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 that 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.
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."