by Michael McGraw, Associate Print Editor
As the third World Baseball Classic (WBC) finished last month, with the Dominican Republic winning the 16-team tournament, discussion and debate resonated over the effectiveness and relevance of this international competition.
While the WBC’s American popularity suffers as a result of peripheral participation by the country’s top players and low TV ratings, the importance of participation and success in such international tournaments is indisputably meaningful for the country of Cuba. Due to governmental relations and policies, international competition is the only venue for Cuban players to oppose Major League Baseball (MLB) players; however, it remains to be seen how a recent shift in Cuban policy might impact Cuban baseball players and their ability to freely leave their home country.
Cuban baseball enjoys a rich tradition, including competitive professional baseball leagues and a pipeline to the MLB that has resulted in over 170 Cuban-born players in the majors. However, after the Fidel Castro-led revolution against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s, Castro eradicated professional baseball and replaced it with an emphasis on a strong amateur Cuban national team constructed to facilitate Cuban pride and reflect the revolution’s ideals.
Although initially pro-Castro, diplomatic relations embittered quickly between Cuba and the United States, and, as of 1960, United States’ President John F. Kennedy placed an embargo on Cuban-United States trade and political connections, intending to squeeze out Castro’s political-economic stronghold.
As associations between the two countries have remained mostly contentious, baseball has been a bridge connecting the respective countries’ citizens. Whether it be Cuban players leaving their country in pursuit of playing professional baseball in the United States, MLB teams bidding for the services of virtually inaccessible Cuban premiere talent, or a surprising 1999 exhibition two-game series (one game in Baltimore and one in Havana) between the Cuban national team and the Baltimore Orioles, baseball’s discernible presence in the struggle has remained consistent over the past two-plus decades.
Wet Foot Dry Foot
Following the 1991 downfall of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main trading partner, the Cuban economy experienced a precipitous fall, and Cubans began defection attempts. The United States stance on its treatment of Cuban defectors is known as the “Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot” policy: defectors who reach American land are considered to have “dry feet” and can qualify for permanent residency status, but those who are discovered in the water are considered to have “wet feet” and returned back to Cuba.
The first Cuban baseball player defection occurred during an emergency landing of the Cuban national team’s plane in 1991 in Miami. When the aircraft landed, Cuban pitcher Rene Arocha walked off the plane and later pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1993-1995.
Arocha’s defection sparked what has become a common trend of Cuban baseball players attempting to leave their homeland to play professional American baseball. With full cognizance of their players’ desire to defect, the Cuban national team utilizes extensive security when it participates in international tournaments, and accounts of attempted defections involve tense circumstances.
For example, the United States Coast Guard allegedly discovered former New York Yankees pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez on the island of Anguilla Cay after him and others left Cuba in a fishing boat. This 1997 attempt was Hernandez’s ninth at defection, and he was banned for life from Cuban baseball due to the belief that he had a hand in his half-brother’s (Livan Hernandez) defection in 1995.
At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Cuban security patrolled in vans outside of the team’s hotel. Former MLB all-star Rolando Arrojo had been in contact with baseball agent Joe Cubas, who contrived a plan for Arrojo’s defection. Cubas checked into the team hotel under an alias name, had someone provide Arrojo with a phone, and Arrojo hurriedly escaped the hotel and into Cubas’ car for a successful defection.
When the attempted defections are unsuccessful, players have been subjected to various punishments.
While playing at a tournament in Panama, current Seattle Mariner Kendry Morales told his roommate of his intention to defect. Morales’ roommate told Cuban security, and Morales was sent immediately back to Cuba. However, Morales later succeeded in 2009, his twelfth attempt.
Current Cincinnati Reds pitcher Aroldis Chapman unsuccessfully attempted to defect at one point, leading to his suspension from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Chapman later successfully defected in 2009, keeping his intentions a secret from everyone, including his pregnant girlfriend.
Follow the Money
Notwithstanding the lure of playing against the best players in the world, the financial component is often the driving force behind defection. Cuban players on the national team make approximately $12-$16 a month, whereas the minimum major league salary for the 2013 season is $490,000.
