Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Cuban Ballplayers Still Punished by the Embargo

Yoan Moncada, the 19-year-old Cuban baseball phenom, agreed on Monday to sign with the Boston Red Sox. He is the latest talent from the baseball-crazy nation to join the Major Leagues. Moncada will receive a $31.5 million signing bonus, which should make him financially secure for life. But because of the U.S. government's continued economic war on the Cuban people, in the form of the 54-year-old embargo, Moncada - unlike MLB prospects from any other country on the planet - will be forced to surrender residency in his native land to realize his professional dreams.

Since September 2013, the Cuban government has allowed its athletes to sign contracts in foreign sports leagues. The year before, President Raúl Castro announced that the government would drop the requirement for Cubans to obtain an exit visa before leaving the country. So, the only restrictions on Cuban athletes are from the U.S. government.

Earlier this month, Moncada became a free agent when MLB changed its policy regarding Cuban players. Previously, prospective ballplayers had to spend at least a year in a third country to establish permanent residency, and receive an unblocking license from the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC), before they would be granted a work visa. Since at least the fall, Moncada has been living in Guatemala, where he showed up legally with his Cuban passport.

With recent changes to the Cuban Asset Control regulations spurred by Obama's intention to normalize relations with the revolutionary nation, the strict licensing requirements have been eliminated. Similarly, American travelers do not need specific licenses for traveling to Cuba if they meet one of 12 categories eligible to travel to Cuba.

This is good news for Moncada, who does not have to spend more time in a foreign country away from his family and unable to pursue his professional career to satisfy an arbitrary bureaucratic requirement, possibly to detox from Communism or obtain a satisfactory physical distance from Fidel.

The OFAC regulations are issued pursuant to the Trading With the Enemy Act (TWEA) of 1917. As I have written previously, the TWEA is only applicable to nations at war with the United States, and since the U.S. has never declared war on Cuba, the application of regulations pursuant to it the archaic law is illegitimate. So, there is no legal basis to prevent the transfer of U.S. dollars to Cuban nationals. Yet, the U.S. government continues the senseless and cruel embargo, as it has for more than half a century.

When any Cuban decides to play in MLB, they must leave the country. This can be utilized for maximum propaganda value. "Another one of Cuba's best players has left the island, the latest in a wave of defections that isn't expected to slow down," Baseball America wrote in 2013, omitting the reason why the player "defected."

The tales of defection from Communism are an old trick of the U.S. government and media. In 1980, a handful of refugees sought asylum in the Peruvian embassy and were granted refugee status in Costa Rica. When the planes landed in Costa Rica, they were met with hordes of international press, who milked the "escape" from Castro and Communist Cuba. This spurred more asylum seekers and attempts by people with families in the U.S. to reunite.

When Castro saw how the U.S. used Cubans who left the island as propaganda, he allowed anyone who wanted to leave to go - to the United States. If the U.S. was going to pretend to care about people leaving Cuba, let them take responsibility for the "refugees" themselves, instead of using them to score political points with a sensationalist headline. The result was the infamous Mariel boatlift.

When the U.S. government implemented the embargo in 1962, they knew it would produce economic suffering that would drive many people to leave and seek financial improvement elsewhere. Then they could turn around and criticize the Cuban government for it. This was an intended consequence of the policy.

The economic costs of the embargo are devastating and well-documented. Last year, Cuba lost more than $3.9 billion in trade from the embargo, bringing the inflation-adjusted total since 1962 to $1.1 trillion, according to the Cuban government.

The Cuban government has fiercely and consistently denounced the "genocidal blockade policy" that was instituted "to bring about 'hunger, desperation and overthrow of [the Cuban] Government'," they write, citing a memorandum from a former State Department official.

Many products Cuba imports from third countries must be purchased at many times the price it would cost to by from the United States, as the Cuban Ministry of Education is forced to do with Braille machines.

Among the many areas of Cuban life impacted by the embargo, the greatest suffering is felt in the public health sector. The Cuban government describes the "permanent lead-weight" that causes "severe adverse effects on the health and wellbeing of the Cuban people. This basically includes the need of acquiring medicines, reagents, spare parts for diagnostic and treatment equipment, instruments and other supplies in distant markets." They describe many medications and specialized medical equipment the country cannot obtain because of restrictions imposed by the U.S. blockade.

Aside from Cubans suffering specific health conditions such as cancers and tumors that cannot be adequately treated because medications and equipment cannot be obtained, there are the tremendous mental health impacts caused by forcing people to leave their country, their families and their friends.

Imagine that an American baseball college star was not selected in the Major League Baseball draft, but decided he would like to pursue a career in the Japanese League because he still wanted to play professionally. But say the Japanese government - punishing American citizens out of spite because the Truman government dropped two atomic bombs on the country - refused to give him a visa. The American player would have to establish residency in a third country, say South Korea, and sign an affidavit with the Japanese baseball league that he is no longer a resident of the United States and will not return there. Such is the situation for Moncada.

Several years ago, as a rookie preparing to play for the Cienfuegos team in the Cuban baseball league, Moncada discussed his expectations with OnCuba: "I hope to have a good result from the work of my coaches and the support of my colleagues who have helped me, and I wish to give a good show to the people of Cuba."

Now he will have to leave behind those same coaches and colleagues, as well as the people of Cuba. Of course, he will also have to leave behind his family. And he will not be able to come back. Presumably his close family will be able to obtain visas to come visit him in the United States, but they will not be able to live there year round. And Moncada will not be able to live in Cuba during the offseason, as most Dominican or Japanese players do. This will undoubtedly take a toll on the 19-year-old prospect.

Many Cubans already populate Major League rosters: Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers, José Fernandez of the Miami Marlins, Yoenis Cespedes of the Detroit Tigers, and Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds are a few of the biggest starts. And more are likely on the way.

"Major League Baseball is smack in the middle of a Cuban revolution, one that's ushered in more elite talent from the island than ever before," wrote Jonah Keri on Grantland last summer.

For the sake of Moncada and all the Cuban players who have sacrificed their former lives in their native country for the riches and prestige of Major League Baseball, let's hope that the U.S. government will recognize one more punitive and heartless effect of their destructive, illegal embargo, and end it as soon as possible.