Cuban Athletes Can Finally Go Pro (Outside Of Cuba)

For the first time in over 50 years, Cuba is letting its athletes sign professional contracts in other countries. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis talks to Robert Siegel about the historic announcement.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

For decades, Cuban athletes have defected at international competitions or on perilous journeys in rafts and speedboats. Well, those days could now be coming to an end. Cuba's Communist Party newspaper reported on Friday that Cuban athletes will be allowed to sign professional contracts and play in foreign leagues. To explain this, sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now as he does most Fridays. Hi, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS: Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: And fill us in on the big news out of Cuba.

FATSIS: Well, the news would be the first time since professional sports were outlawed in 1961 that any former professional competition was allowed for Cuban athletes. Granma, the party newspaper, said that athletes will need government permission to sign contracts abroad. They'll have to meet their obligations to the Cuban national teams as well as their obligations to fundamental competitions in Cuba. There's going to be a lot of parsing of this over the next few days to see exactly what it means.

SIEGEL: Well, what do people think pushed the Cuban government to make this change now?

FATSIS: Well, there have been some signs of change. Under Fidel Castro's brother Raul, Cuba has slowly begun expanding the island's private economy. Just yesterday, the government announced 18 new categories of private employment. And that is extended to sports too. Since the summer, Cuba has joined a semi-pro international boxing series. It allowed 10 boxers to turn pro in Mexico.

It announced it was rejoining the Caribbean Series, which is a winter baseball tournament. It'll do that next year after 53 years away from it. And it also allowed three baseball players to sign pro contracts in Mexico this season. Finally, there was a report that Cuba is going to establish its own professional sports system. Today's announcement included news of higher pay for baseball players in Cuba.

SIEGEL: Well, Cuba under Castro certainly used sports as a badge of honor. Olympians like boxer Teofilo Stevenson and sprinter Alberto Juantorena were held up as paragons of the state system. This could change that.

FATSIS: Yeah, I think it would. I have no idea how much traction that argument still has in Cuba about how important the athletes are to the system. But it's inarguable now that defections of top athletes have been numerous. They've been embarrassing for Cuba at home as well as abroad. And they've hurt Cuba's performance in international events like the Olympics and world championships, especially in sports in which Cuba historically has done well, like baseball, boxing, track and field. Cuba wants to do better. Authorities recognize that the best way to do that is to let athletes compete more abroad.

SIEGEL: Let's talk about baseball. The past few years have been banner years for Cuban players in the major leagues, including several players who'll play big roles for their teams in the upcoming playoffs.

FATSIS: Yeah. It's a long list of names now: Yoenis Cespedes of Oakland, Aroldis Chapman of Cincinnati, Yunel Escobar of Tampa, Jose Iglesias of Detroit and, of course, Yasiel Puig, the rookie sensation for the L.A. Dodgers. Twenty-one Cubans played in the majors this season. That's the most since 1970 when pre-Castro players were ending their careers.

The key thing is that today's players are arriving younger. Cubans didn't hear much about the previous generation of defectors. Now, as one agent put it in a story this week in the Los Angeles Times, Aroldis Chapman's Lamborghini is on Facebook. His mansion is on Facebook. There were two big defections just in the last month of players under the age of 26. This tide is not going to change.

SIEGEL: But there is still the hurdle of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

FATSIS: Yeah. Granma said that Cuban athletes will have to pay taxes to the Cuban government on earnings from foreign clubs. And that would be a violation of the embargo, I think. A Treasury Department spokesman said today, a change in Cuban laws does not affect our licensing procedure. So we shouldn't get too excited. But maybe this is an overture. And there's a lot to gain here, not just because you'd have more better players in the big leagues, but on the more human level, too, an end to dangerous defections, an end to the black market in the trafficking of Cuban athletes.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Stefan. Have a great weekend.

FATSIS: You too, Robert.

SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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