Cuba will uphold its ban on baseball players that defected from the island from playing for the national team at international events, a top government official told Reuters, squashing speculation that changes in the rules may be afoot.
Many Cubans with big league dreams leave the island illegally given that there is no deal on formal player transfers between Cuba and Major League Baseball, the organization that runs professional baseball in the United States.
A record 150 players defected in 2015, draining the country of its best talent. Those defectors are sometimes banned from setting foot back in Cuba for years.
But with U.S.-Cuban relations improving, the Cuban government’s stance on defectors has softened and many were hopeful it might allow defectors to join the national team for the World Baseball Classic next March.
Antonio Becali, Cuba’s top government official for sports, said the country would continue to field players from its own teams.
“Cuba will continue with our athletes, in other words, with athletes trained in our country. I think it is a great honour for our delegation and our team that our athletes are trained in our sports schools, in the sports system, and our coaches and that is something we will keep, as an indissoluble principle. Our athletes that are within the Cuban sporting system and our national series are those that will continue to represent us at international events,” Becali said on the sideline of a news conference about Cuba’s teams for the Olympics.
Last year the United States and Cuba restored diplomatic relations after a 54-year break. MLB and Cuban officials have also started talks on normalizing player transfers.
Such a deal remains blocked by the U.S. economic embargo, so MLB is seeking special U.S. permission to sign Cuban players in Cuba so they no longer have to defect. The Treasury Department has yet to make a ruling.
Many Cuban players have fled by boat, putting themselves in the hands of smugglers. Players try to establish residence in third countries to maintain free agent status, allowing the top prospects to command multimillion-dollar salaries. The average Cuban player earns around $500 per year.
“That’s something illicit, that is illegal traffic of people and many are being judged from the judicial point of view by the authorities of those countries and we are totally against all that trafficking our country is being subjected to in sport,” Becali said.
As part of the baseball rapprochement between the two countries, Havana allowed baseball defectors including star players Jose Abreu and Yasiel Puig to join an MLB goodwill tour around the Caribbean island last December.
Among the defectors who could help the Cuban national team is Abreu, who has a $68 million contract with the Chicago White Sox. Abreu paid $5.8 million over nine months to people who aided his defection, according to U.S. court documents in the prosecution of smuggling suspects.