U.S. blocks deal for Major League Baseball to sign Cuban players

The Trump administration on Monday blocked a historic agreement between Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation that would have allowed Cuban players to sign with U.S. teams without needing to defect.

The existing deal will not be allowed to go forward because it was based on an erroneous interpretation by the former Obama administration that the Cuban Baseball Federation was not part of Cuba's communist government, a senior U.S. official said.

The move essentially overturns an agreement reached between MLB and the Cuban federation in December following three years of negotiation under which Cuban players would have been able to sign with major league teams. In the past, some Cuban stars have been smuggled off the island in speedboats.

The U.S. decision was the latest step by U.S. President Donald Trump's administration to reverse rapprochement with Havana, America's old Cold War foe, that was spearheaded by his Democratic predecessor, former President Barack Obama.

"The agreement with #MLB seeks to stop the trafficking of human beings, encourage cooperation and raise the level of baseball," the Cuban Baseball Federation said in a message on Twitter. "Any contrary idea is false news. Attacks with political motivation against the agreement achieved harm the athletes, their families and the fans."

The senior Trump administration official suggested that the agreement would have subjected the players to "human trafficking" by the Cuban government and made them "pawns of the Cuba dictatorship."

The U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration would be willing to work with MLB to seek an arrangement consistent with U.S. law.

The U.S. Treasury Department essentially reversed its earlier decision that had laid the groundwork for negotiation of the baseball deal.

The announcement came just days after the Cuban federation released a list of players authorized to sign contracts directly with MLB organizations.

MLB teams would have paid the Cuban Baseball Federation a release fee for each player to be signed from Cuba, providing a windfall for Cuban baseball, which has suffered from dwindling budgets and the defection of its best players.

Cuban MLB players who had defected include Yasiel Puig of the Cincinnati Reds, Yoenis Cespedes of the New York Mets and Jose Dariel Abreu of the Chicago White Sox - all of whom have signed multi-year, multimillion-dollar contracts.