Cuba will allow its athletes to compete in foreign leagues as professionals

David Brown
September 27, 2013

We may have heard the last harrowing tale of a baseball player risking his life and his family's welfare by defecting from Cuba so he could play professionally in a foreign country.

Cuba announced on Friday that its athletes will be allowed to compete in foreign leagues from now on. Exactly how this will impact Major League Baseball is yet to be determined, and the devil is in the details, but it's something. Professional sports were outlawed in Cuba in 1961, two years after the communist revolution brought former ballplayer Fidel Castro to power. Ever since, along with the everyday people trying to escape the island, numerous ballplayers have taken grave risks in order to earn their freedom. Among those who haven't, most have thought about it, at least. Now, the Cuban government is giving them something else to think about.

But, as the Associated Press in Havana notes, there are many unknowns:

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.

This is not the first measure the Cuban government has taken recently in changing the dynamic of emigration. Earlier this year, after Cuba relaxed travel restrictions for defectors, pitcher Jose Contreras got to go home. He had defected in 2002, and signed a $32 million contract with the New York Yankees shortly thereafter. It might seem counterintuitive, but Cuba allowing its athletes to sign contracts in foreign countries appears to be part of an effort to get them to stay in Cuba. Money must have something to do with the change of heart and law.

Still, the overall issues and disagreements between the U.S. and Cuban governments trump anything either country does internally. Sanctions, tariffs, rules, restrictions, bureaucracies: Change will not be like turning a light switch. And, regarding the fulfillment of "commitments at home" in Cuba — who knows what that means?

But if this means fewer defectors overall, and no more ballplayers like Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig or Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez (and his brother Livan Hernandez) having to resort to dangerous methods in order to achieve a better life, it's going to be a blessing. Perhaps as many as 200 people a year die trying. Most of them aren't baseball players.

Cespedes, one of roughly 30 Cuban defectors playing in the majors, escaped to the Dominican Republic with his mother in a speedboat. As Yahoo Sports' own Jeff Passan wrote earlier this year, Puig tried six, seven or eight times to defect, he's not sure. The El Duque escape story, from 1997, is like something out of a Robert Ludlum novel.

Someday, hopefully sooner rather than later, we can close the book on all Cuban defections. Not just those involving ballplayers.

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