New Cuban Regulations for Baseball Players Block Any Détente with MLB

Peter C. Bjarkman*

The author (l) in Havana last week with Yulieski Gourriel (c) and Tony Castro (r).
The author (l) in Havana last week with Yulieski Gourriel and Tony Castro.

HAVANA TIMES — My return last Friday from a weeklong sojourn in Havana was met with a firestorm of media requests for my opinions on a breaking news item apparently suggesting sharp reversals in Cuba’s long-standing Cold War with North American professional baseball.

As NPR and other stateside outlets misreported the story, Cuba’s sports ministry had suddenly and unexpectedly announced that their best ballplayers would now be free to negotiate contracts abroad and thus that we were about to witness an immediate and long-awaited floodtide of top Cuban talent into the clutches of major league baseball clubs.

Like so much that involves Cuba-USA relations, the true motivations behind the Cuban government’s announcement went unnoticed; the facts of the INDER press release were both distorted and misapprehended, and worst still, fantasies about a new explosion of Cuban big league talent were fueled by a North American press corps rushing to be first in print with a sensational and attention-grabbing headline. No one actually bothered to do their homework on this “too good to be true” story.

But there were a few experienced Cuban League watchers who got it all essentially right. My colleague Ray Otero this weekend published an excellent Spanish-language account of the complexities of the INDER bulletin on our website at www.BaseballdeCuba.com, and the always informative Cuba-based “Zona de Strike” website has also posted a report which details the new INDER policies for any who wish to read and analyze them with more care. It is time here for a brief and concise analysis of the situation for our English-language readers.

First and foremost, the announcement released in Cuba on Friday makes no mention of Major League Baseball per se, and its contents offer little possibility of Cubans reaching the big leagues by any route outside of the current practice of abandoning their homeland (what is referred to stateside as “defection”).

The raw truth of the matter remains that there is no reasonable possibility of any MLB-INDER détente or any free flow of Cubans northward under the current political and economic climate.

More specifically, until the Cuban government changes its socialist framework and embraces free market capitalism, and until the US government completely abandons the embargo policies of the Helms-Burton legislation, there can be no accord.

More damning yet is the fact that, even if the above two transitions were somehow miraculously to transpire, there is still a third obstacle here and that is MLB’s current business practices which involve the league’s complete contractual ownership of all its ballplayers. A player under contract to an MLB club is owned by MLB and does not share his contractual obligations with the sports federation from his nation of origin. The implications of the latter fact will become clear here as the story unfolds.

Nonetheless, the recent surprising policy reversal by INDER does certainly have major implications within Cuba itself. The main thrust of the announcement was a revolutionary new pay scale for Cuban players participating in the domestic National Series season.

League players will now be divided into several categories based on their talent-level, service time, achievement (the common Cuban term being “rendimento” which means productivity), and whether or not they have earned slots on the various Cuban national squads chosen for international tournaments (such as the MLB World Baseball Classic, the Haarlem Baseball Week event, or the Pan American Games).

Top level players will now receive 1,500 Cuban pesos per month (about $60 US) plus a bonus of $300 US for national team status. There are also bonuses that will be paid out in US dollars for players on national squads that earn medals or individual trophies (MVP or all-star awards for example) in international events. And players receive free housing plus additional perks.

The revelations (played up heavily here stateside) concerning players contracting with foreign leagues was only a secondary phase of the INDER announcement and not the main thrust as suggested by US press accounts.

First and foremost, the announcement released in Cuba on Friday makes no mention of Major League Baseball per se, and its contents offer little possibility of Cubans reaching the big leagues by any route outside of the current practice of abandoning their homeland (what is referred to stateside as “defection”).

And that “new” condition was a actually confirmation and formalization of a policy that had already gone into partial effect this past summer when three Cuban leaguers (Alfredo Despaigne, Yordanis Salmon and Michel Enríquez) were contracted out to the Campeche ball club of the AAA Mexican League.

This precedent will apparently now be expanded and we can expect more top Cuban stars playing in Mexico (and perhaps also in Taiwan and maybe even the Dutch League) in coming summers. But this situation must be understood in context.

