by Bob Barr
The expression “cut off your nose to spite your face” has been in use for centuries. I’m not sure it translates easily into Spanish, but it reflects accurately what the Trump administration did earlier this month in nixing a pending agreement between Major League Baseball (“MLB”) and its Cuban counterpart (the “FCB”).
The MLB had spent years hashing out an agreement with the FCB that would establish a lawful and workable process by which Cuban ballplayers could be scouted in Cuba by U.S. major league teams, and then signed to gainful contracts.
The proposed deal would have freed Cuban players from having to rely — as they now must — on dealing with smugglers and unscrupulous agents in order to secure passage out of their home country and into the United States in order to participate in “America’s pastime.” This is because under the existing embargo rules governing U.S.-Cuba relations, players in that country cannot negotiate as free agents while still in Cuba. Thus, these players, including many eagerly sought-after by MLB scouts, have to find surreptitious (and dangerous) ways to leave their island nation; evading the many obstacles placed in their way by the Cuban government.
The Dec. 19 agreement would have solved those problems, and by every reasonable standard would have been a win for players, MLB teams, and baseball fans. Importantly, the MLB made sure the proposed agreement was vetted through the U.S. Treasury Department Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC). This is the agency charged with ensuring that no U.S. national security interests are compromised in arrangements between American and foreign entities.
OFAC in fact had given the official green light to the MLC-FCB deal, and everything pointed toward a favorable outcome. Cuban-born White Sox First Baseman Jose Abreu best summed it up with this statement: “Knowing that the next generation of Cuban baseball players will not endure the unimaginable fate of past Cuban players is the realization of an impossible dream for all of us. Dealing with the exploitation of smugglers and unscrupulous agencies will finally come to an end for the Cuban baseball player.” His sentiments were echoed by MLB officials and many of the nearly two dozen other Cuban-born players currently on the MLB active roster.
Despite MLB negotiators having successfully dotted every “i” and crossed every “t” in reaching the hard-fought agreement, however, individuals who consider any accommodation with Cuba or Cubans as a moral betrayal, apparently succeeded in convincing the Trump administration to axe the deal. Florida Senator Marco Rubio labeled the deal “immoral” and “illegal,” notwithstanding that it had been arrived at transparently and in accord with the federal agency charged with ensuring such agreements are legal.
Another Cuban hardliner, Elliott Abrams, a former State Department official now serving as Trump’s Special Representative for Venezuela, publicly slammed the deal in an opinion piece shortly after it was announced. In perhaps the strangest argument against the MLB-FCB agreement, National Security Adviser John Bolton reportedly concluded it should be nixed because it would benefit Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro, even though it had no direct or indirect relationship with or impact in that country.
Despite the fact that OFAC expressly determined that the Cuban Baseball Federation is not an arm of the Cuban government, these hardliners continue to beat the drum that the Havana regime would improperly benefit financially from the agreement, simply because the CFB would receive a percentage fee from any contract signed by a Cuban player with a major league team in the U.S. (Such fee arrangements are identical to those in similar agreements between the MLB and its counterparts in Japan, Mexico, South Korea and Taiwan.)
With overall attendance at MLB games slumping (dropping last year below 70 million for the first time in over 15 years) — caused partly by witnessing “some really bad baseball,” in the view of sportswriter Maury Brown — bringing in a group of young, exciting players from Cuba could provide a much-needed shot in the arm for the franchises (including for the Miami Marlins, whose attendance drop has been among the most pronounced).
More broadly, it is worth noting there already are numerous U.S. business interests that benefit from government-sanctioned economic arrangements with Cuba; including airlines, cruise lines, travel agencies and money-wiring services. Denying such benefit to individual Cuban baseball players and their families, and to the MLB teams for which they seek to play, based on misplaced notions of morality or national security, is indefensible on any legitimate grounds. The decision nixing the MLB-FCB agreement needs to be reversed.