International Issues

Who Can Play Ball? OFAC Regulations and the National Sport

Recent changes in U.S. policy regarding its relationship with Cuba will mean a great many things for both nations.

Airlines and travel agents will no longer require a special license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to book tickets to Cuba for U.S. customers. And Export Administration Regulations (EAR) will loosen the reins on shipping agricultural equipment and building materials for residential construction in Cuba. As the details of the new “normalized” relations slowly play out, OFAC is already making important decisions about a critical aspect of American life – baseball.  But what’s previously been pretty well defined has become more complicated for the new wave of Cuban baseball hopefuls.

Several Cuban players trying to play Major League Baseball (MLB) endured a confusing several days, with their highly lucrative contracts hanging in the balance.  Having dutifully requested a “specific license” from OFAC, as has been MLB’s requirement for some time, imagine the young men’s surprise to receive word from OFAC that the U.S. government already considered them to be “unblocked” under its General License regulation.

While this would appear to be good news, the players were unable to immediately pack up their cleats and hop on a flight.  Despite the good news emails from OFAC, MLB advised teams not to sign Cuban players without further notice from the league’s Commissioner’s Office. Even though OFAC’s policy regarding Cuban players had changed, the MLB’s had not.  The organization was not at all eager to let Cuban players use the general license in lieu of the more formal specific license.  Why? Perhaps because, using the general license, the MLB would be responsible for verifying the residency and documents of the Cuban prospects.  The possibility of future illegal behavior on the part of the players – using forged documents, illegally acquiring residency, or other crimes – could lead to MLB’s violation of the Trading with the Enemies Act.

As the future of Cuban players hung in the air, sports media was uncertain of where to assign blame for the delay.  Many people were surprised that it was in fact the MLB, and not the U.S. government, that was holding up the process.  With several athletes in limbo, fans were impatient to see how it would all play out, and eager to see their favorite teams make the exciting new acquisitions.

Finally, after a few suspenseful days, 19-year old Cuban shortstop Yoan Moncada recently received word from the MLB that he is a free agent and able to sign with the team of his choice. With the door now open for Moncada’s peers, there are likely many young Cuban hopefuls waiting in the wings, happy that MLB finally decided to say “Play ball!”