Major League Baseball is asking the U.S. government for special permission to sign players in Cuba, handing the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama the opportunity to try some baseball diplomacy.
The U.S. blockade prevents MLB from establishing any agreement that would generate any money for the Cuban government, but the White House says that baseball is an area where the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has authority to allow a deal.
“Baseball has a unique cultural significance to both the United States and Cuba. It is therefore an area where we can further our goals of charting a new course in our relations with Cuba and further engaging and empowering the Cuban people," a senior administration official told Reuters.
Since Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro broke with Cold War history and announced detente a year ago, Obama has asked Congress to repeal the embargo, but the Republican majority has resisted. Instead the administration has used other means to promote exchanges.
DEFECTIONS AND PEOPLE TRAFFICKING
If MLB were able to sign players in Cuba, where baseball is the most popular sport, it could end a wave of defections in which Cuban ballplayers put themselves in the hands of human traffickers and risk their lives on illegal journeys at sea.
In some cases, organized crime rackets force players to sign over huge cuts of future earnings, threatening players and their families.
To normalize the transfer of players, Major League Baseball has asked the Treasury's OFAC for a specific license.
OFAC Acting Director John E. Smith said he could not comment on the baseball case, but in general his office "acts in consultation with the State Department and other relevant U.S. government agencies in determining whether (authorizing transactions) would be consistent with current policy."
MLB applied for its OFAC license in early June, MLB Chief Legal Officer Dan Halem told Reuters. Halem declined to detail the request except to say it included signing players in Cuba, stressing that baseball's priority was to provide a safe and legal path for Cuban players.
"There's a willingness on the part of our government to end the trafficking. The White House has been very sympathetic to helping us end some of the abusive practices," Halem said.
Legally, experts say, there is no impediment to granting MLB's request. Politically, it may be tricky to explain a deal that provides revenue for the Cuban government while favoring MLB, a $10 billion industry. The administration's stated preference is to support Cuba's private sector.