Cuba's impressive baseball talent will no longer have to risk defection and human trafficking to play for American clubs under a deal announced Wednesday that culminated more than three years of negotiations.
Major League Baseball (MLB), its players' union and the Cuban Baseball Federation made a groundbreaking agreement that will allow players from the Communist island nation to sign with North American teams despite political strains between the U.S. and Cuban governments.
The MLB-Cuba deal, which lasts through October 2021 unless extended by mutual agreement, installs a posting system similar to those used by MLB with Japanese, South Korean and Taiwan leagues when players want to jump to the richer deals of the major leagues.
For decades, Cuban officials have sought to keep players on homeland sides and their powerhouse national amateur squad. Players have been forced to defect, often making deals with shady characters and forced into human trafficking to escape Cuba, forced to go to other nations before being able to sign major league free agent deals.
"Words cannot fully express my heartfelt joy and excitement," said Cuban-born Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, who defected in 2013. "Knowing that the next generation of Cuban baseball players will not endure the unimaginable fate of past Cuban players is the realization of an impossible dream for all of us.
"Dealing with the exploitation of smugglers and unscrupulous agencies will finally come to an end for the Cuban baseball player. To this date, I am still harassed."
An example of the lengths Cuban players will go to reach MLB is Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, who after multiple failed defection attempts arranged to be taken to Mexico by a drug cartel that kept him hostage until paid $250,000 for his release.
"To know future Cuban players will not have to go through what we went through makes me so happy," Puig said. "I want to thank everyone who was involved in making this happen."
Under the agreement, the Cuban federation must release all players who are age 25 with six years of experience and may also release younger talent. Players can negotiate and sign with major league teams without leaving Cuba, with the federation collecting a release fee for any players signed by MLB clubs, allowed under a 2016 easing of financial sanctions against Cuba.
Players will have standard U.S. work visas allowing players and their families to travel and return to Cuba if they choose. Players would keep the money they earn rather than seeing much of it go to Cuban officials as under past deals for Cuban talent in Asian leagues.
"The next generation of Cuban baseball players will be able to sign an MLB contract while in Cuba, they 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," Abreu said.
The deal will ensure Cuban talent take their place alongside the world's finest on baseball's biggest global stage.
"For years, Major League Baseball has been seeking to end the trafficking of baseball players from Cuba by criminal organizations," said MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred.
"We believe this agreement accomplishes that objective and will allow the next generation of Cuban players to pursue their dream without enduring many of the hardships experienced by current and former Cuban players who have played Major League Baseball."
Cubans need no longer jeopardize their lives to chase their dreams, said MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark.
"Establishing a safe, legal process for entry to our system is the most important step we can take to ending the exploitation and endangerment of Cuban players," he said.
The Cuban version of the announcement emphasized it would allow Cubans to play "without being compelled to break their ties of any kind with their country" and allows for Cubans who "migrated to third countries with the purpose of trying to reach the major leagues and that for several reasons haven't achieved it," to be "reinserted in the Cuban national competitive system."
But it also warned of no change for those who defected to reach MLB, saying the deal "does not imply a retroactive recognition of prior circumstances."