Havana – Since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, Cuban baseball has been the domain of the amateur, and any player wanting to make big bucks in the big leagues had to make a clandestine escape out of the island nation.
That may now all be ending as Cuba announced Friday that island athletes will be allowed to sign contracts to compete in foreign leagues.
The measure promises to greatly increase the amount of money baseball players and others are able to earn, and seems geared toward stemming a continuing wave of defections by athletes who are lured abroad by the possibility of lucrative contracts, sapping talent from national squads.
It was not immediately clear if the ruling would let Cuban baseball players jump to the U.S. Major Leagues without restrictions at home or under U.S. laws that restrict money transfers to the communist-led island.
Athletes will be eligible to play abroad as long as they fulfill their commitments at home, the Communist Party newspaper Granma reported.
"It will be taken into account that they are in Cuba for the fundamental competitions of the year," Granma said.
The paper said the decision was approved at a recent session of the Council of Ministers, which is headed up by President Raúl Castro.
"International experiences, including 10 sporting laws of various Latin American nations, were studied," it added.
Until now, few Cuban baseball players have been permitted to play abroad. Alfredo Despaigne spent this summer with the Pirates of Campeche, Mexico. Previously, Omar Linares played in Japan.
In the 1990s, some athletes in other sports such as volleyball played in European leagues.
A number of athletes, especially baseball players, have defected in recent months and years. They include Yasiel Puig, who signed a multimillion-dollar contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Professional sports were outlawed under Castro in 1961, two years after the Cuban Revolution.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.