MORGANTOWN – Major international trade agreements between the United States and Cuba, especially pertaining to the rules that govern the pool of Major League Baseball players who reside from Cuba, are heavily going to affect the United States under the Trump administration, according to a law professor at West Virginia University.

Since Trump’s announcement as a presidential candidate in 2015, he has had wavering opinions on Cuba and America’s relationship with the country. During the primaries, Trump was approving of a diplomatic relationship between the two countries. But since taking office, he says he is studying the issue and plans on rolling back the open policies that Barack Obama established.

MLB players are caught in the middle of this ongoing rocky relationship between Cuba and the United States. Alison Peck, professor of law at West Virginia University, believes the confusion and exploitation of Cuban ballplayers could be avoided if MLB changed its rules, but she says the organization most likely will wait on a decision made by the Trump administration.

“U.S. policy toward Cuba is much bigger than just baseball. Many people in the U.S., including many Cuban-Americans, want to see a tough embargo,” Peck told The West Virginia Record. “To his credit, Trump has said that he is taking time to study the issue. His more recent informal comments suggest he might tighten up the restrictions of the embargo again, but it’s too soon to say.”

Peck said that if the Trump administration is open to strengthening the relationship the. U.S. and Cuba, and solve the baseball problem, they should take a look at the proposal that the MLB made last year. 

“MLB proposed allowing its clubs to sign players still playing for the Cuban league and, instead of paying the Cuban government, pay into a fund run by private enterprises for the development of youth baseball in Cuba,” Peck said. “The Office of Foreign Assets Control at Treasury doesn’t seem to have acted on that proposal before Trump took office, and I’m sure its opinion now will turn on whether Trump wants to continue the Obama Administration’s policies of loosening up trade with Cuba.”

The MLB has been criticized since the 1990s on its signing of Cuban players. This year, a Miami jury convicted a sports agent on several charges, alleging that he smuggled Cuban players into the U.S. to gain profits from free-agent contracts. A similar case went to trial in 2016 when agent Bartolo Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada were indicted on smuggling charges.

“The government’s evidence showed that Hernandez and Estrada worked with violent human traffickers to get these players into countries like Haiti or Mexico or the Dominican Republic and essentially hold them captive there until they signed big deals with MLB clubs,” Peck said. “Several Cuban MLB players testified about the coercion and threats they experienced.”

Sports agents are able to get away with smuggling athletes because of a loophole. If the players are residents of a different country, such has Haiti or Mexico, then they can be signed as international free agents, according to the MLB rules. They are then able to join any team. 

According to Peck, this means that their agents can negotiate deals and get percentages as commission. Often, these international players don’t question the percentage because of their previous experience in their home country. 

“Hernandez and Estrada disputed any criminal activity. The defense argued that they merely helped the players get safely to third countries, organized showcases for MLB scouts, and helped them legally obtain residency papers that allowed clubs to sign them,” Peck said.

In order to prevent future trafficking of Cuban players, the Treasury Department needs to make accommodations or the MLB needs to change its rules. Peck suggests that prospects who enter the country need to sign as international free agents, just as players from Mexico, Venezuela and Japan.

“Players would still confront the dangers of defecting to the U.S. But they would not have to be held captive by unscrupulous agents and human traffickers in unfamiliar countries who obtain questionable residency papers for them,” Peck said. “If a player defected directly to the U.S., he could then safely join family or friends already here, meet with multiple sports agents, and negotiate a fair deal with both agents and clubs.”

That rule change could make Cuban players a lot less vulnerable to being taken advantage of, Peck said.

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