Cuban players are not now suddenly free to hire agents and negotiate openly with pro ball clubs outside Cuban shores (after the stateside capitalist model); such contract negotiation will work through INDER (the Cuban sports ministry and baseball commission) and any player’s primary contractual obligation (at least under the current regime) will remain with the Cuban League.

Two conditions are clearly stated under the new regulations: Cuban ballplayers can perform overseas with INDER approval, but (1) they must be free to bring their salaries back home to Cuba, and (2) they must fulfill their homeland obligations by performing with the national team if selected, and more importantly, by returning each winter to play a full November-March schedule with their domestic ball clubs in the Cuban National Series.

An example of the policy is currently found with the case of slugger Alfredo Despaigne who performed in Mexico this summer and is now back on the hometown Granma roster for the November start of a new Cuban League National Series season.

It is precisely the two above-specified conditions that effectively block any immediate contracts with big league clubs. OFAC regulations and embargo polices completely rule out Cuban ballplayers sending home salaries earned on American soil, salaries that might benefit their families on the island but that are also seen in Washington (and much of Miami) as shoring up an enemy communist government now headed by Raul Castro.

It is precisely these embargo regulations that require all “defecting” athletes to be first cleared (unblocked) by OFAC (the US Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control administering Helms-Burton embargo provisions) before they can sign contracts with any big-league clubs.

Players like Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Céspedes, Yunieski Maya and Yasiel Puig were delayed in signing (some for longer periods than others) by precisely these regulations. So stingy is OFAC in controlling cash flow to Cuba that the monies earned by the Cuban teams and players for participating in the second and third editions of the World Baseball Classic (2009 and 2013) – funds already duly paid out by MLB – are still being frozen by OFAC and have not yet been received by INDER and thus by the Cuban players who participated. Ballplayers representing all other countries were long ago paid their earned contractual amounts for WBC participation.

But OFAC is not even the largest obstacle here. The newly stated Cuban requirement that INDER maintain the primary contracts with ballplayers, putting them under obligation to play a full winter National Series season, is something that will never fly with MLB ball clubs.

No MLB clubs now allow their players (especially big-investment top-dollar stars, or carefully limited pitchers with strictly monitored annual pitch counts) to opt for winter league service. Risk of injury or excessive wear and tear is always the rationale. That is precisely why the winter leagues have died on the vine in Puerto Rico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.

No more names like Ivan Rodriguez, Roberto Clemente, Pedro Martinez or Albert Puloj entertaining the locals back home with an annual full slate of native-soil winter league games. If Yulieski Gourriel or José Miguel Fernández were to be playing in Boston and San Diego during summer months they assuredly would not be also logging games in Havana and Matanzas during the winter season.

Nonetheless, the recent surprising policy reversal by INDER does certainly have major implications within Cuba itself. The main thrust of the announcement was a revolutionary new pay scale for Cuban players participating in the domestic National Series season.

Take this even one step further. Olympic baseball has now disappeared largely (if not entirely) because MLB owners are unwilling to release players to man USA, Dominican or Dutch squads during Olympic events that might overlap with regular-season or post-season play.

How then can we image MLB releasing Chapman or Céspedes or a newly signed Yulieski Gourriel or Erisbel Arruebarruena for a Cuban squad in playing the July Rotterdam World Port Tournament should Cuban officials decide to insist on it? In short, the new Cuban regulations do not at all open the door to an MLB pipeline; instead they add a further dead bolt to the already tightly sealed portal.

Why then, one might ask, did the Cuban baseball officials release this series of new regulations at precisely the time they did? This is a question completely overlooked by most US media outlets in the rush to salivate over fantasies about plucking the island clean of all its remaining talent in order to staff big league stadiums.

The reasons are not hard to uncover. The announcement and the changes specified were aimed largely if not almost exclusively at disarming an increasingly tense situation on the home front and thus letting some of the potentially explosive steam out of the pressure cooker that is the current National Series scene.

Hundreds of young players have left the island in the last five years and the past two years have seen an even more alarming abandonment by a significant number of front line stars – Céspedes, Puig, Leonys Martin, Alex Guerrero, Leslie Anderson, Dalier Hinojosa, Miguel Alfredo González and José Dariel Abreu are among the most recent and most celebrated.

While the national squad remains strong, and while the bulk of the young escapees harbor only small hopes for professional careers up North, the loss of so many mid-level athletes has weakened the league considerably.

