President Trump has resumed talks with Major League Baseball owners after his administration blocked a historic agreement that would have allowed Cuban baseball players to join MLB teams without having to defect.
But the White House made clear that in exchange for revisiting any decision, it wants MLB, like other groups with ties to the island, to urge Cuba to reduce its long-standing cooperation with Venezuela's socialist government.
The White House emphasized that Cuba would need to alter its behavior for any changes to be considered.
Trump met Monday with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred to discuss the league's concerns that Cuban ballplayers risk their lives hiring human smugglers to get them to the United States to play. The White House told NPR on Tuesday that it was willing to continue to talk with MLB about the issue, but administration officials also sought MLB's assistance with the crisis in Venezuela.
"The administration will continue to hold the Cuban regime accountable for its direct role in the trafficking of its citizens from the island," a White House official told NPR. "The administration looks forward to finding productive ways to work with MLB to help the people of Venezuela, a country that has a rich history with MLB but has been destabilized by Cuba's interference."
The Trump administration blames Cuba for propping up Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro and demanded that Cuban security forces leave Venezuela.
MLB had reached an agreement in December with the Cuban Baseball Federation that would have allowed Cuban baseball players to sign contracts directly with professional U.S. baseball clubs.
Four months later, the Treasury Department told MLB that it was reversing an Obama-era decision that would have allowed payments to the Cuban Baseball Federation, accusing the Cuban government of using baseball players as "pawns." The Trump administration argued the agreement was prohibited because payments can't be made to the Cuban government owing to long-standing U.S. sanctions.
The fact that Trump later accepted a high-profile meeting with the baseball commissioner appeared to be an easing of the stance and raised hopes of a reversal.
"The president taking a meeting with the commissioner of MLB to discuss a topic that the administration recently made a ruling shows that the president is open to seriously considering changing the administration ruling that was recently made," said Fernando Cutz, a former acting senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council in the Trump administration. "That shows the president is willing to at least consider overruling whoever made that ultimate decision underneath him."
The agreement is intended to give Cuban baseball players a chance to play baseball in the United States without having to make the dangerous journey overseas or contract with dangerous smuggling operations.
Some Cuban baseball players report being harassed by smugglers for years after making the journey.
Earlier this spring, MLB hired a lobbying firm with close ties to the Trump administration for help finding a solution.
John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said the meeting is particularly significant from the Cuban perspective. It marks a "meaningful change from 60 days ago" when the Trump administration was in lockstep with some of the Cuban government's harshest critics, such as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who vowed to fight the plan.
But Kavulich and other experts said Cuba would not turn on its longtime ally Venezuela for the MLB deal — and the expectation could make the challenge even greater.
"They've added elements to the resolution process, and the elements they've added are incredibly difficult for MLB or governments to resolve in the short to medium term," Kavulich said. "Anytime that an issue gets linked to what is happening to Venezuela or how Cuba is connected to Venezuela, turn off the lights, and read a good book."
Benjamin Gedan, who was responsible for Venezuela policy on the National Security Council during the Obama administration, said it is unclear whether Obama's strategy of rapprochement with Cuba would have led Havana to distance itself from Venezuela, but he questioned how isolating Cuba and its ballplayers would do that either.
"By attacking the MLB for its Cuba engagement, the Trump administration further alienates Havana, which could be a far more helpful player on Venezuela than baseball executives," Gedan said.
Ric Herrero, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, said any effort to address human smuggling in the region is a positive one, but he questioned what the administration is "actually going to do here other than make pronouncements" to end human trafficking.
"It seems if they're serious [about] wanting to end the trafficking of Cuban baseball players, it seems that canceling a relationship between Major League Baseball and Federación Cubana de Béisbol isn't the way to go about it."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
OK. Major League Baseball has an immigration problem. Cuban players who want to play in the MLB have to defect, which can lead the players into the hands of human smugglers. Major League Baseball sought help from the White House and President Trump, asking him to revive an agreement that would let Cubans play in the U.S. and safely return home. Well, President Trump wanted something in return, something big. To tell us what it is, we're joined by NPR's Franco Ordoñez . Franco, welcome to the studio.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: It's great to be here.
KELLY: All right. Before we get to that something big, I'm going to back into this. I'm going to ask first why did the MLB need the president's help?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, the league has been concerned for quite a while about some of the steps that Cuban baseball players take risking their lives to play baseball in the United States. If they don't take to the seas, many pay to have someone smuggle them out of the country. Some players and their families continue to be harassed by these smuggling rings long after they left.
KELLY: But what's the president's role here?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, the president wants a solution. The president is concerned about human smuggling, but he also has other concerns. He wants this issue addressed. He's also concerned about Venezuela. And Venezuela is an issue that has been a top priority of his foreign policy for a while. And he feels that Cuba has a big role in Venezuela. And he's looking for MLB's help addressing Venezuela.
KELLY: OK. And I understand this all came to a head. There was a meeting. Trump agreed to meet with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. What happened there?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, the two met. They agreed that human smuggling was an issue that was important to them. But also President Trump told them that, hey, we also need your help on Venezuela. And what that means is they want MLB to use its leverage with Cuba to try to get them to pull out of Venezuela, to kind of remove the influence. Trump has long blamed Cuba for propping up Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. And they want to take whatever steps they can to stop that, and that includes pushing MLB but also other entities with interests in Cuba.
KELLY: So let me make sure I've got this straight. This is the president, the White House, the Trump administration, pushing the MLB to push Cuba to exert leverage in Venezuela.
ORDOÑEZ: That's exactly right. It's a big ask.
KELLY: It is a big ask. I guess nothing else has toppled Maduro. Bring in the MLB. Why not? What are the chances this actually happens?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, it is such a huge ask. I mean, look; both sides have big political implications, but the reality is much of Venezuela and Cuba, their political identities are wrapped up together. And, frankly, they see themselves as the little guy fighting against the big guy, the United States, the imperialist to the north. And really, Cuba is not going to turn on essentially one of their best friends to help the United States, who has been an adversary for decades.
KELLY: You are our newest White House correspondent, not a sports correspondent, but do you have any idea how this is playing in the league, what the players think of this?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, I can definitely tell you that from the players that - who I've heard through - from through different channels, they are very concerned about this, particularly the Cuban baseball players who finally thought that maybe there was a solution to this. Many of those Cuban baseball players say that their families, as I said, still are being harassed by these human smuggling rings.
KELLY: A lot to keep track of and watch there. Thanks for your reporting. That's NPR White House correspondent FrancoOrdoñez - nice to see you.
ORDOÑEZ: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.