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The Most Dangerous Commute

illustrations by Madison Tom '23, an Illustration major at RISD

Despite being one of the biggest stars in the Cuban Baseball Federation (FCB), Yasiel Puig lived off of a meager $17 per month. With his talents, he knew signing with a Major League Baseball team in the United States could be his shot at a better life. But each of his 12 previous attempts to escape Cuba had ended in failure. Once, his couriers failed to show up; another time, the US Coast Guard intercepted his boat. On his thirteenth attempt, Puig finally reached the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula with the aid of human smugglers from the infamously ruthless Los Zetas. From there, the rest of the trip was hardly a cakewalk. As Puig and his fellow travelers holed up in a decrepit motel, his Los Zetas handlers threatened him with a machetazo—a blow from a machete—if he didn’t cough up the exorbitant, and ever-increasing, transportation fee. And if that happened, he’d never play baseball again, and the entire defection ordeal would be moot. 

Fortunately, Puig’s story ended happily: His underwriter—an air conditioner repairman from Miami named Raul Pacheco—cobbled together the money to pay the transportation fee. Once Puig made it to the United States, he signed a seven-year, $42 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers and became an instant fan favorite for his rabble-rousing behavior. Other Cuban ballplayers have also defected successfully, as there were 19 Cuban-born players on the MLB opening day rosters last season. But this number is small considering the immense amount of baseball talent in Cuba, a country of 11 million.

The strained diplomatic relationship between Cuba and the United States means that Cubans have not been able enter the MLB draft since 1961. Thus, in order to play in the MLB, players like Puig must renounce their Cuban citizenship and establish residency in a third country before signing with a team. This comes with grave risks: Cubans who defect are sometimes jailed by Cuba’s authoritarian government and are forced to rely on violent human smugglers like Los Zetas for transportation. Recognizing this reality, former President Barack Obama allowed the MLB and the FCB to negotiate a deal as part of his efforts to normalize US-Cuba relations. Finalized in 2018, the posting agreement contained similar terms to ones that the MLB had struck with professional leagues in Taiwan, China, and South Korea. As long as the MLB club signing the Cuban player paid a fraction of the contract to the FCB and the player was 25 or older, the athlete could live and play in the United States during the season and return to Cuba in the offseason. 

The Trump administration nixed the deal in April 2019 before it could take effect, alleging that it was illegal under US sanctions. President Biden must allow the MLB to renegotiate the 2018 posting agreement—not only to prevent dangerous and illegal trafficking, but also because baseball represents one of the few symbols of cultural common ground between the United States and Cuba. Allowing Cuban talent to travel freely and safely between the two countries would be an important symbolic step toward normal diplomatic relations.

By authorizing the reinstatement of the posting agreement, the Biden administration can disempower both human smugglers like Los Zetas and their enablers. Most Cuban players enter the United States by way of Mexico, creating demand for middlemen who arrange transportation, lodging, and communication with agents in the United States. Leonys Martin, a speedy center fielder who left Cuba at age 22, had to fork over nearly $1.35 million to the Mexican company Estrellas de Béisbol, which describes itself as an “academy that cultivates and trains amateur baseball players who desire to play professional baseball in the United States.” In a 2013 lawsuit, Martin claims that he was kidnapped and extorted into signing a contract with Estrellas de Béisbol and alleges that the “company” is little more than a front for trafficking. With a reinstatement of the 2018 posting agreement, demand for the services of corrupt actors like Estrellas de Béisbol would evaporate. Likewise, renegotiating the agreement will cut off a large funding source from violent traffickers like cartels. 

Opponents of the deal worry that it would bankroll an authoritarian regime with American dollars. Trump’s State Department, for example, canceled the deal based on allegations that the FCB was an arm of the Cuban government. Since the agreement arranged for MLB teams to pay the FCB, it was deemed illegal under the trade embargo. But putting aside the legality of the agreement, we currently have the choice to empower either the Cuban government or violent human traffickers. Giving money to the former to impair the latter seems to be the safer option.

The deal would also offer more Cuban prospects the opportunity to try their hand in the MLB. Right now, because navigating defection is so risky and paying off traffickers is so pricey, only players confident in their odds of signing a large contract with an MLB team take the plunge. But followers of the MLB know that some of history’s biggest stars were not considered promising prospects early in their careers. By removing the potential peril from defection, the posting agreement would give more Cuban players a chance to play in the MLB.

Restoring the posting agreement could also play a role in normalizing US-Cuba relations. Baseball has long been a flashpoint for antagonism between the countries despite being a piece of cultural common ground. As relations soured in the 1960s, the MLB relocated the Havana Sugar Kings, a professional American farm team, from Cuba to the United States against the will of the Castro regime. Meanwhile, Fidel Castro politicized baseball by plastering Communist Party slogans across stadiums and using significant public money to support Cuba’s baseball league. During détente in the 1970s, MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn attempted to set up exhibition games in Cuba, but Cold War mentalities got in the way and he canceled the games. The MLB’s relationship with Cuba hardened after these failed overtures, and Kuhn officially forbade teams from making deals with Cuban players. 

By reducing opportunities for cultural exchange, MLB rules have helped to preserve mutual antagonism. But with a reinstatement of the posting agreement, both countries would benefit. As more Cuban players enter the MLB through the agreement, perhaps Cuban society would begin to seem less foreign to an American audience. Moreover, FCB players would be of greater interest to American baseball fans, prompting increased American media coverage of Cuban baseball. Meanwhile, Cuban players—being able to return to the island in the offseason—could offer a sober perspective to their friends and neighbors on life in the United States. Currently, Cubans can only watch their countrymen play in the MLB using illegal streaming services given the government’s restricted access to foreign media. But with a deal codifying FCB players’ right to sign with MLB teams, the government might be forced to permit some American sports coverage. 

Fostering these ties through baseball could also increase popular demand for an end to the sanctions. It is clear that the goal of the embargo—to choke the Cuban economy and force regime change—has not panned out. Reinstating the posting agreement, through promoting productive cultural exchange, would demonstrate to voters that normalizing relations with Cuba will have nothing but benign effects. 

The posting agreement could also resurrect the professional relationships between Americans and Cubans that existed before the imposition of sanctions. More MLB scouts would travel to Cuba, building relationships with players, the FCB, and even the Cuban government. Solidifying these professional ties while the embargo remains in place will surely have to involve American diplomats. By forcing diplomats to productively engage with Cuba, the agreement could slowly instill anti-embargo sentiment within the State Department. More broadly, reinstating the deal could show that cooperation between Americans and Cubans is not only possible, but also mutually beneficial.

US sanctions on Cuba prevent meaningful cross-cultural exchange, fail to foster democratic reform on the island, and, worst of all, impoverish ordinary Cubans. In the world of baseball, they empower human traffickers and their enablers, putting ballplayers’ lives at stake. If Biden allows the MLB to restore the posting agreement, gone will be the days when playing baseball in the United States means risking a machetazo. Ending the embargo will, of course, require more than just reinstituting the posting agreement, but the cultural exchange and professional relationships that the deal would foster could help initiate diplomacy.