Shield Cuba’s baseball players’ rights: (USA Today)
By Gregory Wallance
Don’t allow talented athletes to become pawns in the renewed Cuba-U.S. relations.
A man has pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to smuggle Yasiel Puig out of Cuba for a cut of the L.A. Dodgers star’s salary.(Photo: AP)
President Obama’s recent diplomatic recognition of Cuba was the easy part. The heavy lifting will be promoting the human rights of Cubans — the release of 53 political prisoners was finalized Monday — and a prosperous free market economy in Cuba.
One measure of success is how we reconcile the commercial interests of Major League Baseball and the Cuban government with the human rights of Cuban baseball players who seek to play in the U.S. If you want to keep a scorecard, here are the lineups:
Cuban baseball players. Because of the trade embargo, players have had to undergo human trafficking to play in the USA. Yasiel Puig, the Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder, needed smugglers to escape from Cuba. But the smugglers, linked to a drug cartel, at one point kept Puig hostage in a Mexico hotel room, threatening to cut off body parts unless a sponsor paid for his release.
Over the past two decades, more than 200 woefully underpaid Cuban players have found their way to the U.S. via similarly circuitous and often dangerous routes. When Puig, who made $17 a month (that’s not a typo) in Cuba, finally got to the USA, he signed a $42 million contract with the Dodgers.
Major League Baseball. Cuba is the El Dorado gold mine of talented baseball players. The relatively few players who make it to the U.S. could practically fill an All-Star roster. In addition to Puig, they include first baseman José Abreu, reliever Aroldis Chapman, pitcher José Fernandez, outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and others. Teams are ready to shell out for the many talented players still in Cuba and will not be averse to compromising with the Havana government. After all, MLB averted its eyes from the human trafficking necessary to get Puig and the others to the U.S.
Cuban government. Havana is not about to just give away a prime natural resource if the embargo is lifted. Already, the Cuban government takes up to a 30% cut of the salaries of players who sign with teams in Japan and requires them to return in the winter to play in the Cuban domestic league. Playing year-round is a reliable way to shorten the career of a young player.
U.S. Congress. Before the trade embargo can be lifted, Congress must approve. If members opposed to diplomatic recognition of Cuba prevail, the embargo will remain and so will the human trafficking. If the embargo is unconditionally lifted, then the Cuban government will have considerable leverage over MLB to get a hefty cut of the Cuban players’ salaries. Otherwise, Havana has no incentive to let Cuban players emigrate legally.
The human trafficking will not end because some Cuban players will prefer the risks of the smugglers to giving up millions or tens of millions of dollars to a government that had paid them next to nothing.
Free markets work best on a level playing field. Congress should lift the embargo but condition trade on Cuba’s compliance with, among others, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes the right “to free choice of employment.”
There should be monitoring and reporting mechanisms, annual certification by the U.S. president of Cuba’s compliance with international human rights obligations, and a restoration of the embargo in the event of non-compliance.
That would give Cuban baseball players, not to mention Cuban citizens generally, the ability to demand protection of their human rights.
Empowering Cuban players will facilitate a deal, perhaps based on the MLB’s arrangement with Japanese baseball, which requires an MLB team signing a Japanese player to pay a fee to the player’s Japanese club. But the Japanese government does not get a cut of his salary.
Professional baseball players might be an unlikely human rights symbol. But recall St. Louis center fielder Curt Flood’s challenge in the early 1970s to MLB’s reserve clause, which essentially indentured players to their teams for life. His challenge led to free agency. Flood was attacked because he was paid $90,000 a year, then one of the top salaries in baseball. Even so, as he explained in words equally applicable to the Cuban players, “A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave.”