10/03/13 - The Economist - The Castros let athletes play abroad
AMONG Fidel Castros first reforms in Cuba was to nationalise baseball,
his favourite sport. He insisted it should be played for love of the game
alone, which meant that players until recently have been earning the same
$20 a month as everyone elsethough some have got an occasional free house
In 2006, however, Mr Castro handed the reins to his brother Raúl, who has
begun a cautious liberalisation. Change is now coming to sports. In June
Cuba agreed to return to the Caribbean Series, a club baseball tournament
which it left in 1961. And on September 27th the government announced that
it will let Cuban athletes compete in foreign leagues, as long as they pay
taxes and promise to play for their country if needed.
The governments hand was forced by defections. Between 1966 and 1992, not
one player who grew up in Cuba appeared in Americas Major League Baseball
(MLB) and went on to a successful career. But in recent years the pace has
picked up sharply. Twenty-one Cubans now play in MLB, and a few have
become stars: Aroldis Chapman was nicknamed the Cuban Missile after
launching the fastest pitch in history at 105mph (170kph). The government
now hopes both to collect dollars by taxing players foreign salaries, and
to discourage them from leaving for good.
MLB, however, is unlikely to benefit. For that it has Congress to blame.
The United States trade embargo bans any transaction that would finance
the Castros government. As a result, the rule that Cuban players should
pay Cuban taxes would prevent American clubs from signing any who plan to
comply. Only outright defectors would be cleared to suit up.
Americas loss is likely to be other countries gain. The Japanese league
has lost many of its best players to MLB, and its teams would surely be
eager to compensate by signing Cuban talent. Salaries there can exceed $5m
As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama called for an end to the
embargo. In office he has loosened restrictions on travel and remittances.
But he has maintained the trade ban, and vows to stay the course until
Cuba liberalises politically. The embargos durability is usually
attributed to its influential Cuban-American defenders. If enough Cuban
stars wind up playing in Japan, MLB teams may consider lobbying for the
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