New US laws could ease path for Cuban players

Dept. of Treasury amends Cuban Assets Control Regulations

New US laws could ease path for Cuban players

The U.S. Department of Treasury announced new amendments to sanctions against Cuba that could allow MLB teams to begin signing players directly from the island.

On Tuesday, the Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced several changes to the Cuban Assets Control Regulations (CACR) and Export Administration Regulations (EAR). In addition to changes in travel, banking and trade amendments, the new rules, which went into effect Wednesday, allow companies in the United States to hire Cuban nationals.

The new U.S. Department of the Treasury regulations would require salaries be paid directly to the player and not to the Cuban government. It's unclear if the Cuban Baseball Federation -- in essence, the Cuban government -- would agree to the terms for players still in the country. The federation began allowing its players to play professionally in Mexico, Canada and Japan in 2013 for a percentage of their contracts in an effort to generate revenue for Cuba's top league -- which has been decimated by defections -- and the national baseball program. Cuban players also began playing in Colombia last year.

The Cuban Baseball Federation previously expressed the desire for a similar relationship with leagues affiliated with the U.S., while acknowledging the political hurdles of the embargo.

The changes from the U.S. Department of the Treasury are the latest government policy adjustments aimed at advancing President Barack Obama's plans to improve relations with Cuba and its people. Obama is scheduled to arrive in Havana on Monday, and he will attend an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team on Tuesday at Estadio Latinoamericano. It will be the first time in 88 years a sitting U.S. president had visited the island.

Before the new amendments were announced Tuesday, MLB had proposed a system to the U.S. government that allowed players from Cuba to enter the United States on a visa. Additionally, the plan included the creation of a new non-governmental body made up of Cuban entrepreneurs, MLB officials and the MLB Players Association. According to the proposal, a percentage of salaries paid to Cuban players would go to the non-governmental body to support sports initiatives and education, and improve sports facilities on the island.

Defection -- either abandoning a national team during an international tournament or escaping Cuba to ports in Haiti or Mexico -- has traditionally been the only way for Cuban players to make it to the big leagues since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Because of the U.S. embargo, any defector who wanted to do business with an American company must have first established residency outside Cuba and the United States.

Cuban players must also petition MLB for free agency before entering into a contract with a Major League club.

More than 100 Cuban players, including several All-Stars, have played in the Majors since the U.S. imposed sanctions on the island in 1961. Approximately 125 prospects have left the island in the past 20 months seeking Major League contracts.

Brief history of Cubans in MLB

Major League Baseball and the MLBPA have been open about their desire to create a safe passage for Cuban players to the Major Leagues, and they have been in discussions with the White House to alleviate the human-trafficking element associated with Cuban players coming to the U.S.

Under the newly announced rules, Cuban stars Yulieski Gurriel and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who defected from Cuba during the Caribbean Series last month in the Dominican Republic, could be legally eligible to sign with a Major League team if they comply with U.S. immigration laws. The brothers, whose defection was denounced by the Cuban government, must still be declared free agents by Major League Baseball before they can sign with a big league team.

Yulieski Gurriel has established residency in Haiti, while the residency status of Lourdes Jr. is unknown. Both are expected to petition MLB for free agency soon.

Last year, MLB stopped requiring a specific license for unblocking from OFAC -- a process that could take several months -- before it allowed a Cuban national to enter into an agreement with a team. Cuban players were asked to sign affidavits stating they resided outside of Cuba, did not intend on returning to the island, did not work for the Cuban government and were not members of the Communist Party.

Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.