Officials with Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation said Wednesday they had reached a deal that would allow Cuban citizens to play in the United States and return home in the offseason.
For the first time Cuban players would not be forced to defect to play in the major leagues. The agreement would allow the Cuban government to claim a fee from the MLB team that hires a player.
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After years of criticizing the MLB for poaching some of their best players, Cuban baseball federation officials said Wednesday they were proud of the new partnership.
"It's a historic day and we have to be happy," Cuban Baseball Federation President Higinio Velez said at a news conference at Havana's famed Latin American Stadium.
Velez said the millions generated from the deal would help rejuvenate baseball in Cuba, which was been hurt by an exodus of players and a lack of resources.
Under the new agreement players will retain their Cuban residency and ability to play with the Cuban national league.
Previously, baseball players who defected were banned by the Cuban government from returning to the island.
In the past, getting to MLB was often a dangerous route for the best players from Cuba, which dominated world amateur baseball for decades.
Some left their squads while traveling abroad with a national team, but others risked their lives by depending on smugglers to get them out. Many settled in third countries to avoid the MLB amateur draft and make the most money as free agents.
US congressman says it's a bad deal
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said the agreement announced Wednesday addressed an issue of safety.
"For years, Major League Baseball has been seeking to end the trafficking of baseball players from Cuba by criminal organizations by creating a safe and legal alternative for those players to sign with major league clubs," he said. "We believe that 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."
Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balert, a Republican, criticized the Cuban government's involvement in the transactions to come.
"Like all people, Cuban baseball players should be free to negotiate their own terms and wages," he wrote in a series of tweets. "MLB's reported proposal to cede their rights to the regime in Cuba, which profits from the players' labor, institutionalizes their exploitation."
Expert says it's long-awaited good news
Ted Henken, a Cuba expert and chairman of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at New York's Baruch College, said the agreement was big news.
"But the devil is in the details. I'd ask how alike or different will it be from the just terminated deal that had Cuban doctors in Brazil?" he said. "What portion of earnings will go to the players vs. the (government)? What rights or particular stipulations will guide the agreement or control the players while in the US and MLB?"
William LeoGrande, an American University professor and co-author of the book, "Back Channel to Cuba," disagreed with the analogy to Cuban doctors while welcoming the "long-awaited breakthrough."
He said the agreement was helped by "an Obama-era regulatory change allowing US employers to hire Cuban nationals -- a regulation that President Trump did not reverse."
Players will need to get a work visa, MLB said.
CNN has reached out to the US State Department for comment but has not yet received a response.
The agreement says players from Cuba who are 25 or older and have six years of experience in Cuba's top professional league can be released. An MLB team will have to pay a release fee to the organization for the player, the statement says.
Defector says he's still harassed
Major League Baseball said the terms are similar to agreements with professional baseball organizations in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. If one of the 30 MLB teams wants to sign a Cuban, it will work out a contract and also play the Cuban federation a fee of between 15% and 20% of the guaranteed salary, according to a statement from MLB.
"(Players) won't have to abandon the country illegally or take risks in other countries at the hands of unscrupulous people who live off of the sweat and blood of those athletes," said Velez, the Cuban baseball president.
According to the Baseball Almanac website, there were 25 players who were born in Cuba who played in the major leagues this past season.
One of those stars was José Abreu, a Chicago White Sox slugger who defected from Cuba in 2013. He said Wednesday he is still harassed.
"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," he said.
Abreu signed a six-year contract worth $68 million after he defected, according to media reports.