Trump-Cuba Curveball May Boost Baseball Smuggling Networks

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US President Donald Trump has ended a historic deal that provided a legal pathway for Cubans to play baseball professionally in the United States — a move that will likely benefit human smuggling networks that until recently were the main option for players wanting to leave the Caribbean island.

The US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) announced the cancelation of a 2018 agreement allowing players under contract with the Cuban Baseball Federation (FCB) to sign with Major League Baseball (MLB) teams in the United States without defecting, ESPN reported April 8.

Though United States’ economic embargo on Cuba forbids Americans from doing business with the Cuban government, former US President Barack Obama’s determination that the FCB was separate from the Cuban government paved the way for last year’s agreement.

Its cancellation, however, again makes it illegal for Cuban players to play on any MLB team in the United States without first establishing residency in a third country like Mexico. Such residency frees them from the US embargo restrictions and allows them to become free agents eligible to sign with any MLB team.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Cuba

“The agreement with MLB seeks to stop the trafficking of human beings,” the FCB said in a tweet in response to the announcement, adding that the decision only harms athletes, their families and baseball fans.

Trump officials, on the other hand, say that the Obama-era policy didn’t prevent the trafficking of Cuban baseball players, but “effectively institutionalized” such criminal activity, according to NBC News.

The decision comes days after the FCB announced its first list of 34 players authorized to sign contracts directly with MLB organizations. Since the 1960s, hundreds of Cuban ballplayers have defected to play in the MLB.

InSight Crime Analysis

The Trump administration’s decision to block the Cubans from playing professional baseball in the United States will only serve the dangerous human smuggling networks that profit from getting these players into the country.

In 2012, for example, Los Angeles Dodgers star Yasiel Puig was moved through Mexico in a perilous journey directed by a smuggling ring linked to the feared Zetas cartel — which has been responsible for some of the region’s worst migrant massacres.

At one point, he was kept him in an isolated motel for more than a month while his smugglers haggled for more money. They had originally agreed on a $250,000 payment, but later decided Puig was worth $400,000. 

In another case, Chicago White Sox first baseman José Abreu was extorted and kidnapped on his way to the United States. The sports agent who organized the trip was later convicted of smuggling Cuban players in exchange for some $20 million from their contracts, according to the Miami Herald.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Human Smuggling

Despite the risks of relying on violent organizations like the Zetas or corrupt agents to reach the United States, the payoff for Cuban players who succeed in getting there is huge. 

Between 2012 and 2018, for example, Puig netted $500,000 per month through his first seven-year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, worth $42 million. In 2019, the Cuban outfielder will play for the Cincinnati Reds on a one-year contract worth $9.7 million. 

The average salary of baseball players in Cuba, meanwhile, ranges from just $120 to $175 per month.

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