White House scuttles MLB's Cuban agreement

The Trump administration scuttled Major League Baseball's historic agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation, arguing that the sport's governing body is part of the Cuban government and that the agreement violates United States trade law.

In December, MLB and the MLB Players Association announced an agreement with the Cuban federation similar to those for players under contract to clubs in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan -- one the league believed would end the defection of players and erase the human trafficking of Cuban players that has become the standard as they attempt to join MLB.

The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control sent a letter to MLB on Friday that said "payments to the Cuban Baseball Federation are not authorized ... because a payment to the Cuban Baseball Federation is a payment to the Cuban government."

The letter, obtained by ESPN, underscored the reversal of a policy from former President Barack Obama's administration that intended to soften relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

After announcing the agreement in December, blowback in Washington prompted MLB to outline in a 10-page letter its argument in favor of the agreement.

"The objective," MLB said, "is to end the dangerous trafficking of Cuban baseball players who desire to play professional baseball in the United States."

MLB requested a meeting with government officials, though no meeting was granted, sources told ESPN.

The letter from the OFAC to Major League Baseball came in the immediate aftermath of the Cuban federation's releasing its first group of players able to sign contracts directly with MLB organizations, with the understanding that some could be playing in the U.S. this year. The players were eligible for signing bonuses, with the player receiving 100 percent of his signing bonus and the club giving the Cuban federation a release fee equivalent to 25 percent of the signing bonus.

The White House signaled its concern on Sunday when President Donald Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, tweeted, "Cuba wants to use baseball players as economic pawns - selling their rights to Major League Baseball."

In a statement to ESPN, MLB said: "We stand by the goal of the agreement, which is to end the human trafficking of baseball players from Cuba."

Negotiations for the Cuba-MLB agreement date back to President Obama's detente with Cuba. The deal was seen as an effort to eliminate the dangerous trafficking that had gone on for decades, which the MLB referenced in its letter to the Treasury and State departments, with Reds outfielder Yasiel Puig, White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu and Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes among those whose harrowing journeys were cited.

"For years, Major League Baseball has been seeking to end the trafficking of baseball players from Cuba by criminal organizations by creating a safe and legal alternative for those players to sign with major league clubs," MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a Dec. 19 statement announcing the deal. "We believe that this agreement accomplishes that objective and will allow the next generation of Cuban players to pursue their dream without enduring many of the hardships experienced by current and former Cuban players who have played Major League Baseball."

At the time, opponents of the Cuban government pledged to try to overturn it. The Trump administration has accused Havana of providing military and intelligence support to Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, with Bolton saying on Twitter: "America's national pastime should not enable the Cuban regime's support for Maduro in Venezuela."

Without a deal, the longstanding policy of players seeking residence in a third country could return. If players establish residency in a third country, they can petition the OFAC to receive a specific license that would allow them to play in the U.S. A number of players seeking transportation to a third country have been shepherded by smugglers with gang affiliations, and agents familiar with the Cuban player market said the dangers that could have abated with the agreement will remain.

Cuban-born Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, speaking through a translator before Monday night's game with the Houston Astros, said, "I just feel bad for those young ballplayers who are probably not going to have the same chance to play here. It's definitely difficult for a lot of Cuban players who are not playing at this level here in the States. But the way we got here, it was tough -- to say the least."

Chapman defected from Cuba in 2009 while with the Cuban national baseball team in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and signed with the Reds in 2010. It was Chapman's second attempt to defect. An earlier try in 2008 was foiled, and Chapman was kept off Cuba's team in the 2008 Olympics.

"The biggest impact is going to be the guys who are back in Cuba," Chapman said. "For me and a lot of our fellow Cuban players who have already established ourselves here in this country, we're fortunate enough to have our families here. It really doesn't affect us here. We've been lucky.

"But for those guys that I mentioned before, it's going to be tough, because now the opportunity's being taken away, and some of them still want to play here at this level. And, unfortunately, they might find themselves making difficult decisions in how to get here."

ESPN's Coley Harvey contributed to this article.