Cuban baseball players showcase different need for immigration fix

Cuban baseball players showcase different need for immigration fix
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After the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig in 2012, he said in an interview, “It was so hard to get here.” The reporter asked, “To the major leagues?” “No,” Puig replied. “To the United States.” At a later American trial of migrant traffickers who smuggled Puig, who now plays for the Cincinnati Reds, he testified how he was threatened and held hostage in Mexico on the way to the United States. His harrowing experience is another example of how Cuban baseball stars have risked everything to improve their economic status and professional potential.

A recent agreement between Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation, which must be approved by the United States government, opens an opportunity for Cuban players to get to Major League Baseball without endangering their lives and being exploited by opportunists. It also gives Major League Baseball better access to Cuban players, along with more predictable costs. Under the deal, the Cuban Baseball Federation will receive a percentage of each signing bonus.

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If the Cuban Baseball Federation were to use this funding to improve the professional and economic conditions of its players and to refurbish its decrepit facilities, this would be a literal game changer. It would also be a great motivation for young Cuban athletes who could aspire to earn a decent living after all of their work and sacrifice. But Cuba has a history of exploiting contract workers in other industries, and the Major League Baseball deal must be scrutinized from this perspective.

The agreement envisions that Cuban players will enter the United States on temporary work visas and maintain their ties with the Cuban Baseball Federation. This means that if they are injured, or if they end their careers prematurely, they will not be able to remain in the United States and would have to return to Cuba. The Cuban government has also stated that players in the United States would be subject to Cuban income taxes. A recent government decree fixed this tax at 4 percent on their salaries.

The bulk of compensation to new players is their signing bonus, and it is unclear if Cuba would also tax that in addition to receiving a percentage of the bonus from Major League Baseball. In the worst case, Cuban players would receive only a small percentage of their income after Cuban and American taxes. There is no transparency in the terms that would ensure the new income to the Cuban Baseball Federation would be reinvested in Cuban baseball operations rather than go to the Cuban treasury as general revenue, as is the case with other contract workers.

The United States government should allow Cuban players, who enter the country on Major League Baseball contracts and temporary work visas, to obtain permanent residence status for themselves and their immediate families after one year. All Cuban players have been granted this status in the past. After these Cuban players become permanent residents, they should not be subject to Cuban income taxes on their baseball earnings.

Finally, the United States government should require transparency to ensure that the income to the Cuban Baseball Federation from the agreement is used exclusively to support Cuban baseball operations. These safeguards will ensure that the new Major League Baseball agreement will not become just another new form of exploitation.

John Caulfield is the former chief of the United States interests section in Havana. He is the founder of the Innovadores Foundation, an American nonprofit organization that supports technology entrepreneurs in Cuba.