Major League Baseball (MLB) star Yasiel Puig, right fielder for the Cincinnati Reds, was not roaming the expansive turf of a stadium packed to full capacity in late April 2012. Instead, he was stranded on a deserted beach waiting for members of a black-market smuggling ring to take him out of Cuba, through Mexico and ultimately onto U.S. soil. Just to get to the beach, Puig had to say goodbye to his family and then hike through 50 kilometers of swampland, and even then, his journey was far from over. Once in Mexico, difficulties arose when a rival trafficking group kidnapped Puig. Only after another risky escape did Puig finally make his way to the United States. By June 2012, Puig had signed a contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers worth $42 million.
After the Cold War, Cuban baseball players began defecting to the U.S. in an unprecedented fashion. Faced with economic hardships on an island no longer receiving financial support from the Soviet Union, talented players faced a tough decision: stay in an increasingly impoverished Cuba or leave their families and cooperate with human traffickers for the chance to play professionally in the U.S. Puig and the 17 other Cuban immigrants listed on 2019 Opening Day rosters opted for the latter.
In an effort to end these risky defection practices, the MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation (FCB) signed an agreement this past December that had been in negotiations for years. The agreement would create a system in which the player’s Cuban team would receive 15 to 25 percent of the player’s signing bonus as a release fee, similar to the MLB’s existing relationship with Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball. Additionally, the players would be permitted to return to Cuba during the off-season to visit family and, very importantly, would not be subjugated to dangerous trafficking practices.
However, on April 8, President Donald J. Trump’s administration announced that the agreement was illegal and the administration would nullify it. The agreement was canceled on the basis that the fees would be payment to the Cuban government, since the FCB is a subsidiary of the Cuban government. Simply, the administration’s decision was a continuation of the same economic embargo first imposed by former President Dwight D. Eisenhower 60 years ago — a hard-power foreign policy tactic intended to elicit radical change on the island.
However, since the ink dried over half a century ago it is important to consider what change was ever induced by Eisenhower’s policy. The economic pressure did not drive former Cuban leader Fidel Castro out of power. Rather, Castro maintained his role as head of state and used the embargo as fuel for the Cuban propaganda apparatus that portrayed the policy as the “longest genocide in history.” Even when paired with the economic mismanagement and dictatorial governance rooted in the denial of Cuban citizens’ rights, the embargo did not cause Castro’s abdication. Instead, Cubans suffered from limited resources from the state, and no longer had access to American-made resources. The embargo never successfully pressured Cuba into abandoning its politically repressive nature; the ban only succeeded in exacerbating Cubans’ economic hardships.
Yet in a post-Castro Cuba, the U.S. is employing the same unproven sanctions against the country. The Trump administration has fully pivoted against the progress made during former President Barack Obama’s administration to relax tensions between the two countries separated by just 90 miles. In June 2017, Trump announced a ban on commerce with businesses owned by the Cuban military and security services in addition to the prohibition of individual travel to Cuba. The block of the MLB-Cuba baseball deal is the latest of a reinvigoration of Cold War-era U.S. economic strategies.
Of course, the answer to why Trump decided to prevent players from visiting their families and from avoiding dangerous trafficking practices is inherently political. Large constituencies of Cuban-American voters reside in battleground states like Florida. Within that demographic, a large base of those voters oppose any deals with the government that do not include fully restoring democracy and protecting human rights (and yet they do not balk when Trump negotiates with countries such as North Korea and Saudi Arabia). It is a simple trade-off: protect the livelihoods of Cuban baseball players who help drive America’s beloved pastime or employ an outdated economic strategy to make a point to a constituency.
As the U.S. economic embargo was felt at the ground level in Cuba, Trump’s ban on Cuban players will only be felt in the grass and dirt of ball fields. As Obama’s longtime adviser Benjamin Rhodes told the Washington Post, “This is an indefensible, cruel and pointless decision that they’ve made that will be ending the lives of Cuban baseball players and achieve nothing beyond appeasing hard-line factions in Florida.”
Brian Taggett (19C) is from Kalamazoo, Mich.