09/28/13 - Wall Street Journal - Cuba to Let Its Athletes Play Professionally Abroad
By CHRISTOPHER RHOADS
Cuba, in an effort to thwart the wave of top baseball players defecting to
the U.S., said on Friday it would allow its athletes to play abroad as
professionals, breaking with a decades-old policy of considering
professional sports as counter to the island's 1959 Communist revolution.
The change, announced in the country's state-run Granma newspaper, won't
allow Cuban baseball players to directly enter the U.S., since the U.S.
trade embargo with Cuba, in place since 1962, forbids it. Currently,
Cubans who seek to play in the U.S. must defect and establish residency in
a third country, often the Dominican Republic, before signing with a Major
League Baseball team as a free agent.
Under the new rules, baseball players who played abroad would give a
portion of their salaries to the cash-strapped Communist government,
although the official announcement didn't mention a percentage. China has
done this with its star athletes, most notably basketball giant Yao Ming
who played for the Houston Rockets.
The splash made in recent years in the U.S. by several Cuban players, most
notably 22-year-old rookie sensation Yasiel Puig with the Los Angeles
Dodgers, has increased interest in Cuban players as well as their
willingness to leave, and likely helped to prompt the policy change,
according to people active in the Cuban baseball trade.
"This is an attempt to keep players from leaving, as simple as that," said
Jaime Torres, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based agent who has represented top Cuban
players like Jose Contreras, who pitched for the New York Yankees and
Hundreds of players are estimated to have left the island over the past
two decades, with most of those happening in recent years. On opening day
this year, 68 Cubans were in a U.S. major league uniform, a more than 60%
increase from 2005, according to Major League Baseball.
For decades, Cuba dominated international competition, a source of pride
on the global stage. In recent years, however, as more players defected
driven by a worsening economy and increased awareness of the value of
their skills, the team has stumbled badly, causing national embarrassment.
The Cuban team has bowed out in the early rounds of several international
tournaments, including the historic humiliation of losing in the second
round of this year's World Baseball Classic to the Dutch.
The issue is no small matter for Cuba, where baseball is more than a
national pastime but of supreme national interest.
Former long-time leader Fidel Castro considers victories of the island's
national baseball team as Cold War battles won, its players exemplars of
Cuban Socialist achievement.
Cuba has a similar program with doctors. The government has sent tens of
thousands of doctors to countries ranging from Venezuela to Brazil,
earning an estimated $6 billion a year in money and oil in return,
according to economists.
The announcement in Gramna said the players would be eligible to play
abroad so long as they fulfill commitments at home, such as the Cuban
league which runs from November to April. Baseball players on the island
typically earn well under $100 a month, according to Mr. Torres, despite
their vaunted status.
Mr. Torres cautioned that the government has made such promises before, in
an effort to persuade players not to defect, only to close the door again.
The Cuban government has also sporadically allowed players to earn money
abroad in places like Japan, usually at the end of their careers. Last
year, it allowed several players, including star Alfredo Despaigne, to
play in Mexico.
In those instances, usually done as a reward for loyalty, the players kept
just 10% or 20% of the amount earned, with the rest going to the
government, said Rene Guim, a Miami-based marketing executive who has
worked as a publicist for Cuban players who defected.
"The figures were insulting to the athletes," he said. "The only value to
the athlete was that the rest of the world could see their skills."
The country, which replaced its professional league with an amateur league
following the revolution, sifts through its population of 11 million for
future players as early as the age of six or seven, and then channels
those with promise through a demanding and highly regimented Communist
Write to Christopher Rhoads at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared September 28, 2013, on page A8 in the
U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Cuba Lets Its
Athletes Play Abroad.
Original Source / Fuente Original:
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