FILE PHOTO: Players of the Industriales team practice at the Latinoamericano stadium in HavanaFILE PHOTO: Players of the Industriales team practice at the Latinoamericano stadium in Havana, Cuba, May 25, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo
By Daniel Trotta and Sarah Marsh
NEW YORK/HAVANA (Reuters) - Major League Baseball (MLB) and Cuba's Baseball Federation said on Wednesday they had inked a deal allowing Cuban players to sign with U.S. teams without needing to defect from the Communist-run island and undertake dangerous journeys via human traffickers.
The deal will mark the first time since the Caribbean country's 1959 revolution that Cuban players can legally sign with MLB teams without the need to defect and is a ray of light in fraught bilateral relations that have deteriorated since Donald Trump became president.
Under the agreement, which took three years to hammer out, MLB teams will pay the Cuban Baseball Federation a "release fee," they said.
"Our primary objective in this agreement is to provide players from Cuba a path to the major leagues without having to endure the hardships many of our players have already experienced," MLB Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem told Reuters.
Halem said that the deal fell under a general license that provided an exemption to the decades-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.
Players who are at least 25 and with six years of service in the Cuban leagues will be free to sign with MLB teams, according to the terms of the deal. Other players will have to seek permission first. If they defect they will need to face a waiting period of one to two years.
Many players in Cuba, where the minimum salary is $50 per month, have in the past undertaken risky journeys abroad in order to sign multimillion-dollar contracts with U.S. professional baseball leagues.
In one of the most famous examples, Yasiel Puig defected from Cuba on a speedboat at age 21 and soon found himself entangled with Mexico’s notorious Zetas crime organization, which threatened to chop off his arm if it failed to receive the promised $250,000 fee for his passage.
When Puig finally reached U.S. shores in 2012, he was rewarded with a seven-year, $42 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Players who defected had to wait eight years before returning to Cuba as tourists and applying for repatriation and give up any hope of playing for Cuba’s national team.
"Knowing that the next generation of Cuban baseball players will not endure the unimaginable fate of past Cuban players is the realization of an impossible dream for all of us," said Cuban defector Jose Abreu, now a slugger for the Chicago White Sox.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Writing by Sarah Marsh; editing by David Gregorio and G Crosse)