Cuba calls up MLB baseball stars for first time

Cuba on Monday called up two baseball players that have defected to the United States for the first time to a pre-tournament squad ahead of next year's World Baseball Classic.

Andy Ibanez and Yoan Lopez both play in Major League Baseball having defected from the communist-run island nation in 2014.

Cuba has traditionally barred its sports stars from leaving the country to pursue lucrative professional careers elsewhere, leading many to defect, often while traveling abroad to represent the national team.

A record number of Cuban baseballers defected in last year after around half of the 24-member under-23 national baseball team disappeared at the World Cup in Mexico.

Athletes from other sports such as boxing and athletics have also defected.

Infielder Ibanez of the Detroit Tigers and pitcher Lopez of the New York Mets, both 29, join Elian Leyva, who plays for Naranjeros de Hermosillo in Mexico, as the first players based in major foreign professional leagues to be called up by Havana.

Over the last decade Cuba has softened its stance against professionalism, particularly in baseball, which is the national pastime.

In 2013, the Cuban government agreed to allow its players to sign for teams in foreign leagues in a bid to stem the flow of defections since former president Fidel Castro abolished professional sport in the country after the communist revolution of 1959.

In December 2018, the MLB and Cuban federation signed a deal that would have allowed Cuban players to sign for MLB sides in return for a payment to the Cuban Baseball Federation.

But the administration of Donald Trump scuppered the deal, arguing the payments would effectively be made to the Cuban regime, which is subject to US sanctions.

In May, though, another agreement between the Cuban federation and the game's global governing body, World Baseball Softball Confederation, allows Cuban baseball players to manage their own professional contracts in foreign leagues.

There has been a slight thawing of relations between Washington and Havana 0since Joe Biden arrived at the White House, even reopening the US embassy in Cuba earlier this year after it was shut in 2017 under Trump.

The winners of the World Baseball Classic are considered the sport's world champions.

Cuba has never won the competition in its four previous editions but are three-time Olympic champions and won the World Cup 25 times before it was disbanded to make way for the WBC.

The next edition of the Classic takes place in March 2023.

No other players have been announced yet on the pre-tournament shortlist but local media claim that Yasmany Tomas, a former outfielder with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Miguel Antonio Vargas, an infielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, will both be called up.