Jose Dariel Abreu is likely to know the taste of a passport better than any other baseball player on Earth. For years ago, after flying to the United States from Port-au-Prince, the strong player made the only possible decision at the time: he swallowed a page of a false Haitian passport he had been given by some smugglers so he could only show his Cuban documents when touching U.S. soil and recourse to the Cuban Adjustment Act. This is sad, but true and it isn’t the most dramatic story lived by players from the island nation in a bid to make it up to Major League Baseball.
After the historic announcements issued on December 17, 2014, when former U.S. president Barack Obama and Cuban Raul Castro reestablished relations between two governments that had been deeply away from each other for over five decades, many people thought that baseball would be one of the winners in this dialog, a sport that takes center stage in the cultural heritage of both nations.
In this new context, would it had been possible to establish an agreement so Cuban ball players could sign a contract with a MLB franchise, without definitively leaving their country behind everybody’s back by paying to smugglers and get an eight-year restriction to return to Cuba? It look like a “win-win” agreement. MLB would put an end to the criticism on human traffic and hire potential stars. On the other hand, Cuba would find an ordered way out —and remunerated, although not directly— for its huge talent. The first steps seemed to be promising.
In December 2015, Major League Baseball (MLB) sent a goodwill delegation to Havana, which was made up of its main stars, such as Clayton Kershaw, Miguel Cabrera, Nelson Cruz and, especially, four Cuban baseball players that had illegally left the country and, therefore, most of them hadn’t come back to their birthplace. The presence of Yasiel Puig, Abreu, Alexei Ramirez and Bryan Peña in the clinics given to children at the Cuban capital and in Matanzas was a clear signal of a possible understanding.
Afterwards, short before the visit paid by Obama, MLB took a step farther and announced that it was trying to open a representation office in Cuba, after receiving a special permission issued by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), so it would be allowed to hire Cuban players. The complex system specified that the percentage of money to be sent to Cuba would not be given to a governmental institution, but it would be used to foster the development of baseball on the island, since MLB was not willing to break the U.S. blockade, which can be only revoked by the Congress. Despite obstacles and reluctances, many people were waiting for the permission to be issued. They are still waiting for it.
The climax moment came in March 2016. Air Force One landed at Rancho Boyeros’ airport and the Tampa Bay Rays arrived in shortly after that. A MLB team traveled to Habana , second time in six decades, in order to have a friendly game with the Cuban national team. Presidents Obama and Raul watched the game from the first line of seats at the Latin American Stadium, an image of great symbolism that seemed to strengthen an irreversible approach.
Time passed by, the agreement was not signed, Donald Trump won the elections and smugglers realized that the business was up, especially after the prestige achieved by Cuban ball players for their great performances, which brought about such good contracts as those signed by Yoenis Cespedes and Aroldis Chapman. The mechanism was improved but, all in all, it was still the same: taking players from Cuba to a third country, mainly Haiti or the Dominican Republic. The athletes were training there and their “agents” tried to catch the eyes of scouts from MLB franchises. Just a few obtained the so-wanted and megabuck contract —the “agents” would get up to 30 percent of it—; while most of them failed. Some players are still trying and others decided to return to Cuba. By bribing dirty officials, the human traffic network guaranteed the Dominican, Haitian or Mexican residence for those who obtained a contract. Since the players had “residence” out of the United States, they did not need to go through the MLB draft and were given the freelance status. Abreu lived something like this and told his experiences during the federal trial carried out against the supposed athlete representative, Bartolo Hernandez, in Miami for human traffic.
At Havana’s Central Park, one of the places where people heatedly talk about baseball, Yordanis admits that he always pays attention to the performance of Cuban ball players overseas. He is 26 years old, got his degree as a gastronomy specialists, but he has always been a technology enthusiast, so he sells pirate discs with music and movies at the corner of a street in Central Havana.
