On December 17, 2014, President Obama announced that the 54 year economic embargo of Cuba will be lifted. The re-opening of economic relations extends not only to shipping commodities but also lifts some travel restrictions; once again people may be able to travel freely between the countries.
Before Obama’s announcement, if you wanted to leave Cuba and make it to America, you had to be smuggled out of Cuba. You had to renounce your country and never return.
If you are a skilled baseball player, the difficulties and dangers of emigration were worth the trip. In Cuba, players earn about $17 a month; in the US, Alex Rodriguez used to
earn $61 a minute or $2.7 million a month, excluding endorsement deals and bonuses. Yasmany Tomas, a recent defector, was earning about $200 a year from his baseball career; he just signed a 6 year $68 million deal ($11.3 million per year) to play with Arizona, about 56,666 times more money.
To make the trip illegally from Cuba to the United States is a long, expensive and dangerous process. Many smugglers took a defector’s money and left them to be arrested; if the defector was lucky, when they paid the smugglers anywhere from $10,000 to $2.5 million they bought a hellish trip out of Cuba, involving long nights with treacherous hikes, swimming through swamps, a perilous boat ride and additional payments.
Take Yasiel Puig, a Cuban defector who has quickly made a name for himself in his first full MLB season. His journey to the MLB spanned over a year of attempts as well as almost 400 miles of walking swimming and boating. Puig was arrested and detained by the Cuban government and risked his personal safety, as well as the safety of those he cared about, including his girlfriend who accompanied him on his exodus from his homeland. On his successful journey, he had to hitchhike across the inland, then hike and swim over 30 miles along the Cuban coastline to make it to the place where he could avoid police and make it off the island.
Once they successfully fled Cuba, they were not yet out of the water. Both Puig and fellow countryman Aroldis Chapman have been the target of large lawsuits ($12 million and $18 million respectively). The suits, filed by the smugglers, claim that before the players’ flight from Cuba, the players accused smugglers of helping plan their escape. By acussing the smugglers, the players save face in the eyes of the Cuban governemnt. Whether or not this is true, they either are forced to go through terrible measures due to current Cuban-American relations, or they are the subjects of legal onslaght, due to the Cuban-American relations. Either way they are having to go through more than an athlete from any other country, therefore making their journey to the big leagues more difficult. Athletes from other countries
who want to play in the US do not face the same challenges.
The recent announcement by Obama did not normalize all travel, it simply removed the necessity for the American government to approve every traveler to Cuba, but only certain groups can travel: humanitarian aid groups, people visiting family,
no visitors just for leisure just yet, as more general travel would still need to be approved by Congress. If Cuba can, in the eyes of the American government, lose its title of a state-sponsored terrorist country, then maybe immigration between the nations can open up, allowing for the plethora of Cuban baseball talent to make their way into the MLB.
The one potential downside of that is that the MLB, since the announcement that relations with Cuba will be normalized, is considering forcing Cuban defects to enter the MLB through the draft, and therefore pushing back their payday (draftees earn a fraction of what a free agent signing does, and currently Cuban players sign into the MLB as free agents) but
if the travel does in fact open up, then we will not only see more Cuban talent, but also a safer journey for the players involved, as well as allowing them to both pursue their dream in the big leagues without giving up their homeland.