“Baseball is almost the only orderly thing in a very unorderly world.”
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Last Tuesday President Obama concluded a historic trip to Cuba by attending an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.[i] Also in attendance were Cuban President Raúl Castro and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred.[ii] It is not coincidental that President Obama’s trip, which is the first to Cuba by a sitting U.S. President since 1928,[iii] is concluding with a baseball game. Baseball is ‘America’s Pastime’, but it is also a source of immense national pride in Cuba.[iv] Seizing on this common ground could be the catalyst that finally ends the Cuban embargo and normalizes full diplomatic relations between the countries.
Brief History of the Cuban Embargo
The new Cuban government under new President Fidel Castro’s government espoused Communist rhetoric and took the hostile and extreme measure of executing over 500 supporters of former President General Fulgencio Batista shortly after taking power.[v] Not long after that, Castro’s government seized assets all over Cuba and nationalized several U.S. businesses.[vi] This led to a breakdown of diplomatic relations and, on February 7, 1962, the permanent trade embargo was put into effect by President Kennedy.[vii] Presidential Proclamation 3447 “proclaim[s] an embargo upon trade between the United States and Cuba” that prevents Cuban imports and effectively prevents travel to the island.[viii] Restrictions on the U.S. dollar going to Cuba were finalized in the Cuban Assets Control Regulations issued July 9, 1963.[ix] President Obama has supported improving relations between the two countries since entering office and has eased the restrictions of the embargo.[x] However, because the embargo has been codified in the LIBERTAD Act of 1996 (Pub. L. No. 104-114), only an act of Congress can fully lift sanctions.[xi]
The Embargo’s Effect on Cuban Ballplayers
In early February, two star Cuban ballplayers did what hundreds before them had done; they defected from Cuba.[xii] The loss is a prominent one for Cubans as the brothers came from a family considered Cuban baseball royalty.[xiii] The reasons for defecting could be numerous, but the financial reasons are apparent. As “professionals” in Cuba, a player will earn $40-$200 a month.[xiv] This is a far cry from the multi-million dollar contracts signed by fellow countrymen in in the U.S. the last couple years.[xv] This leads many Cubans to take extreme risks to life and limb to escape the island in the hopes of making it to the MLB.[xvi] Often, the players are ransomed by the same human traffickers who helped them defect.[xvii]
The purpose of the embargo is to deprive Cuba of the U.S. dollar in the hopes of pressuring the Cuban government into relenting to demands for democracy and human rights. With the shift in policy of the Obama administration, U.S. companies can now pay private Cuban citizens in U.S. dollars. However, the provisions prohibiting money from going to the Cuban government are still in effect. This allows MLB teams to sign and pay players directly, but prevents them from compensating the Cuban teams for the loss of their players since the Cuban teams are state-owned. Compensation for the loss of players is the primary reason now that defection is still the most attractive option for Cuban ballplayers.[xviii]
Using Baseball as a Catalyst for Change
In order for rapprochement to be successful, Cuba will need to address serious issues of human rights. Assuming that requirement can be met, the opportunity for normal relations is within grasp. The Cuban government has seen its baseball teams disintegrate into shells of their former selves as top talent continues to flood out the country.[xix] Baseball does, however, remain a point of pride for many Cubans and so should be used to create a working structure to address the key issues underlying the embargo. Other than human rights, Castro’s government allied with the Soviet Union and created a legitimate risk to U.S. national security. However, with the fall of the Soviet Union, Communism as an ideology lost its strongest foothold in the international community. Communism simply is not the international boogeyman it was fifty years ago and so should not be a major deterrent to a deal.
Even the once ardent resistance of many Cuban-Americans to soften relations with the Communist government has changed over the last two decades. According to polling by Florida International University, only 48% of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County favor the embargo compared to 87% in 1991.[xx] A deal allowing MLB teams to directly sign and pay Cuban players, and thus remove those players from the hard decision of abandoning their homes and country and putting their lives in the hands of smugglers, will create enough political accord between the nations that diplomatic negotiations can proceed in meaningful and productive ways. A deal covering Cuban ballplayers is a model for a deal between the U.S. and Cuba covering all trade and foreign investment.
Baseball provides both sides of this political standoff a common interest that could be mutually beneficial if a deal can be made. Baseball is the one issue that both sides want to reach a deal on and stands as the best option for rapprochement. Opening Cuba up to American dollars is the first major step in reaching a deal that allows Cubans to legally come play baseball in America. The two governments will be able to spring board off of that success and build momentum toward true diplomacy and normalized relations
[i] Brian Costa, In Havana, Nine Carefully Staged Innings, Wall St. J. (Mar. 22, 2016, 7:04 PM), http://www.wsj.com/articles/in-havana-nine-carefully-staged-innings-1458687843.
[iii] Carol E. Lee, Obama, Castro Acknowledge ‘Serious Differences’ Amid Historic Cuba Visit, Wall St. J. (Mar. 22, 2016, 1:58 AM), http://www.wsj.com/articles/obama-to-announce-an-internet-advance-for-cuba-1458569437.
[iv] Manuel Barcia and Harriet Alexander, Baseball Politics Comes to Cuba as Barrack Obama and Raul Castro Ready for the Game of Their Lives, Telegraph (Mar. 22, 2016), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/centralamericaandthecaribbean/cuba/12199147/Baseball-politics-comes-to-Cuba-as-Barack-Obama-and-Raul-Castro-ready-for-the-game-of-their-lives.html.
[v] Claire Suddath, A Brief History of U.S.-Cuba Relations, Time (Apr. 15, 2009), http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1891359,00.html.
[viii] Proclamation No. 3447, 27 Fed.Reg. 1085 (Feb. 3, 1962); Mark P. Sullivan, Cong. Research Serv., RL31139, Cuba: U.S. Restrictions on Travel and Remittances 1 (2015).
[ix] 15 C.F.R. Part 515.
[x] Sullivan, supra note 8, at 2-4.
[xi] Id. at 2.
[xii] Ben Strauss, Star Brothers Are Apparently the Latest to Defect From Cuba, N.Y. Times (Feb. 8, 2016), http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/09/sports/baseball/yulieski-gourriel-top-cuban-player-slips-away-from-team-hotel.html?_r=0.
[xiv] Tim Marcin, Cuba and MLB: Amid Defections, Cuban Baseball Stars May Get New Path to the Majors, Int’l Bus. Times (Mar. 22, 2016), http://www.ibtimes.com/cuba-mlb-amid-defections-cuban-baseball-stars-may-get-new-path-majors-2340562.
[xvi] Aaron C. Davis, With Obama Visit, Cubans Hope for Home Run in Baseball Diplomacy, Wash. Post (Mar. 6, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dc-politics/with-obama-visit-cubans-hope-for-home-run-in-baseball-diplomacy/2016/03/06/666c4eb2-e064-11e5-8d98-4b3d9215ade1_story.html.
[xviii] See Marcin, supra note 14.
[xix] Davis, supra note 16.
[xx] José de Córdoba, How Foes of Warmer Relations With Cuba Slowly Came Around, Wall St. J. (Mar. 18, 2016), http://www.wsj.com/articles/influential-cuban-americans-changed-stance-on-embargo-1458343570.