In the spring of 2012, Yasiel Puig and 24-year-old Cuban boxer Yunior Despaigne trekked on their fifth attempted migration out of their home country; first they hiked nearly 30 miles through mangroves in the Bay of Pigs, and then met up with a smuggler that loaded them on to a cigarette boat to Isla Mujeres, an island off the coast off of Cancun.
From there they were held in a boardinghouse until Puig and Despaigne secured money for the smugglers, and they were at one point held at gunpoint, giving them a clear indication they needed their payment. They got it eventually, because when Puig signed his $42 million deal with the Dodgers, $8.4 million went to the men who took him. That’s 20%, a number you should remember.
This is a common experience for any Cuban ballplayer in the United States. Because of the US-Cuba embargo beginning in 1960, no Cuban foreign national can do business with the United States. So to avert that, every defector almost always goes through the process of smuggling themselves to Mexico, trying out for a team there and working out a contract, and then crossing the border on land, invoking an asylum claim under the Cuban Adjustment Act.
That could very well change in our time, as Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation (FCB) negotiated a posting system similar to that for Korea and Japan, whereby Cuban nationals would receive an exemption to the embargo and could, while still having to leave the country, apply for a work visa in the United States. The FCB will receive 25% of the signing bonuses for players who are 24 years-old or younger, and will receive 15-20% of the contract value of players 25 years-old and with six years of service time or more.
The Obama Administration had already obtained a “license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the Treasury Department to enter into a business arrangement with the FCB,” and until the Trump Administration decides to overturn it, that license is still valid.
And as expected, the new administration wants to tighten the screws on both the league and the Cuban government. A senior administration official in the aforementioned Washington Post piece stated that the system “would institutionalize a system by which a Cuban body garnishes the wages of hard-working athletes who simply seek to live and compete in a free society,” and Marco Rubio, a staunch anti-Cuban government voice in the Senate, said that the policy “is both illegal and immoral” and a “farce.”
Before I say what I think of this on its face, it would be wise to hear what actual Cuban players have to say. José Abreu said that after still receiving threats to this day, Cuban players now “will be able to keep their earnings as any other player in the world, they will be able to return to Cuba, they will be able to share with their families, and they will be able to play the sport they love against the best players in the world without fear and trepidation.” Puig himself commented on the matter as well, saying that “to know future Cuban players will not have to go through what we went through makes me so happy.”
I’ll be pointed: this is an unambiguously good thing for baseball, for the United States, for Cuba, and the world. The sport is stronger when anyone can participate in whatever leagues they want, and people are better off when they can have freedom of movement to work, see their families, and visit.
Unfortunately, that is the defining issue of our time—what defines the right of the citizen and the non-citizen or migrant, and to what extent can the latter engage in the world economy and civil society?
For now, the United States has replied with an emphatic “not at all” to that question, deciding that gassing migrants, locking children in cages, and engaging in human rights violations including destroying humanitarian aid and supplies, mass rape and sexual assault of those in immigration custody, and disappearing parents and their children at hospitals and schools, is preferable, not to mention the recent stories on children dying in government custody.
This is awful on its own, and I think it’s important to remember this from multiple facets as we look at immigration militarization with respect to this particular issue of Cuban players—one, that these policies have recently ramped up but were created in “nicer” ways in the past that only led to escalation, and that our policies abroad fuel the migrations that are then criminalized, baseball players included.
In Cuba in particular, many of those so staunchly opposed to the government are due to their human rights violations, but based on actually examining the history of interventionism of the United States in Latin America and the world writ large, “human rights” is often the guise under which interventionism is trafficked.
The Cuban Revolution, after all, was rooted in the coup of the democratically-elected Gerardo Machado government, who was overthrown by the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, where there were “roughly 20,000 politically murders” in his second term. There was rampant corruption, crime, and poor living and medical conditions. From there, most US citizens know the rest—revolution, the Castro government, Bay of Pigs, the embargo, the missile crisis, and a long distancing.
In the rest of the region, there were similar interventions under the same pretenses. In Brazil, the US backed a military dictatorship instead of a social democrat so that it didn’t “becom[e] another Cuba,” and they had no democracy until 1985. In Chile, the US backed the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in place of, once again, the democratically elected Salvador Allende. Pinochet, for what its worth, tortured over 27,000 people.
I could go on: the Iran-Contra affair in Nicaragua; the 2009 Honduras coup and funding of paramilitary death squads; I hate to get as dark as I’m getting in this post, but frankly, ignoring that long, laundry list of misdeeds is context that is pretty important in assessing any sort of deal with an “adversary” in Latin America, because based on the forces that the United States routinely ally with, it’s almost like... opposing this deal with Cuba is disingenuous to begin with. It looks even kookier when you consider those previous nunbers: while the Cuban government receives about a fifth to a quarter of bonuses and earnings, about the same was being dished out to literal human traffickers and drug runners.
The fact is that forces within our country want to oppose any sort of meaningful dialogue with the Cuban (sarcasm via scare quotes) “regime” because isolation is a core principle in a multi-pronged interventionist approach: isolation from international markets to deprive it of capital funds; militarization of their relationship and a meddling in political affairs, and ultimately, violent regime change after crippling both the civil and political infrastructure. The reason why there are human rights abuses in Cuba is the same reason there are any in areas that are under the threat of military intervention; freedom of speech is harder to come by when your opposition is literally the CIA.
Which is why if the Cuban deal works, it proves that there is another way. Dealing in absolutes with anyone that opposes your strategic interest, while making Faustian bargains with dictators in the same breath, all the while militarizing the entry of any victim that is created by these policies, is both foolish but also intentional and exactly how those who, say, receive massive donations from military contractors and private prisons, want it to work. To create a system where there is mutual respect for nations, and most of all, respect for people no matter where they live, so that they can live and work and die in the place of their choosing, is a path that scares people in power the most.