Cuban League teams are now forced to carry increasing numbers of 17 and 18 year old prospects who lack proper seasoning and should still be in the Cuban minors (what they call the Developmental League). Morale is noticeably low on the home front and Cuban fans are growing more disillusioned.

Under the embargo athletes are forced to play with inferior equipment and on sandlot-level fields. Something drastic had to be done to shore up spirits at home by providing larger financial incentives and rewards that might stem the “defection” tide and keep more players at home. The days are disappearing when playing for national honor alone is sufficient to sustain the island’s national sport.

And there was also likely another motive here. The Cuban Baseball Federation, like the Cuban government itself and certainly the bulk of the Cuban people, is chafing under a long and unproductive US economic embargo; stadiums are dilapidated, balls and bats are in short supply, uniforms are often of industrial-league quality, and the squeeze on cash flow under the embargo is a major culprit here.

At the same time the drum beat heard up north remains that tired repeated mantra that Cubans can’t play big league baseball simply because of the odious restrictions of what we like to call the “Castro regime.” But the Cubans have another view and it is not an unreasonable one.

As far back as the 1999 Cuba-Orioles exhibition in Baltimore star Omar Linares voiced the opinion that he would love to play big league baseball, and many Cuban stars have subsequently echoed that opinion.

But the embargo means that players like Linares or Gourriel or Cepeda must abandon the homeland (“defect”) in order to do so. And they must take that difficult and life-altering step not only because their own government blocks free departure, but also because OFAC restrictions will not allow them to return to their homeland with their hard-earned salaries.

Victor Mesa captured the Cuban ballplayers viewpoint perfectly for me last week in Matanzas. “We would love to pay our players more here in Cuba but we simply cannot because we have no resources thanks to the American embargo.”

And Victor was quick to state another Cuban viewpoint. “I love the big leagues and our guys would love to play there if only they could come back every winter with all their earnings and thus improve their lives and families back here.”

Mesa also captured the bottom line at the root of the Cuban stance. “What the Americans have to do, both the government, and the big league bosses, is to open the doors to us but yet also let us keep our own values and our own system and our own way of doing things.”

In brief the point being made here is that American relations with the Cubans must be based on some form of détente that doesn’t involve any plans for American-imposed regime change. And history has taught us over the past five and more decades that this is apparently a very tough hurdle to jump.

The timing of the Cuban announcement detailing conditions on foreign professional play seemingly had a well-crafted (even if secondary) motivation. By placing precisely those conditions on professional contracts (first, pay returning to Cuba, and second, players available for winter league service) that OFAC and MLB cannot abide, a clever way was found to send a message that the problems do not reside on the Cuban side of the fence but are found rather in the American camp.

The signal here is that it is the policies of OFAC and MLB that are the true insurmountable obstacles to any reasonable accord in the ongoing baseball cold war. At least that is the Cuban viewpoint, and it is not entirely without merit.

I cannot leave this piece without voicing some editorial comments about a few politics-inspired blind spots held by American fans and press when it comes to discussing Cuban baseball.

Two conditions are clearly stated under the new regulations: Cuban ballplayers can perform overseas with INDER approval, but (1) they must be free to bring their salaries back home to Cuba, and (2) they must fulfill their homeland obligations by performing with the national team if selected, and more importantly, by returning each winter to play a full November-March schedule with their domestic ball clubs in the Cuban National Series.

The first has to do with the whole distorted notion of “defection” as it is applied to Cuban players like Yoenis Céspedes or Orlando Hernández. The Cuban players themselves reject (and largely abhor) the very term. They leave home not to make a political statement or to undercut the Communist government, but rather they do so to improve their lives economically and to test themselves at the highest level of athletic ability.

It is not a stretch to suggest that the Mexican grape picker or construction laborer who risks his life to sneak over the Texas border is essentially doing the same thing (seeking to better his economic life) as the Cuban “defecting” ballplayer, and yet the Mexican wetback is never labeled a “defector.”

Many (especially many in the Miami community) who protest vehemently that Cuban ballplayers should be allowed to sneak onto Florida soil in order to entertain us in big league stadiums (and also grab roster spots from homegrown California or Nebraska-bred talent), are among the same voices who scream the loudest that despicable “illegal” Mexican immigrants should be shipped home immediately as perceived leeches who steal American jobs.

