When President Barack Obama began thawing long-frozen relations with Cuba — a drive that included attending a baseball game in Havana alongside President Raúl Castro — Major League Baseball began negotiating with the Cuban Baseball Federation to start legally bringing Cuban stars to play in the United States. The deal, heralded as a way to combat the illegal cross-border smuggling of ballplayers, was finally clinched in December, and the Cuban federation sent over its first list of 34 candidates on April 3.
They won’t be coming.
At least not legally, after the Trump administration abruptly ended the deal, announcing last Monday that the Cuban federation was not independent of the Cuban government, as the Obama administration had ruled, and so paying it the fees mandated in the agreement would be a violation of American trade rules.
Officials in the administration also linked the reversal to Cuba’s support for the Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro, whom Washington is trying to oust. “America’s national pastime should not enable the Cuban regime’s support for Maduro in Venezuela,” tweeted John Bolton, the national security adviser, on the day before the baseball deal was canceled.
The administration’s arguments are not without merit. No organization as prominent as the Cuban Baseball Federation can be fully independent of the Havana government. And Cuba has remained a firm ally of Mr. Maduro, receiving Venezuelan oil in exchange for doctors and other specialists and intelligence, which has helped him remain in power despite demands from Washington and more than 50 other governments that he end his terrible rule.
But that is not entirely what this is about. Mr. Obama’s effort to end more than five decades of hostility toward Cuba was approved by a large majority of Americans as an opening that was long overdue. Allowing some players from baseball-mad Cuba to play legally in the major leagues was a win-win proposition: Players who might have risked dangerous flight could legally reach for stardom and wealth; Cuban baseball would make some money; and their presence would be tangible evidence of a crack in the ice. Accepting the myth of an independent Cuban baseball federation was deemed a necessary wink.
The thaw was bitterly opposed from the outset by anti-Castro Republicans, including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban-American, and President Trump soon set about reversing some of what Mr. Obama had done. The baseball deal was in the opponents’ cross hairs even before the drive to oust Mr. Maduro began. Senator Rubio assailed it repeatedly, and in December, before Elliott Abrams became President Trump’s special representative for Venezuela, he wrote a scathing attack in National Review.
Yet canceling the deal was a bad move done for the wrong reasons. Cuba’s decision to let its athletes earn their living outside Cuba was a step in the right direction, even if some dollars might have spilled into government coffers. And while Cuba should be dissuaded from propping up the Maduro regime, that should not be a pretext for indulging the right-wing obsession with maintaining a permanent freeze on relations with Cuba.
In the end, what Senator Rubio and the administration largely achieved was to deny Cuban baseball players their right to play at the highest level without having to sneak circuitously and dangerously into the United States and to forgo the right to ever return to their homeland.
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