it clear where the Cuban government stands, although Halem confirmed that the concept had been discussed informally with Cuban officials.
Cuba could still insist that part of the salaries for the Cuban players would be directed to the country's sports agency, which typically administers foreign contracts for players.
That may be difficult for Washington to approve, but the way private businesses in Cuba are set up could offer clues as to how MLB could structure an arrangement.
The White House has been in behind-the-scenes talks with baseball for months on how best to navigate the complex web of legal and regulatory hurdles that govern business between the two countries and create a new system that would allow U.S. teams to directly hire Cuban players.
Senior administration officials believe that resolution of the issue would represent an important symbolic breakthrough in the historic thaw between the two nations, highlighting the potential for Americans and Cubans to bond over a common cultural obsession, even as their governments remain divided over politics and policy.
President Barack Obama will travel to Havana on March 21, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit in 88 years. The Tampa Bay Rays will play the Cuban national baseball team in an exhibition game on March 22, and Obama is expected to attend, according to an official involved in planning the game.
Cuban officials have also expressed interest in finding a safer path for their players.
"To play in that type of baseball — in the United States — where the majority of the greatest players in the world want to be, you need to give up something big here, your dignity of being Cuban," Higinio Velez, the president of the Cuban Baseball Federation, said in December. "We hope that — in the future — Cuban players can go anywhere in the world and play, representing their federation, and that there are not intermediaries that take advantage of them."
While the decision on drafting players from Cuba is pending, there is urgency for such an accord.
Waves of Cuban ballplayers are leaving the island: According to OnCuba, a Miami-based magazine, 150 players left Cuba last year. Many are still seeking contracts with big-league organizations. Often they travel in the hands of smugglers and under other dangerous circumstances.
Bart Hernandez, a sports agent, was indicted by federal prosecutors last month and charged with human trafficking related to bringing Cuban players to the United States. Another agent recently cut ties with a player who defected after he said he received a death threat from the player's trainer in the Dominican Republic.
Because of complex immigration and free-agency rules, Cuban players must establish residency in a third country to enter the market for U.S. teams and cash in on a lucrative contract, as stars like Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Aroldis Chapman of the New York Yankees have done in recent years.
As lurid stories of human trafficking have become public, the major leagues have considered issuing a moratorium on signing Cuban defectors in recent months, but MLB is concerned that would cut off an outlet for Cubans seeking professional careers.
The policy could also be subject to a legal challenge. The Justice Department investigated the Baltimore Orioles for discriminatory hiring practices in 2000 when the team's owner, Peter Angelos, was accused by Sen. Jesse Helms of not signing Cuban defectors. The Orioles were eventually cleared.
A working relationship with the Cuban Baseball Federation appears as if it may be the best way forward.
Baseball's players' union and the Cubans would have to sign off on the proposal, but it could settle the question of what is legal under United States law, opening the way for more substantive talks between the union and the Cubans on issues such as which players could be signed, how much of their salaries would be earmarked for MLB's proposed group and how players might continue to compete in international tournaments for the Cuban team.
"We're trying to devise a better player acquisition process," Halem said during the league's goodwill tour to Cuba in December. "Those began in the summer, and it's very preliminary. This is like in the infancy, and we're still trying to get a better read from our government."
Changes in Cuban society in recent years have given citizens more freedom in the private sector and given indications of how baseball could structure an agreement. The government has allowed more citizens to engage in cuentapropismo, or self-employment, in ventures like opening restaurants and food stands and working as clowns at birthday parties, manufacturing soap and driving taxis. Baseball players could be granted special licenses to follow a similar model, with the government taxing their U.S. salaries.
Worker cooperatives are another way. Ballplayers could form a group, as farmers and restaurant workers have done, and negotiate directly with major league teams.
"It would be wise to look at the Cuban economy, where reforms have already been undertaken," said Matthew Aho, a special adviser on Cuba at the New York law firm Akerman LLP. "In recent years, we've seen an increasing tendency to allow Cubans to participate in private economic activity. Cubans see the exodus of their players leaving, so there is an incentive to cooperate in a solution."
As if to underscore that belief, the Cuban government allowed several defectors — Puig and Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox, among them — to return to Cuba as part of MLB's tour and visit with family members they had not seen since leaving Cuba.
Still, when the brothers Lourdes Gourriel Jr. and Yulieski Gourriel deserted a Cuban club after the Caribbean Series several weeks ago, the government issued a sharp statement, saying they had abandoned their team in "an open attitude of surrender to merchants of professional baseball for profit."
Amid the continuing going conversations, the indictment of Hernandez shows why an accord is badly needed.
Leonys Martin, an outfielder with the Seattle Mariners, left Cuba in 2010 and in legal filings claimed that he was held hostage by armed smugglers in Mexico and that his family was held captive in Miami, while the since-indicted Hernandez and his agency Praver Shapiro Sports Management negotiated a contract so Martin could pay a ransom for their release. (In a statement, a lawyer for Hernandez said he was innocent of the charges.)
Charles Hairston, a sports agent, recently told Fox Sports that he cut ties with the 16-year-old Cuban prospect Lazaro Armenteros, who had defected, after Armenteros' trainer in the Dominican Republic threatened his life.
"Nobody can deny that our stock of Cuban baseball players, for the most part, involve smuggling, kidnapping, extortion and extreme danger," said Martin's lawyer, Paul Minoff. "We want to make sure Cuban players can still reach the major leagues, but as a society we can't turn our backs on what that often means for these players."