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BaseballFrom the “Miracle on Ice” to the Joe Louis/Max Schmeling fights, sports have often played a pivotal symbolic role in American diplomacy abroad. Now, as relations with Cuba have started to thaw, The New York Times recently detailed the Caribbean Baseball Initiative’s plan to bring a Minor League Baseball team to Havana. The group, led by veteran baseball executive Lou Schwechheimer,  has spent the last decade laying significant groundwork toward this end and hopes for success as early as 2017.

The U.S. and Cuba share a long history of baseball ties. In the early 1900s, Cuban teams traveled to play exhibition games against Negro League teams until several permanent mostly-Hispanic teams were established. The New York Cubans, for example, won the Negro League World Series in 1947, aided by future Major League Baseball (MLB) all-star Minnie Minoso. The Havana Sugar Kings, the Cincinnati Reds’ AAA club, won the International League title the year before MLB cut ties with Cuba. Since the U.S. embargo however, the relationship has mostly involved Cuban players defecting to play in America.

Now, Schwechheimer’s group seeks to restore MLB’s official ties with Cuba. The group has acquired controlling interests in both a Miami Marlins and a Tampa Bay Rays franchise but insists neither of these teams will be moved to Cuba. Importantly, they have gained exclusive rights from Minor League Baseball to return a team to Cuba. Their short-term goal is to promote various baseball-related initiatives in Cuba, such as playing the AAA all-star game in Havana or playing individual games on the island, with the long-term aim of eventually establishing a permanent team.

However, a number of daunting legal and diplomatic obstacles still exist since the group will need approval of both countries. On the American end, they require a targeted baseball exception to the current embargo. Such an exemption is not unthinkable – several other areas of commerce have been exempted as a result of recent warming relations. Although many in the U.S. government oppose restoring ties with Cuba, the President’s broad authority to modify terms of the embargo means Congressional approval would likely not be needed. However, the 2016 election will lead to a new President, and the next Administration’s stance toward Cuba remains uncertain.

In Cuba, despite President Raul Castro’s support for improved relations and ending the embargo, some within the Cuban bureaucracy may not share his sentiments, especially given baseball’s particularly contentious history. As the Times pointed out, Cuba receives no financial compensation when a star player defects and signs a contract to play in the U.S., which is not the case with other countries.  Defection has the added consequence of essentially forcing Cubans to abandon their families and native country. However, MLB will conduct a good-will tour in Cuba in the coming weeks, which will include some Cuban defectors as participants. They may even pursue a formal system for Cuban players to join the majors, which could include some form of compensation for past and future loss of human assets.

Despite the numerous obstacles, success would constitute a major symbolic step for those seeking to improve relations between the countries. Our multidisciplinary Cuba Team continues to monitor evolving changes to U.S.-Cuba relations. Please contact Partner David Agee with any specific needs.