Some will protest that there is a world of difference here because the Mexicans can turn around and hightail it home with their paychecks and the Cubans athletes can’t. But is that more the fault of the Castro regime policies or OFAC legislations? I have long struggled with the irony here.

And then there is the issue of the Cuban baseball system itself. For many here it is despicable to have top athletes playing with a spirit of amateurism (but without top dollar compensation) for community, flag and country without permitting them to negotiate to huge dollar for their services.

Time and again we are told the Cuban players are slaves used by the state without proper reward. But then how does one explain one of America’s most popular sporting spectacles – big time NCAA college football where top athletes perform for campus, school banner and sacred Alma Mater and do so as faux amateurs?

Are not Division I college football players in the same sense “slaves” of lucrative collegiate athletic departments? The naysayers here will again argue that this is very different because footballers at Oklahoma or Notre Dame receive other forms of remuneration like four-year scholarships, plus educations (for that percentage that actually graduate) plus other hefty perks.

But the top Cuban players receive houses or apartments, automobiles, and the privilege of foreign travel. Where exactly does the difference lie? How can one condemn Cuban baseball as a system of “slavery” and then cheer loudly for the patriotic spectacle of Nebraska or Ohio State or Miami University football? It is all a matter of perspective one presumes.

But let’s desist with editorial sidebars here. Those who greeted last week’s Havana announcement with hardy cheers and began celebrating the imminent opening of the Sugar Cane Curtain surrounding Cuban baseball have again been somewhat duped by American media outlets who failed to do their homework and thus failed to revel the full story behind transpiring events.

As long as there is a US embargo of Cuba there is not likely to be any “normalization” with baseball or any other phase of Cuban-American relations. That was in large part the message Cuban officials were sending both to the Obama administration and to the Bud Selig MLB regime. So let all the misguided celebrations die down and instead let the much-needed serious negotiations now begin.
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*Peter Bjarkman is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely recognized as a leading authority on Cuban baseball, past and present. He has reported on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team as senior writer for www.BaseballdeCuba.com during the past half-dozen years and is currently writing a groundbreaking book (“The Yanqui in the Cuban Dugout”) on his two decades of travel throughout Cuba and his adventures covering the Cuban national team abroad.


4 thoughts on “New Cuban Regulations for Baseball Players Block Any Détente with MLB

  • Peter, I appreciate your careful explanation of what the new rules do and do not allow. You correctly identified how the MLB and OFAC place their own roadblocks in the way of Cuban ball players entering the North American pro ball system.

    That said, you cannot seriously see no difference between the conditions Cubans live under, including their athletes, and US college team athletes. To insist they are similar is to pretend their is no difference between a Communist dictatorship and a free and democratic country.

  • Wow! Right on topic again, Luis.

  • USA/Cuba Embargo=Terrorism American Style

  • This post fails to explain why the Castro regime deserves to receive the lion’s share of the salary earned by the talented Cuban ballplayer. Using the percentages we see in Cuba’s medical missions, it would be reasonable to assume that Castro would receive millions of dollars from a ballplayer’s contract which would then be used to foment further repression of the Cuban people. How fair is that? Bjarkman blames the embargo on the poor condition of Cuba’s ballparks and the lack of good equipment. I would encourage him to check the “Made in China” markings on most major league quality bats, gloves and balls that most Americans use. China is Cuba’s second-largest trading partner. The embargo is not the problem. It is a lack of hard capital and that is a problem with Castro’s failed socialist policies. Finally, Bjarkman should do his homework and review the case of basketball player Yao Ming after his “defection” from China to play in the NBA. What is discovered is that capitalism trumps political ideology. The NBA negotiated with China and made it possible for Ming to return to China with his earnings in exchange for the right to refuse Ming’s participation on the Chinese national team if it conflicted with NBA scheduling. The problems lies with Cuba, not MLB or US policy. The Castros do not want Yoanis Cespedes returning to Cuba able to spend his millions refurbishing local ballparks and outfitting entire ballclubs. He could do more with one month’s salary what the regime could never do. That would be bad for business and the Castros know it. That is the problem.

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