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 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.