Cuban baseball players will be able to sign directly with professional baseball teams in the United States if a proposal by Major League Baseball is approved by the government.
The league submitted a proposal this week to the Treasury Department that outlines a new pathway for players from Cuba that could drastically reshape how players make their way to the U.S., the New York Times reported.
MLB lawyer Dan Halem said the proposed plan features the creation of a new entity made up of Cuban entrepreneurs and officials from baseball that would function like a nonprofit organization. It would receive a percentage of salaries paid to Cuban players and it would support youth baseball, education and improvement of sports facilities on the island.
The league contends that this new body would satisfy the terms of the U.S. embargo because the Cuban government would not directly receive any money from the trades.
Officials with the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces the Cold War-era embargo that largely prohibits American companies and citizens from doing business in Cuba, declined to comment on the proposal, citing the confidentiality of the license application process, the Times reported.
Halem said the idea of creating this pathway for players was informally discussed with Cuban officials – though nothing official has been said by the government.
MLB’s proposal comes at the same time that the league will make a trip to the communist island nation later this month when the Tampa Bay Rays play an exhibition game on March 22. President Barack Obama plans to attend game against the Cuban national team in Havana.
"It adds a great dimension to the trip, and it's going to shine an even greater spotlight on the events and on Major League Baseball," Rays president of baseball operations Matt Silverman said, according to the Associated Press.
The game will mark MLB’s first trip to Cuba since the Baltimore Orioles played an exhibition game there in 1999. The game will be televised by ESPN and ESPN Deportes.
Major League teams played spring training games in Cuba before Fidel Castro's revolution, but none appeared there from March 1959 until the Orioles faced Cuba's national team in Havana in March 1999.
According to the Times, the Obama administration has been in behind-the-scenes talks with the MLB for months on how to navigate the legal and regulatory hurdles it faces to create the new system that could allow Americans teams to acquire Cuban players directly.
Cuban officials have expressed their interest in creating a path for players to the major leagues.
“To play in that type of baseball — in the United States — where the majority of the greatest players in the world want to be, you need to give up something big here, your dignity of being Cuban,” said Higinio Vélez, the president of the Cuban Baseball Federation, in December. “We hope that, in the future, Cuban players can go anywhere in the world and play, representing their federation, and that there are not intermediaries that take advantage of them.”
For decades, Cuban players have had to play with minuscule wages or defect from the island to pursue a career in the United States – many in the hands of smugglers and other dangerous circumstances. Because of complex immigration and free-agency rules, Cuban players have also had to establish residency in a third country to enter the market and cash in on lucrative contracts.
This new proposal could be the answer; however, it could hit a snag if the Cuban government insists that a portion of salaries for Cuban players be directed to the country’s sports agency, which administers foreign contracts for players. The U.S. government might find it difficult to approve the plan, but the recent changes made by the Cuban government promoting private business could benefit the arrangement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.