NEW YORK/HAVANA, Dec 19 (Reuters) - Major League Baseball has reached a landmark agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation allowing Cuban players to sign with U.S. teams without needing to defect, seeking to end the practice of Cuban stars being smuggled off the island on speedboats.
MLB, the Cuban federation and the Major League Baseball Players Association said they signed the historic deal on Wednesday after three years of negotiations, providing a ray of light during a period of fraught U.S.-Cuban relations.
MLB teams will pay the Cuban Baseball Federation a release fee for each player to be signed from Cuba, providing a huge windfall for Cuban baseball which has suffered from dwindling budgets and the defection of its best players.
"Our primary objective in this agreement is to provide players from Cuba a path to the major leagues without having to endure the hardships many of our players have already experienced," Dan Halem, MLB deputy commissioner for administration and chief legal officer, told Reuters.
The deal puts the Cuban federation on par with the terms that MLB has with other professional baseball leagues around the world.
Cuban players older than age 25 and with six years of service in the Cuban league will be free to sign with MLB teams, Halem said. For those free agents, the teams will pay the Cuban federation between 15 percent and 25 percent of the total amount of guaranteed money on a player's contract, he added.
The percentage will depend on the size of the contract, Halem said, equaling 20 percent for the first $25 million, 17.5 percent for the next $25 million and 15 percent for any amount over $50 million.
For the under-25 players, who will need Cuba's permission to leave, MLB teams will pay a straight 25 percent of the player's signing bonus to the Cuban federation, according to Halem.
Such international amateurs are paid small salaries and make most of their money on signing bonuses, which are limited under MLB's collective bargaining agreement.
In an effort to dissuade younger players from defecting, those who do so will face a one- to two-year waiting period before being eligible to sign with a big-league team.
In the past, many Cuban players seeking riches in the big leagues have defected and undertaken dangerous journeys via human traffickers. Others have abandoned the Cuban national team while traveling abroad.
Over 350 Cuban ballplayers have defected since the start of 2014, including more than 170 in 2015 alone, according to Cuban journalist Francys Romero.
Some of the biggest stars in MLB have undertaken such treks, including Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Yoenis Cespedes of the New York Mets and Jose Dariel Abreu of the Chicago White Sox - all of whom have signed multiyear, multimillion-dollar contracts.
The mininum salary for players in Cuba is $50 per month, so the payoff was huge for the stars. But many of the Cuban defectors have languished in the minor leagues or were released.
Moreover, players who defected had to wait eight years before returning to Cuba and gave up any hope of playing for Cuba's national team.
"Knowing that the next generation of Cuban baseball players will not endure the unimaginable fate of past Cuban players is the realization of an impossible dream for all of us," Abreu said in a statement released by MLB. "Dealing with the exploitation of smugglers and unscrupulous agencies will finally come to an end for the Cuban baseball player. To this date, I am still harassed."
Such a deal would have been virtually impossible under the U.S.-Cuban relations of the Cold War, when diplomatic relations were severed and the United States imposed a strict economic embargo on the island country located 90 miles (145 km) from Florida.
But negotiations began after former presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro agreed to restore diplomatic relations in 2014 and end five decades of enmity. Trade and travel restrictions were eased, even though the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba remains in place.
President Donald Trump reversed part of the opening to Cuba upon taking office in 2017, but the baseball negotiations were able to move forward under a 2016 decision by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) before Obama left office.
OFAC determined that MLB teams were allowed to transfer money to the Cuban Baseball Federation because it was not a government agency, Halem said.
"Huge deal. We spent the end of the Obama administration trying to set the conditions to make this possible," Ben Rhodes, a former Obama aide who negotiated much of the bilateral detente, said on Twitter, adding: "At a time of political division baseball is something that can bring Americans and Cubans together." (Reporting by Daniel Trotta; writing by Sarah Marsh; editing by David Gregorio and G Crosse)