HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban baseball defectors including star players Jose Abreu and Yasiel Puig will join a Major League Baseball goodwill tour arriving in Havana on Tuesday in an unprecedented act of baseball diplomacy.
Cuba does not typically welcome back defectors so soon, especially for high-profile events, and they remain banned from the Cuban national team for international events such as the World Baseball Classic.
But with U.S.-Cuban relations improving and MLB involved in preliminary discussions with Cuban baseball officials, the government gave permission for Puig and Abreu to return to their homeland for the first time since they took illegal boat rides to defect from the Communist-run island in 2012 and 2013.
Puig and Abreu signed multimillion-dollar contracts with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox, respectively, and played against each other in the 2014 All-Star Game.
They will be joined by Alexei Ramirez, a free agent who left Cuba legally and also played in the 2014 All-Star game as a member of the White Sox, and Brayan Pena, an 11-year veteran who recently signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. Pena defected from a Cuban junior team in Venezuela when he was a teenager.
“We gave the names to the Cuban authorities and they cleared it. They agreed to let them come back, so we’re happy about that,” said Dan Halem, MLB’s chief legal officer, who will be on the tour that runs from Tuesday to Friday.
While Puig is better known to the casual U.S. baseball fan, Abreu is more revered among Cubans, who consider him one of their greatest players ever.
The tour, which will be MLB’s first event in Cuba since a 1999 exhibition game involving the Baltimore Orioles, will include youth baseball clinics and a charity event.
Although MLB and Cuban baseball officials have begun preliminary talks about normalizing their relations, no meetings or high-level discussions are planned for the goodwill tour, Halem said.
In July, the U.S. and Cuban governments restored diplomatic relations after a 54-year break, but commercial relations between Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation are still largely blocked by the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba.
Cuba would like to reach an agreement with MLB to prevent the poaching of its players without compensation.
In the absence of a formal transfer system, Cuban players wishing to reach the major leagues must abandon the island illegally. More than 100 players have left in the past year.
Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Peter Cooney