As relations between Cuba and the United States warm up, Major League Baseball is hoping to avoid human trafficking of potential players by dealing directly with the communist government.
MLB has asked the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to allow MLB to sign players directly, much in the same way the league acquires players from Japan, Reuters reported Wednesday.
“There’s a willingness on the part of our government to end the trafficking. The White House has been very sympathetic to helping us end some of the abusive practices,” MLB Chief Legal Officer Dan Halem said.
An estimated 130 baseball players leave Cuba each year, seeking opportunity to play elsewhere. Horror stories abound — including that of Leonys Martin, a Seattle Mariners outfielder who was reportedly held hostage in Mexico for months before promising to pay his captors a portion of his salary. Martin did not keep that pledge, and when the smugglers attempted to sue him, they found themselves facing criminal charges.
“It’s not an uncommon story,” Martin’s lawyer, Paul Minoff, told Reuters.
Unfortunately, many stories do not end with $15.5-million, five-year contracts. For every Yasiel Puig, there are dozens of players — and ordinary Cubans — who are not so lucky. A U.S. policy to repatriate Cuban refugees who arrive by boat has encouraged an overland route through Mexico, where they face kidnapping and extortion.
As long as the Cuban economy and standard of living struggle, this is likely to continue. Some 55 percent of Cubans want to leave the island, and more than half of them want to come to the United States.
Cuba has been under a U.S. embargo since 1960. But under the Obama administration, relations between the two countries have improved. In July, Cuba’s mission to Washington, D.C. was upgraded to an embassy.
“This is historic,” Jaime Torres, an agent who represents Cuban players, told MLB.com last year, when new diplomatic relations were announced. “I think we have to look at the changes that are made and how they will be implemented, but I could see this being as important in the history of baseball as the signing of Minnie Minoso and making it to the big leagues as the first black Hispanic in the big leagues. He was Cuban. This is progress.”