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Cuba to allow athletes to seek pro contracts abroad

By Mariano Castillo and Patrick Oppmann, CNN
updated 12:12 PM EDT, Sun September 29, 2013
Los Angeles Dodgers' star Yasiel Puig defected from Cuba in 2012.
Los Angeles Dodgers' star Yasiel Puig defected from Cuba in 2012.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Cuba says it will allow athletes to play professionally abroad
  • Before, Cuban athletes were not allowed to go pro
  • It could allow for big paydays for some, but challenges may prevent that

(CNN) -- Ever since the Cuban Revolution more than 50 years ago, athletes on the communist island have been able to garner gold medals and glory, but not big paychecks.

In a shift, the Cuban government says it will allow its athletes to play professionally abroad, ostensibly to shore up the competitiveness of its national teams. But it cannot be overlooked that lucrative contracts for Cuban athletes abroad would benefit the state through taxation.

Whether the new policy, announced through state media on Friday, will open a floodgate of talented Cuban athletes to the United States will have to be seen. Several obstacles stand to limit how much freedom athletes will actually have.

The new policy will be implemented in the coming months, the state-run Granma newspaper reported.

It follows an earlier opening by the Cuban government to let its boxers compete in the World Series of Boxing, a semipro league.

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Limits faced by athletes

Until now, defection has been the common path for Cuban athletes who want to compete abroad.

Los Angeles Dodgers' star Yasiel Puig, for instance, defected from Cuba in 2012 and signed a seven-year, $42 million contract.

There are others in Cuban sports history who have left millions on the table to remain loyal and compete for their government.

The late boxer Teofilo Stevenson, a three-time Olympic gold medal winner, passed up a rich offer to fight Muhammad Ali. But Stevenson did not appear to have any regrets about his decision to turn down a big payday by staying amateur.

"What is $1 million compared to the love of 8 million Cubans?" he famously declared.

Top Cuban athletes can make a few hundred dollars a month on the island. They stand to make much more with the coming changes.

Cuban travel reform a home run for baseball star who defected

New policy

The opening of opportunities to make money abroad seems like a recognition of the lucrative market for athletes, but Granma explained it as an affirmation of Karl Marx's slogan: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

Whatever foreign pro-sports contracts athletes may sign, they will still be required to be in Cuba for the key national team competitions, according to Granma.

Cuba has traditionally produced strong boxers and baseball players, and even though this policy will open doors to competing anywhere abroad, the United States stands to be the biggest attraction.

There is no guarantee, however, that the Cuban players who take advantage of this policy will see that sought-after American contract.

The first problem is the U.S. embargo on Cuba, a policy that isolates Cuba economically and financially.

The Cuban government envisions its athletes paying taxes on money earned anywhere abroad, but if that money is made in the United States, sending it to the communist nation would violate a longstanding economic embargo, a U.S. official familiar with its enforcement told CNN.

In practice, Cuban athletes are more likely to end up in leagues in countries other than the United States.

Baseball is king in Cuba, and Major League Baseball would be a coveted destination for many Cuban athletes.

The league is aware of reports about the new Cuban policy, but said in a statement that "given that we do not have any details of this change in policy, it would be premature for us to speculate what effect it may have."

Major League Baseball "and its clubs have and will continue to act in accordance with the laws and policies of the United States Government," the statement said.

Another hurdle for athletes is the migration reform that went into effect in Cuba this year that still requires athletes to seek government approval to travel abroad.

With this restriction in place, the government maintains control over which athletes it trusts to seek contracts abroad.

Still, initial reaction was positive.

"If that happened, it's good for the people of Cuba," Osvaldo Alonso of the Major League Soccer team Sounders FC told The Seattle Times.

Alonso defected from Cuba in 2007.

"They can play anywhere and show they have good (athletes)," Alonso told the Times. "I'm very happy for them that they're giving them opportunities to play in other countries and to be professionals in other leagues."

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