Every Monday, Yordanis copies a folder entitled “Cuban Players in MLB”. He pays 10 Cuban pesos (nearly 0,40 USD) for these 20-30 gigabytes, but he is happy to do it and he spends that night watch some 40-50 clips, taken from the MLB’s official website, which show the most outstanding moments of Cuban players during the week. Yordanis’ favorite player is Jose Dariel Abreu. Although he was born in Havana, Yordanis admits that he always like Pito’s game style, who was a great batter in National Series, wearing Cienfuegos’ Elephants uniform. Yordanis does not know the way Abreu arrived in the United States, but he doesn’t seem to care. He knows all the player’s statistics and megabuck contracts signed with Chicago White Sox. Yordanis would like to see “Pito” Abreu wear the Cuban national team uniform again, but he says there is not much hope on this matter.
The MLB General Commissioner, Rob Manfred, and the main baseball executives in Cuba have said that the negotiations on “the free circulation of Cuban players to Major League and the possibility for them to return to their country when season is off” are still on the go, but both sides known that the result of that dialog takes place in the political field, instead of sports, with a clear setback in the relations within the framework of the Trump Administration.
That opinion is shared by journalist Aynel Martinez, who has a column in Cubadebate, Cuba’s most visited website. “I believe that Cuba – MLB talks have been cooled down. We heard the last piece of news on this matter in April. National Commissioner, Yovani Aragon, pointed out that there is no specific definition on the way things were doing and that speaks of a huge uncertainty situation. He said that they are moving forward, but the true questions are: Are they truly making progress? How are they doing it? Why aren’t they more transparent on this matter? They speak too much about the obstacles entailed by the U.S. laws, but nobody goes farther. Summing up: the Cuban authorities have been too gloomy and the United States’ haven’t sat down again to tackle the matter.”
The stagnation idea is also underlined by Jorge Carlos de la Paz, a sports journalist and web editor of PlayOff magazine. “The economic blockade still stops players living in Cuba from participating in Major League games. During sporadic meetings between representatives from MLB and the Cuban Federation, some ideas came up to get around restrictions established by the Treasury’s Office. Then, Donald Trump took office and Obama’s relaxation attempts fell into oblivion. With Trump, every step seems to show that the agreement with Major League can be a chimera. On the other hand, since the approach process began during the Obama age, Cuba has not moved a finger. With the possibility of taking a step forward, by inviting its stars that play the best baseball to participate in the 4th World Classic and make up the wrongly called “unified team”, the Cuban authorities did not show the slightest signal of “good faith”. Quite the contrary, they still label those baseball players as “defectors and traitors”. They rhetorically say that there is no problem with Major League, but even when the World Classic’s rules allowed players participating in MLB to wear the Cuban shirt, they ignored such statements and blamed the U.S. policy, once again.”
The game seems to be stuck but, will that be forever? Martinez explains that both parties must take steps forward into the dialog. “I think that both entities should hold more collaboration meetings, plan talks at the same level of bilateral dialogs on different sectors of both countries’ politic and economic life. Moreover, authorities in the United States could also urge the administration to break the deadlock on this matter.”
De la Paz offers his own “roadmap” to unfetter the game: “The United States must eliminate legal restrictions that stop ball players living in Cuba from playing in MLB. On the other hand, the Cuban authorities should have a true intention to approach the MLB. Inviting the Cuban baseball players that play in MLB to represent the country in the 5th World Classic, in 2021, would be a token of good will.” Moreover, De la Paz proposes higher spreading of MLB baseball through the main media in Cuba.
The negotiations between Cuba and MLB seem to be secret and they are very slow. Yordanis knows nothing about those talks, but he easily describes the lineup of his national team for the next World Classic; meanwhile, several young talents are being trained on the island nation and, in spite of the terrible experiences shared by Abreu, Puig and Leonys Martin, they still pay attention to smugglers that offer a golden dream. Cuba’s game is frozen. Once again.