Fleeing Cuba is harrowing and costly, whether it's done in a flimsy boat headed for U.S. shores or a speedboat headed for Mexico. Yasiel Puig, the gifted Dodgers outfielder, set off on the latter route, smuggled out by men who then threatened his life and held him hostage in a Mexican motel. A Florida man with a small-time criminal past helped get him out; in exchange, Puig promised to pay the man 20% of his lifetime earnings.
Puig's difficult journey was the result of the longtime U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, which, among other things, makes it illegal for Major League Baseball to hire players directly from Cuba, a veritable incubator of baseball talent. Instead, players must defect, either escaping directly to the U.S., where they would enter the MLB draft of amateur baseball players, or going first to a third country, establishing residency and then presenting themselves as free agents. That gives them more leverage to negotiate bigger, better contracts. Both ways are risky.
No Cuban should have to endure the kind of hardship and danger Puig faced, as detailed in an article in Los Angeles magazine chronicling his odyssey from a Cuban national team, where he earned a pittance, to Los Angeles, where he signed a seven-year, $42-million contract. Puig's tale is just one more example of why it's past time to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba. The embargo causes significant economic pain for Cubans and yet has failed to achieve its objective of forcing the Castro regime out of power. Fidel Castro and his brother Raul have been in power since 1959.
Obviously, one solution would be for Major League Baseball not to hire Cuban defectors, so that talented players aren't motivated to risk their lives and earnings by trying to escape Cuba. But that's not going to happen. There are an estimated 21 former Cuban nationals playing major league baseball. Over the last two decades, more than 200 baseball players and dozens of other athletes have fled Cuba. Interestingly, last fall, Cuban officials said they would allow their athletes to travel outside the country to play in foreign countries, as long as they paid taxes on their earnings and returned to Cuba to fulfill their athletic obligations there. This won't necessarily make it easier for Cubans to get contracts to play in the U.S. As far as the U.S. is concerned, hiring a Cuban citizen, with or without Cuba's blessing, is still banned.
At this point, the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba is an ineffective relic of another era. And it's only hurting Cubans and Americans alike.