Cuba allows athletes to go pro abroad

CUBA STANDARD — In an apparent effort to stem the tide of defections and raise the competitiveness of Cuban athletes in international events, the Council of Ministers approved a measure that will allow athletes to enter professional contracts abroad, official daily Granma announced.

With the exception of a handful veteran baseball players who joined professional teams in Mexico and Japan with government approval, in the past all Cuban athletes turned professionals abroad were considered defectors.

Cuban athletes, according to the new rules, now have the “possibility to be contracted by other teams abroad, … without being treated like merchandise.” Athletes performing abroad will be “protected” by the National Sports Institute (INDER) or Cuban sports federations; they are expected to pay taxes and social security.

Details have yet to be published, and implications are unclear. However, the immediate outcome will likely be an increase of Cuban baseball, basketball and volleyball players, possibly boxers, on professional circuits in Latin America, Asia and Europe.

Meanwhile, Cuban law enforcement on Sept. 28 reportedly arrested rising baseball star Raicel Iglesias on Isla de la Juventud for attempting to defect. The 23-year-old pitcher had apparently been hiding in the mountains of the island.

The Council of Ministers, according to Granma, describes the changes as “only the beginning of a path.”

Tacitly admitting the existence of professionals, the government now says the income of “high-performance athletes” should “depend on the results achieved in the sport they practice.”


While the new “policy for remuneration of athletes, coaches and sports specialists” represents a major philosophical change in the government’s approach to top athletes, U.S. embargo regulations prohibit U.S. professional teams to pay Cubans who are based on the island.

“Given that we do not have any details of this change in policy, it would be premature for us to speculate what effect it may have,” the Major League Baseball commissioner’s office said in a statement. “There are no provisions in the major league rules or bylaws that make it more difficult for Cuban ballplayers to play Major League Baseball, but MLB and its clubs have and will continue to act in accordance with the laws and policies of the United States government.”

Citing the recent case of MLB threatening to withdraw its support for the Caribbean Series if Cuban club teams participate,  Granma columnist Aliet Arzola Lima wrote in an article in August that the U.S. government forces Cuban athletes to cut all links to the island. It is U.S. sanctions that “impede our athletes to play Major League baseball while maintaining the link and commitment with their birth nation,” she wrote.

Also, limiting the time they can spend abroad, the new rules oblige Cuban athletes to participate in “fundamental competitions” on the island as well as in national teams, according to Granma. If Cuban baseball players, for instance, are obliged to play for a team in the Cuban national league, they will only be able to compete abroad from May to October.

A law or decree has yet to be published; implementation of the new policy, according to Granma, will be “in the next months.”

The new measures are aiming to “perfect sports, create sources of income, seek quality and rigor in competition, increase salaries gradually, and ensure that everyone receives what corresponds to their work,” the official newspaper said.

Paying athletes

Cuban champions and medal winners will now be paid fixed monthly salaries in non-convertible Cuban pesos, ranging from the equivalent of US$18 to $60, in addition to convertible-peso payments they already receive. Medal winners will receive additional monthly payments during their active career, in a similar range. Top baseball players may receive individual seasonal bonuses of up to $200.

Cuba’s national baseball team has been constantly losing talent to Major League Baseball. Adding to a list of dozens of stars, the highest-profile recent defectors include first baseman José Daniel Abreu, outfielders Yasiel Puig, Daniel Álvarez and Yoenis Céspedes, and pitcher Aroldis Chapman.

Under Fidel Castro, baseball stars leaving the island without government approval were considered traitors and not allowed back. However, the Cuban government has gradually softened its stance over the past few years. A recent change of Cuba’s migration law allows everybody with a passport — except people that have “obligations with the Cuban state” — to travel and stay abroad. Official media recently reported about a family visit back home by retired MLB star Rey Ordóñez; also, for the first time state TV recently showed a recorded MLB game, full-length. A veteran team of former players for Industriales, Cuba’s top club team, in August played friendly matches against a team of Cuban defectors, as part of a government-sanctioned U.S. tour. And finally, aging Cuban stars have been allowed to play professional baseball in Japan and Mexico during off-season.

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