Defectors Alexei Ramirez (second year of a $32.5M, four-year contract with the Chicago White Sox), Aroldis Chapman (fourth year of a $30.25M, six-year deal with the Cincinnati Reds), and Yoenis Cespedes (second year of a four-year, $36M contract with the Oakland Athletics) are all making impacts, along with large salaries, with their current MLB teams.
Additionally, Cuban defectors Livan Hernandez (career earnings of $53M), Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez (career earnings of $34.25M), and Jose Contreras (career earnings of $67.5M) have all made substantial earnings after defecting.
As the United States government has the “Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot” policy regarding Cuban defectors, MLB has its own set of rules governing Cuban defectors. In 1977, then-MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn issued the “Kuhn Directive,” declaring that no team can engage in discussions with any Cuban player in Cuba. MLB rules further specify that United States, Canadian, or Puerto Rican residents must participate in the first-year amateur player draft, in which teams select which player they want. Conversely, residents of all other countries are international free agents and can pick which team to sign with, essentially create a bidding war between teams.
Enter the Agents
With such significant salaries involved, agents have become a pivotal component of the defecting process. Cuba has became notorious for diligently following the Cuban national team around the world, attempting to gain potential defectors’ trust. Once he gained that trust,, he was known to have personally assisted in their defections. Cubas would then try to have defectors establish residency outside of the United States in order to be considered international free agents.
Livan Hernandez, represented by Cubas upon his entrance into MLB, was allegedly approached by a female autograph seeker at an international tournament in Mexico. When Hernandez went to sign her autograph book, he saw a picture of Cubas and the words “Call him.” The woman provided Cubas’ number to Hernandez, Hernandez called him, and the two were shortly thereafter traveling to Venezuela. Cubas later secured Hernandez a guaranteed $4.5M contract in 1995 with the Florida Marlins.
Cubas also represented Hernandez’s brother, Orlando, after his “wet foot” defection. Upon Hernandez’s discovery by the United States Coast Guard, he was allegedly offered political asylum in the United States but declined before ultimately resurfacing in Costa Rica. In Costa Rica, Hernandez became an international free agent, and Cubas negotiated a $6.6M contract for Hernandez with the New York Yankees.
Cubas is not alone in his pivotal role in assisting with Cuban defections. Another agent who represented Cuban defectors, Gus Dominguez, was convicted in 2007 of illegally assisting five Cuban baseball players into the United States and consequently served five years in prison for his actions.
Loosening the Grip
As Cuban players have sacrificed their personal relations and risked their lives attempting to defect, current Cuban president, Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, established new law earlier this year that has the potential to affect defections.
In January 2013, Castro eased Cuban travel restrictions, allowing Cuban citizens to leave the country and travel to certain countries without obtaining an exit visa or an invitation from another country. Any Cuban who leaves the country can be gone for up to 24 months without forfeiting his or her citizenship or free health care. In addition, Cubans who have previously left and wish to return can reapply for residency; however, in a safeguard provision, Cuban leaders maintain the power to deny permission for government officials, criminals, and athletes wanting to leave the country
Before this law, any defecting Cuban baseball player in effect permanently cut all ties with his country’s leadership. Now, this finite status appears to have shifted, as Jose Contreras became the first baseball defector to return to Cuba when he traveled back in early 2013 following this law change. The return allowed Contreras to reconnect with his ailing mother after ten years away form his home country.
Although Contreras hurriedly accepted the opportunity to return to Cuba, others, such as Orlando Hernandez, have stated their skepticism and refrained from returning to Cuba.
Raul Castro’s move has some hoping for the United States to cease its fifty-plus year Cuban embargo. According to estimates from the United States Chamber of Commerce, the embargo has cost the United States anywhere from $1.2B-$3.6B due to the trade and travel-related restrictions, but depending on the administration and political atmosphere, there have been faint signs toward an easing of the countries’ relations. President Barack Obama removed travel restrictions to the country for Cuban Americans back in 2009.
Opponents of removing the embargo, however, point to Castro’s unwavering, anti-democratic political ideology, citing his inclination to be more aligned with the Chinese state-subsidized capitalism approach while maintaining a non-democratic government.
While the effects of Cuba’s new law on the United States remain undetermined, it has already positively impacted one Cuban defector, Jose Contreras. The past two decades of aggressive defections of Cuban baseball players to the United States might turn into a whole new ballgame in the wake of these changes.