Armando hasn’t the slightest idea who John Bolton and Rubio are, as he commonly dubs foreign tourists who visit the Central Park of Old Havana every day, where this 80-year old baseball fan is now seated.
He assures not being interested in politics, but he does not hide his discomfort at the fact that the promising agreement between MLB, the Baseball Players Association and the Cuban Federation, which would allow players to sign with Major League teams without having to leave the country, has been canceled by the Trump Administration.
“They are only going to get these boys to take to the sea again to try to reach Yuma, because they want to play in the Major League”, he acknowledges with regret.
BASEBALL, THE HOPE OF A FUTURE FOR MANY CUBANS
A feeling of sadness combined with a certain discomfort is widespread among Cubans who still breathe baseball. The historic agreement signed in December 2018 seemed to be one of those classic “win-win” situations, so appreciated in the American negotiating mindset.
On the one hand, MLB tried to put an end to human smuggling schemes that not only sullied the image of the organization, but could also put agents and managers at risk since, in the courtroom, faced with the uncomfortable questions from prosecutors, indicted smugglers could say more than needed.
On the other hand, the Cuban Federation would earn economic dividends that could be reinvested to develop baseball, and young prospects and players with more experience would be able to achieve a dream: the possibility of playing in the organized baseball structure of the United States, without having to venture, in the middle of the night, on a boat bound for Mexico, Haiti or the Dominican Republic.
AN AGREEMENT AGAINST THE SMUGGLING OF PLAYERS
Once there, the smuggling network was responsible for obtaining, enabled by corruption, the papers that would support the player’s permanent residence, an essential step that would allow the MLB to consider the player eligible as a free agent, after gaining “a release or discharge” from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
The dream of being treated as any player in the world was short-lived, barely four months, and it seems unlikely that the Agreement will have, at least for now, a second chance.
From its announcement, the Agreement was widely celebrated, from Cuban players who today earn millions of dollars in the Major League to those who play in Cuba, including politicians, artists and, especially, the millions who just have a genuine love for the game.
More than 30 players who left the country legally or illegally and could not get a contract during their stay in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela or Mexico decided that, with the new framework, it was appropriate to return and work once again with the Cuban Federation to then seek a legal contract.
It was, as already analyzed, a win-win; however, within minutes of announcing the agreement, a flurry of criticism began to flood digital social networks. Republican Florida senator Marco Rubio was among the harshest critics.
For the politician, that agreement violated the ongoing Embargo imposed by Washington since 1962 because the Cuban Federation could not be considered a non-governmental entity and, therefore, the payments that would be issued by the Major League franchises would go to the government. Rubio promised to end the agreement and many believed that the influential senator, now very close to Donald Trump, would hinder any kind of approach. They were right.
THE AGREEMENT, A POLITICAL CHESS GAME
For four months there was utter silence from both the MLB and the Cuban Federation. Perhaps the managers of the franchises understood that, with so much pressure, showing public interest for Cuban baseball players could be an economic suicide. They probably did not want to appear in one of Trump’s frantic tweets.
Therefore, the chess game lasted far too long until Cuba decided that it had to make the first move: it released the list of 34 players, the so-called free agents with restrictions, under 25 years of age and without having completed six National Series.
These players were eligible to obtain 100% of the money awarded as a bonus for signing, while the Federation would receive, according to the Agreement, a single payment corresponding to 25% of that bonus.
“One more step and we are there”. This was a phrase that was associated at the end of the fifties of the last century with a Cuban team (Los Reyes del Azúcar/ The Sugar Kings) that was close to becoming a Major League franchise. Now the phrase could apply to the situation these players are facing.
WINNERS AND LOSERS OF AN ANNOUNCED ANNULMENT
The circle of politicians who work to increase pressure on Havana in all possible ways is the open winner of this annulment; but they are not the only ones celebrating. Rubio, Bolton and other radicals believe that with this decision, the Trump Administration is cutting off a sort of economic income for Cuba. Meanwhile, human traffickers are also celebrating that their business of illegally transporting players and demanding large percentages on their future contracts in the Major League is now more alive than ever.
Three months were left for the signing of the amateurs, so the circle of adversaries of the Agreement acted rapidly and achieved its objective. National Security Advisor John Bolton took the first pitch via Twitter when he stated: “Cuba wants to use baseball players as economic pawns — selling their rights to Major League Baseball. America’s national pastime should not enable the Cuban regime’s support for Maduro in Venezuela.” After this, it was a foregone conclusion.The dream of many ballplayers to play at the highest level and ensure peace for their families, without worrying about the extortionists, has vanished before materializing.
OFAC sent a note to MLB making clear that the payments to the Cuban Baseball Federation “were not authorized, because a payment to the Cuban Baseball Federation was a payment to the Cuban government”. Third strike for the Agreement.
The Cuban Federation also protested via its Twitter account: “the agreement with MLB seeks to stop the trafficking of human beings, promote cooperation and raise the level of baseball. Any opposing idea is false news. Politically motivated attacks against the agreement achieved harm the athletes, their families and the fans”.
As for Ric Herrero, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, “canceling this agreement is the last major blow of an Administration that seeks to take all resources away from the Cuban government without any kind of regard for the welfare or support of the Cuban people. Today’s decision is a victory for human traffickers in the Caribbean and a defeat for all those impacted by this policy”.
The list of losers is huge. First of all we have the players. Their dream of playing at the highest level and ensuring peace for their families, without worrying about the extortionists, has vanished before materializing. Those who believe that a pragmatic approach between the two countries is possible have also lost.
Armando, like millions of baseball fans, holds a special place in the list of losers, since his chance of witnessing higher quality baseball in the upcoming National Series has slipped through his fingers. In addition, a small window of opportunity to have a Cuban team with the best players, regardless of their place of residence, has also been closed. The fastball hurled by the Trump Administration has been very tough. Perhaps the only chance of returning to the game is to hope that the opener, exhausted after his four-year job, will give up his place to a reliever who is pragmatic enough to put back the agreement in the batter’s box…an agreement that, for the moment, is wasting away in the on-deck circle.