Trump Should Veto MLB’s Foul Deal with Cuba

Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig hits a three-run homer against the Boston Red Sox in Game Four of the World Series at Dodger Stadium, October 27, 2018. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports)
Don’t steal from players’ salaries to fund a Communist regime.

Major League Baseball has made a foul new deal with the Cuban regime, and the Trump administration can and should block it. The deal rewards and perpetuates Cuba’s Communist-style system in which players are the property of the state, not free individuals who can sell their talents on the open market.

For decades, Cuba has refused to let baseball players emigrate freely and join the major leagues. The result has been dangerous escapes, sometimes on flimsy rafts, by players making their way to the United States. Yasiel Puig’s escape from Cuba, where the star was paid $17 a month, was detailed in LA Magazine in 2014 and involved risky deals with smugglers. As the magazine explained, “Under Major League Baseball’s byzantine rules and the U.S. Treasury Department’s outdated restrictions, the only way for a Cuban ballplayer to become a free agent — and score a fat contract — is to first establish residency in a third country. That detour is a fiction, winked at from all sides, and one that gives traffickers command over the middle crossing.”

This story of human trafficking, of exploitation by a Communist state, and of dangerous escapes from Cuba was overlooked by Major League Baseball. The basic attitude was willful blindness: We will deal with you if you show up, and there is no interest in how you got here.

The cure for that situation was simple: Change the rules so that any Cuban player who escapes to freedom can sign a contract. The fake “residency in a third country” rule could easily have been eliminated — and the leagues also could have lobbied the U.S. government to force Cuba to free up its players. But that’s not what the Major Leagues have done.

Instead, baseball owners have negotiated a deal with the FCB, the Cuban Baseball Federation, in which they bribe the Cuban regime with part of a player’s salary. And they’re asking the Trump administration to sign off on this plan by granting an exception to the Cuban embargo.

The FCB is, like everything else in Cuba, a cat’s-paw for the regime; money paid to it is entirely at the disposal of the regime because there are no truly independent institutions in a Communist country. The vice president of the FCB has for years been none other than Fidel Castro’s son Antonio Castro Soto.

What is the actual deal between the Major Leagues and Cuba? Here’s how Sports Illustrated describes it:

MLB teams will need to pay the FCB for the contractual release of players who are 24 years old or younger and who have five or fewer years of service. The fee will reflect 25% of the signing bonus. It will be up to the FCB to decide whether to release such a player. In contrast, MLB teams will be able to sign Cuban players who are 25 or older and who have at least six years of experience in FCB without the consent of the FCB (MLB teams will, however, need to pay the FCB 15% to 20% of the total value of those players’ contracts).

So the Cuban government gets 25 percent of any signing bonus, or for older players, 15–20 percent of the total value of the player’s contract.

Under the Obama administration, the Treasury Department gave MLB special permission to negotiate this deal despite the embargo, which usually prevents sending money to the regime. But there is a new sheriff in town, as the Washington Post reported on December 19:

The Trump administration has signaled it has problems with a business relationship in which the Cuban government profits from a U.S. company. The agreement “would institutionalize a system by which a Cuban body garnishes the wages of hard-working athletes who simply seek to live and compete in a free society,” a senior administration official said Wednesday night, several hours after MLB’s announcement.

A Trump-administration official also told the Post that “we do not condone the actions of any person or entity that contribute to the violation of human rights of Cuban citizens and the Cuban regime’s schemes to profit from the labor of its people abroad while keeping them in thrall to an oppressive political system.”

Let’s hope so. The White House should direct Treasury to strike down this deal as a violation of the law and a contribution to the regime.

And let’s dispense with sympathy for the billionaire owners of MLB, who cast themselves here as motivated by humanitarian concern for the Cuban players. They’ve certainly never shown such concern before. Moreover, this deal with the Cuban regime has not been their only political move in 2018. The other was sneaking an amazing provision into the 2,232-page appropriations bill passed in March: the “Save America’s Pastime Act,” a separate bill that could never have been passed on its own. MarketWatch summarized its content:

Under the language in the bill, minor-league players would be entitled to the federal minimum wage for a 40-hour week — regardless if they work more hours. According to a lawsuit filed in 2015, most minor-leaguers work 60 to 70 hours per week, including playing six games a week, practice, workouts and travel time.

So minor-league players will not get overtime pay, and there will be no limit to the number of hours they can be forced to work. Minor-league players have no union, and their salaries are pitiful. Major-league players receive a minimum salary of $550,000 and an average salary of $4.4 million. Minor-leaguers receive a minimum wage of $1,100 per month, which is just above the poverty line. MLB says it needed this legislation because it just can’t pay more to minor-league players; doing so would put many teams out of business.

Baloney, says USA Today: “A major league organization with 250 players in its minor league system could give every single one of them a $30,000 annual pay spike for a total of $7.5 million, or roughly the cost of a decent fourth outfielder on the free-agent market.” Major League Baseball grossed more than $10 billion — note the “b” — in 2017.

The Save America’s Pastime Act might better be named the “Save Baseball Owners Some Money Act,” and the deal with Cuba’s Communist regime should be struck down as a violation of the embargo. Baseball owners are making more and more money every year, largely from broadcasting rights and sponsorships. In their treatment of Cuban players and minor leaguers, they should drop their humanitarian pose and start showing real responsibility.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.

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