Ben Strauss, The New York Times, March 15, 2016
The Obama administration announced Tuesday that it would allow Cuban citizens to work in the United States and receive salaries from American companies, a decision that could have a profound effect on the way major league teams sign Cuban baseball players.
Under the new guidelines, which go into effect Wednesday, it will now be legal for franchises to sign contracts directly with Cuban ballplayers. Previously, Cuban players had to defect before they could sign with a major league team.
The signings will be lawful under the decades-old American embargo provided that the salaries are paid directly to players and that no money goes directly to the government, making it unclear whether Cuba would agree to such an arrangement for players still in the country.
While no rash of signings of players from inside Cuba is imminent, the new regulations promise to significantly alter the signing process for players who have already defected or who do so in the future.
“In reading the regulation, it appears to mean that a Cuban baseball player can leave the country Monday and sign a major league contract on Tuesday,” said Matthew Aho, a special adviser on Cuba at the New York law firm Akerman L.L.P. “If M.L.B. and their franchises are assertive in their interpretations of these new rules, it would allow teams to negotiate contracts with Cuban baseball players at any time under U.S. law.”
The administration’s new policy was announced as part of an array of changes that relaxed regulations for American citizens who want to travel to or do business with Cuba.
President Obama is scheduled to arrive in Havana on Monday and attend an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team the next day.
Major League Baseball has been in negotiations with Cuban officials for months to revamp the system by which Cuban ballplayers reach the major leagues.
For decades, Cuban citizens who wanted to work in the United States needed clearance to do so from the Treasury Department.
As a result, most Cuban ballplayers established residency in a third country, like Mexico or the Dominican Republic, so they could be cleared to negotiate a contract with a major league club. The process of establishing residency and being cleared to sign sometimes took months.
Under the new rules, players like Yulieski Gourriel and his brother Lourdes Jr., top Cuban players who defected in February, could be eligible to sign with a major league team as soon as Wednesday and play for an American team immediately afterward, as long as they were in compliance with United States immigration law.
According to some estimates, hundreds of Cuban players across Latin America have defected over the last year and are seeking contracts with major league franchises.
Now, regardless of whether they had been already cleared to work in the United States by the Treasury Department, they are likely eligible to sign with a team.
Baseball’s top lawyer, Dan Halem, said M.L.B. was studying the new regulations and their impact on major league clubs’ signing Cuban players.
The complications of defecting from Cuba and navigating the immigration laws have helped smugglers and human traffickers gain a foothold in Cuban baseball, often to help players leave Cuba and then to arrange the documents needed to establish residency in another country and gain clearance from the Treasury Department.
“A lot of the human trafficking arose because of the need to establish residency before negotiating contracts,” Aho said. “Now it would appear they no longer need to do so.”
Because of baseball’s free-agency rules, Cuban players usually did not come directly to the United States because it would have restricted their access to the open market.
Baseball submitted a plan to the Treasury Department last summer in which it proposed a plan to pay Cuban players. The plan was designed to comply with the longstanding American embargo against Cuba.
The plan involved the creation of an entity that would collect a portion of salaries for Cuban players and spend the money on charity projects in Cuba.