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MLB announces Cuban players won't have to defect to play in U.S.

Yasiel Puig's dangerous defection: Was he smu... 03:14

Major League Baseball announced Wednesday Cuban players will no longer have to defect from the island nation to play professional baseball in the United States. The league said it reached an agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation (FCB).

However, the Trump administration could still intervene.

Until the end of the Obama administration, decades of frosty diplomatic relations prevented Cubans from coming to the U.S. legally unless they defected. For some players, that meant a dangerous journey to a third country that required payments to smugglers and the threat of extortion.

"This is strictly about ending human trafficking," Dan Halem, deputy MLB commissioner, told CBS in a phone interview. "We are just trying to create a safe way for Cubans to play in the major leagues."

Under the new arrangement -- similar to those the league has with Japan and South Korea -- major league clubs will pay the FCB a fee -- potentially millions -- to release a Cuban player who would then come to the U.S. on a work visa, pending U.S. government approval. They would be permitted to travel back to Cuba in the offseason.

Players who are at least 25 years old and have six years of professional experience in Cuba would be free to sign with major league clubs. Younger players would be subject to a waiting period.   

But the Trump administration -- long a skeptic of Obama-era easing of U.S. relations with Cuba -- could act to nullify the deal.

In a statement, a senior official said the administration is "actively assessing the Obama-era policies that Major League Baseball appears to have leveraged to enter into this agreement."

That is likely a reference to a license granted to the league in 2016 by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control that specifically allowed major league clubs to scout and sign Cuban players and permitted them to travel to the US.

Wednesday's announcement was cheered by some lawmakers, but met with scorn by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, who tweeted that he has asked the White House and State Department to review the arrangement because "the [Cuban] regime controls sports" and stands to profit from deal.  

The Cuban Baseball Federation is technically unaffiliated with the communist government, but critics have pointed to their close ties.

The administration contends Cuban players should sign contracts individually, not as part of a broader agreement with Cuba's governing body for baseball. The administration official said the Trump administration will "restrict the Cuban regime's ability to profit from U.S. business," and condemns human rights violations carried out by the Cuban government. The statement made no mention of preventing human trafficking, an issue championed by the president's daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka Trump.

Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, right, hugs his former coach Juan Arechavaleta as he arrives to Hotel Nacional in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015.  AP

Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder and Cuban defector Yasiel Puig called the agreement "an opportunity to leave Cuba safely and come to the United States to play baseball." 

After fleeing Cuba, Puig was reportedly held by smugglers in Mexico until a $250,000 payment was made for his release and safe passage to the United States. "To know future Cuban players will not have to go through what we went through makes me so happy," he said in a statement distributed by the league.

As his term drew to a close, President Obama moved to re-establish diplomatic ties with Havana after more than a half century-long diplomatic and financial blackout. But President Trump said in a speech last year he would cancel the "completely one-sided deal with Cuba" and return to restrictions on travel and financial transactions. However, embassies in Washington and Havana remained open and some travel is still permitted. 

Relations have suffered as more than two dozen U.S. diplomats and their families posted in Havana have returned to the U.S. with mysterious brain injuries.  

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