Cuban baseball players can now be recruited by North American Major League clubs without being considered defectors, according to a historic agreement signed on Wednesday and unveiled by the Cuban Federation (FCB).
“It’s a happy day for Cuban baseball, for baseball in the world, for our people and for the American people,” welcomed Higinio Velez, president of the Cuban Baseball Federation (FCB), during a press conference in Havana.
Cuban players had to defect until then
The two countries have been diplomatically cold for decades but share the same passion for baseball.
Until now, Cuban players who wanted to play in Major League Baseball (MLB) had to defect to their country and take up residence in the United States. Thirty of them are currently in this situation.
The number of Cuban fans who have fled their country to make their fortune in the American Major League since 2014.
(about 44 euros) the minimum income for a baseball player in Cuba.
(about 480,000 euros) the minimum salary in Major League Baseball, in 2018. The average annual salary this season: 3.5 million euros.
Many historic players thus owe their careers to often perilous escapes, for example by raft to reach the coasts of Florida from the beaches of Cuba, and at the risk of being separated from their loved ones for a long time. Others suffered traffickers or took advantage of international meetings abroad to defect. A total of 350 players had leaked since 2014, 170 in 2015 alone.
Agreement between MLB and FCB
Since December 19, this rule is over: « Cuban players associated with the FCB […] may be recruited by any of the thirty teams of the United States Baseball League », the Federation announced in a statement. “The agreement, which materializes after three years of negotiations, ensures a collaborative, stable and non-politicized relationship between MLB and FCB,” she added.
The agreement, in effect until October 2021 but subject to renewal, sets « terms similar to those established by MLB with other foreign leagues such as the Japanese Professional Baseball League (NPB), the Korean Organization League (KBO) and the Taiwan Professional Baseball League (CPBL)”.
A street baseball scene in Havana in 2015. (F. Seguin/L’Équipe)
The idea is that « Cuban players can play without discrimination, with equal conditions in MLB without being forced to sever ties with their country ». They will therefore no longer lose their residence in Cuba or their possibility of returning to the Cuban championship.
The FCB will thus have to » release « all players who are at least 25 years old, including six or more years of experience in the Cuban championship. The Cuban federation will collect from them a percentage of the amount of the contract (20% the first 25 million dollars, 17.5% the following 25 and 15% beyond 50 million). Those under 25 will be encouraged to stay in Cuba and will receive 25% of the signing bonus.
« It’s an impossible dream come true for all of us » – José Abreu
« I have no words to express my deep joy and my emotion », reacted Chicago White Sox player José Abreu, born in Cuba, who defected in 2013. “To know that the next generation of Cuban baseball players will not have to endure the unimaginable fate of Cuban players in the past is an impossible dream come true for all of us,” he added, quoted in an MLB statement.
The agreement also aims to « to curb illicit activities such as human trafficking, which for years have endangered the lives and physical integrity of many young Cuban baseball talents and their families »according to the FCB.
José Abreu testified to having experienced it himself and was pleased that « the exploitation by traffickers and unscrupulous agencies is finally ending for Cuban baseball players ». Yasiel Puig (Los Angeles Dodgers) had tried several times to defect, before approaching a drug cartel which took him to Mexico… but finally took him hostage, only releasing him for a ransom of $250,000. « Knowing that future Cuban players won’t have to go through what we went through makes me so happy, » did he declare.
Negotiations possible despite Trump
Baseball, called « pelota » in Cuba, is a historic sport on the island, where the first official match was played in 1874. Affected by the desertions of several of its stars, Cuban baseball has not won a major competition since the 2006 Intercontinental Cup , after having won the titles of amateur world champions for a long time.
Such an agreement would have been impossible at the time of relations between Cuba and the United States and the economic embargo imposed on the island. Negotiations that benefited baseball heated up in 2014 with the restoration of diplomatic ties desired by Cuban and American presidents Fidel Castro and Barack Obama.
President Donald Trump has effectively reinstated trade restrictions between the two countries since taking office. But the baseball negotiations were able to continue thanks to a decision by the Obama administration before he left office.
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