Marco Rubio, end the trafficking in Cuban baseball players

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has led the Republican opposition in Congress to lifting the economic embargo of Cuba, a cost-free political stance that plays well with conservative Republican voters.   But now, just as Rubio’s effort to become the first Cuban American president gains momentum, it might actually leave him looking heartless towards, of all things, Cuban baseball players.            

Recently, with the Obama administration’s blessing, Dan Halem, the top lawyer for Major League Baseball, met with Fidel Castro’s son Antonio, who happens to be the Cuban national team’s doctor and an international baseball official, to discuss a new system for Cuban players to play in the United States.   Currently, the only way for many Cuban players to get to the American major leagues is through human trafficking. 

{mosads}Take Yasiel Puig, the Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder.   He fled Cuba on a cigarette boat piloted by cutthroat black market smugglers linked to drug cartels.   The smugglers had neither Puig’s or baseball’s interests in mind and kept Puig hostage in a hotel room on an island off Cancun, Mexico, where they threatened to cut off  his arms unless a shady Miami sponsor paid handsomely for Puig’s release.   After cloak-and-dagger machinations worthy of a Hollywood movie, Puig finally made it to the U.S.   Puig, who made $17 a month (you read that correctly) in Cuba, then signed a $42 million contract with the Dodgers.  Over the past two decades, more than 200 woefully underpaid Cuban players have found their way to the U.S., many via similarly circuitous and often dangerous routes. 

The U.S. embargo isn’t the only obstacle to ending the human trafficking of Cuban players.   The Cuban players are a source of pride and potential tax revenue and that’s why baseball-fanatic Cuba hasn’t just let the players leave.  But Cuba could be compensated using a variation on MLB’s arrangement with Nippon Professional Baseball, which requires an MLB team signing a Japanese player to pay a fee to the player’s Japanese club.  In the case of the Cuban players, the fee could go to the Cuban government or Cuban baseball clubs.   If a deal like that is reached, the final hurdle will likely be the embargo, which bars such a transaction.

Rubio insists that maintaining the embargo is the leverage to gain “democratic concessions and openings for the Cuban people.”  But in a half century, the embargo hasn’t come anywhere near to achieving that goal.  So, the Cuban baseball players are an ideal test case for normalizing economic relations: Baseball is popular in both countries and repealing the embargo promotes players’ human rights.  How will Rubio defend the embargo if MLB and Cuba reach an agreement to end the human trafficking in Cuban baseball players and the principal opponent is – Marco Rubio?   Not very well because he can’t say to the Cuban players, “Trust me, I know that the embargo hasn’t worked for 50 years, but sooner or later it will, so you will have to depend on the smugglers for the foreseeable future.”  He will appear callous about human trafficking and an adversary of America’s national pastime, not a good thing in an election year.

Unfortunately, Rubio has made the embargo and reversing the U.S. recognition of Cuba, a firm campaign pledge, so he is not likely to walk it back.   It’s a shame because a little creative thinking might have advanced his goal of democracy and human rights in Cuba.  Imagine that Rubio and his fellow Congressional Republicans agree to lift the embargo, but condition trade on Cuba’s compliance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes the right “to free choice of employment;” and, as well, impose monitoring and reporting mechanisms and annual certification by the U.S. president of Cuba’s progress in complying with international human rights obligations.   More Cuban players play in the major leagues without undergoing Yasiel Puig’s ordeal and gradually human rights in Cuba improves as the economic benefits become apparent to the Cuban leadership and…  

Sorry, I forgot.   That kind of flexibility isn’t the hallmark of the Republicans in Congress, let alone Republican presidential candidates in a primary season.   The Cuban players are going to have to keep risking their lives just to play baseball in the United States.  

Wallance is an attorney and writer in New York, a former federal prosecutor, and a member of the board of Advancing Human Rights, which uses social media to promote human rights.   

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