April 28, 2016 / 7:13 PM / 2 years ago

Cuba rules out letting defectors play in national baseball team

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba will uphold its ban on baseball players that defected from the Communist-ruled island from playing for the national team at international events, a top government official told Reuters, quashing speculation that changes in the rules may be afoot.

Most Cubans with big league dreams leave the island illegally given that there is no deal on formal player transfers between Cuba and Major League Baseball, the organization that runs professional baseball in North America.

A record 150 players defected in 2015, draining the country of its best talent. Those defectors are sometimes banned from setting foot back in Cuba for years.

But with U.S.-Cuban relations improving, the Cuban government’s stance on defectors has softened and many were hopeful it might allow defectors to join the national team for the World Baseball Classic next March.

Antonio Becali, Cuba’s top government official for sports, said the country would continue to field players from its own teams.

“Our athletes that are within the Cuban sporting system and our national series are those that will continue to represent us at international events,” he said on the sidelines of a news conference about Cuba’s teams for the Olympics.

“Our principles are the principles of the revolution,” said Becali.

Last year the United States and Cuba restored diplomatic relations after a 54-year break. MLB and Cuban officials have also started talks on normalizing player transfers.

Such a deal remains blocked by the U.S. economic embargo, so MLB is seeking special U.S. permission to sign Cuban players in Cuba so they no longer have to defect. The Treasury Department has yet to make a ruling.

“We have had talks,” said Becali. “We have put forward our position.”

Many Cuban players have fled by boat, putting themselves in the hands of smugglers. Players try to establish residence in third countries to maintain free agent status, allowing the top prospects to command multimillion-dollar salaries. The average Cuban player earns around $500 per year.

“(MLB) has an interest in normalizing the situation because there are many traffickers of athletes who are becoming rich this way,” Becali said.

As part of the baseball rapprochement between the two countries, Havana allowed baseball defectors including star players Jose Abreu and Yasiel Puig to join an MLB goodwill tour around the Caribbean island last December.

Among the defectors who could help the Cuban national team is Abreu, who has a $68 million contract with the Chicago White Sox. Abreu paid $5.8 million over nine months to people who aided his defection, according to U.S. court documents in the prosecution of smuggling suspects.

Writing by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Alan Crosby

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