Recent reports in ESPN Magazine and LA Magazine about LA Dodgers slugger Yasiel Puig's perilous journey out of Cuba highlights the risks facing Cuban athletes, especially baseball players, who want to test their talents in the U.S. professional leagues. To get off the island, Puig had to promise some 20% of his future salary to human traffickers who smuggled him and his friends out of Cuba on cigar boats and then held them hostage in Mexico.
Puig's story is harrowing, but hardly unique. This season, major league baseball roosters will include some two dozen Cuban players who, like Puig, ran tremendous risks to defect from their homeland so they could play in the United States. But recent changes in Cuba, if reciprocated in Washington, could enable Cubans to play in the majors without risking their lives or leaving friends and family behind.
Before 1960, Cubans were so common in Major League Baseball that African-American players traveling in the segregated south would call themselves Cubans because dark-skinned foreigners were less subject to discrimination in hotels and restaurants than native born blacks. But that year, the Havana Sugar Kings- the International League farm team of the Washington Senators- left Cuba as relations between Washington and Havana deteriorated in the wake of Fidel Castro's revolution.Imposition of the U.S. embargo closed the door to Cuban players. On the island, Fidel Castro abolished professional sports and prohibited Cuban athletes from signing professional contracts abroad. Since then, the only way a Cuban player could make it to the majors was to leave Cuba.
Since Raúl Castro took the reins of power from Fidel, he has launched a broad range of economic reforms and allowed new personal freedoms, including the right of Cubans to travel abroad without special permission. Cuban athletes can now travel outside the country and sign contracts with professional teams in other countries. So long as they pay their taxes and abide by the rules of their Cuban sports federation, they remain in good standing and can play on Cuban teams in international competitions.
As a result, Cuban baseball players can now play ball legally in Japan, Italy, Venezuela, and Mexico - but not in the United States. Cuban players are still prohibited from signing with a major league team until they get a license from U.S. Treasury Department, which enforces the embargo, and they can only get a license by proving they have established permanent residence outside of Cuba. They cannot deposit their salaries in Cuban bank accounts or pay taxes to the Cuban government. In short, U.S. policy forces Cubans to defect before they are allowed to play baseball in the United States.
For decades, the United States has rightly criticized the Cuban government for the limits it places on personal freedom. When the new Cuban policy was announced, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Department of State praised it, saying, "The United States welcomes any reforms that allow Cubans to depart from and return to their country." But the Cuban government's new openness has not been reciprocated by Washington. The State Department may welcome the greater freedom Cuban athletes now enjoy, but U.S. policy prevents them from fully exercising it.
Last December in Miami, President Obama lamented the poor state of U.S-Cuban relations, declaring, "We have to be creative and we have to be thoughtful and we have to continue to update our policies." One creative thing he could do is exempt Cuban athletes from the embargo. He has the executive authority to grant Cuban players a general license to sign professional contracts with U.S. teams without restrictive conditions.
There is precedent for such an exemption. In 1988, Congress passed the "Berman Amendment" to the Trading with the Enemy Act, exempting artistic and literary materials from the embargo. As a result, Cuban artists, musicians, and writers can sign contracts with U.S. galleries, recording studios, and publishers without having to leave Cuba, and they can repatriate the money they earn. They are free to enjoy both the international recognition and the financial benefit their artistry provides.
Why not extend this exemption to Cuban athletes? Anyone who has seen Luis Tiant or Orlando "El Duque" Hernández pitch will attest that these are artists of the diamond- and not just metaphorically. It takes same dedication to craft, hard work, personal sacrifice, and love of the art to reach the highest levels of major league sports as it does to reach the pinnacle of the literary or music worlds.
If current policy remains unchanged, some great Cuban players will never have the chance to test their talents in the big leagues, and U.S. fans will never see some of the best players the game has to offer. Some Cubans will continue to leave the island for good in order to play ball in the United States. But why should they have to? Cuba no longer forces its athletes to choose between their country and their careers. Neither should we.