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Trump administration cancels Major League Baseball deal with Cuba

Havana Stadium is shown in this undated photo from 2016.

BONNIE JO MOUNT/THE WASHINGTON POST

By KAREN DEYOUNG | The Washington Post | Published: April 8, 2019

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration Monday declared illegal a December deal between Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation that would have allowed Cuban athletes to play in this country without having to defect.

The announcement came less than two weeks after the start of the 2019 baseball season and just days after the federation released the names of 34 Cuban players it said were eligible to sign with Major League Baseball. Some of those players were expected to be signed and playing this year.

The agreement was intended to prevent players from undertaking risky escapes from Cuba, often with paid smugglers, and having to give up their citizenship to play in the United States. Under its terms, similar to deals with foreign players from Japan and other countries, the U.S. baseball clubs would pay a fee - equivalent to 25 percent of the player signing bonus - to the federation.

In a statement, MLB Vice President Michael Teevan said, "We stand by the goal of the agreement, which is to end the human trafficking of baseball players from Cuba."

A senior administration official said the payments were illegal under U.S. sanctions because the federation is part of the Cuban government. The Obama administration had "fudged" the law, and the Cuban government itself was engaged in "human trafficking," said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under rules imposed by the administration.

The measure was the latest of several crackdowns that are part of President Donald Trump's efforts to roll back his predecessor's opening to Cuba. Since Trump took office, he has sharply reduced the size of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, required Cubans to travel to a third country to obtain U.S. visas and restricted previously allowed travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba.

Relations with Cuba have tightened even further under the direction of Trump national security adviser John Bolton, a longtime critic of easing relations, and Mauricio Claver-Carone, a lobbyist for stricter restrictions who was appointed by Bolton last year as senior director for Latin America on the National Security Council.

In early March, the administration lifted a prohibition against lawsuits by American citizens, including Cuban Americans, over property expropriated by the revolutionary government of Fidel Castro, which took power six decades ago.

The administration has also charged that tens of thousands of Cuban intelligence and security agents are in Venezuela, keeping President Nicolás Maduro in power and preventing the Venezuelan military from recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president.

Last week, the United States imposed sanctions on two companies that transport Venezuelan oil to Cuba.

Former Obama administration officials reacted angrily to the charge that they had evaded the law in allowing the baseball agreement to proceed - although the terms of the deal were negotiated, finalized and approved under Trump.

"The MLB came to us," said Benjamin Rhodes, President Barack Obama's deputy national security adviser and the official who shepherded the Cuba opening that led to reestablishment of diplomatic relations in 2015. "They felt profound concern about the danger in terms of human trafficking that Cuban baseball players were subjected to to try to play in the major leagues.

"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," a state Trump is hoping to win in 2020, Rhodes said.

James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a coalition of U.S. companies and organizations that advocate lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba, called the reversal "a cynical, cruel and gratuitous act that is aimed at appeasing a vocal band of obstructionists bent on continuing a failed 60-year policy of isolation. The Cuban players and their families had reason for hope from this deal; that has now been extinguished."

League officials said when the December agreement was signed that they had been in frequent contact with Trump officials and were assured that a Treasury Department license that had authorized the deal under the Obama administration remained valid.

But even as the deal was announced, the administration signaled that it had problems with it and would be reviewing its legality.

"It was clear at the time," and confirmed by further review, the senior administration official said, that there were "a series of material facts which apparently had been, frankly, exaggerated and fudged by the previous administration."

The question at issue was whether the Cuban Baseball Federation is part of the Cuban government, making it ineligible under the embargo to enter into financial arrangements with a U.S. entity unless it is licensed by the Treasury Department.

Under Obama, a number of U.S. entities were allowed to make agreements with Cuba, including pharmaceutical companies engaged in research with the Cuban health system, as well as U.S. airlines and others, under a general license that remains in force.

In a letter to the Treasury Department in January, after administration officials said they were still examining the signed agreement, attorneys for Major League Baseball noted that Japan, South Korea and China had similar deals in which league payments were made to national federations.

"MLB has been in regular contact with the U.S. government throughout its multi-year effort to address human trafficking through the establishment of a safe and orderly system" for Cuban athletes to play in this country, including as recently as November, "and received assurances throughout that period that such efforts were not only consistent with U.S. law and policy, but would be welcomed as a means to address the dangerous smuggling of these Cuban baseball players."

A list of "restricted [Cuban] entities" published by the administration Nov. 15, it noted, did not include the baseball federation. A copy of the letter was obtained by The Washington Post.

But a letter sent to league attorneys Friday by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control said the baseball deal was now prohibited.

"In light of facts recently brought to our attention, and after consultation with the U.S. Department of State," it said, payments to the federation were not authorized because they constituted "a payment to the Cuban government."

In a late Monday interview with Fox News, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo replied "Yep" when asked whether the move was "more effort to pinch Cuba." Without mentioning the embargo, Pompeo said the administration was "going to do everything we can to pull (Cuba) out" of Venezuela.

The Washington Post's Dave Sheinin contributed to this report.

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