HAVANA (AP) — The United States will permit Major League Baseball players from Cuba to represent their home country in the World Baseball Classic next year.
The decision announced Saturday in a news release by the Baseball Federation of Cuba (FCB) could be a big step in once again turning Cuba’s national team into heavy hitters on an international stage.
Major League Baseball confirmed Monday that the U.S. granted the license to FCB. It clears the way for MLB stars such as José Abreu, Yordan Alvarez, Randy Arozarena, Yoán Moncada and Luis Robert to play for Cuba in the WBC in March if they choose to accept a potential invitation.
It’s up to each country’s national governing body to pick the players on its WBC team. Final 30-man rosters are due Feb. 7 for the WBC, which begins March 8 with Cuba facing the Netherlands in Taiwan.
While the sport of choice for much of Latin America is soccer, baseball dominates in Cuba. The island has gained fame around the world for its baseball talent.
But in recent years, hundreds of those players have defected from Cuba to play professionally elsewhere. Most notably, many have become United States residents and stars with major league teams in the U.S.
The defections are largely due to a not-so-uncommon geopolitical spat between the two seaside neighbors, leaving Cuban players stuck in the middle.
Cuban athletes competing on the island can’t earn a paycheck under the communist government, which prohibited professional sports following the Cuban revolution 60 years ago.
Longtime sanctions by the U.S. make it largely impossible for Cubans to play professionally for an American team without defecting. Meanwhile, Cuba historically has not allowed Cuban players who defected on their national team rosters.
The defections have taken a toll on Cuba’s performance in international baseball competitions. For example, the Cuban baseball team failed to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after years of previously winning medals in the sport.
In November, Cuba changed its tune and invited several top players who defected to represent the country in the World Baseball Classic, a tournament that features some of the sport’s top players competing in Japan, Taiwan and the U.S.
Weeks later, Cuban officials accused the Biden administration of blocking those players from representing Cuba.
In a statement Saturday, FCB President Juan Reinaldo Pérez Pardo called the permit a “positive step,” and said the Cuban federation should have more information about the team’s WBC roster once it has more details about the license granted by the U.S.
At the same time, Pérez Pardo also criticized the U.S., tweeting Saturday that “it is arbitrary and discriminatory that a permit from the government of this country (the U.S.) is needed to attend” the WBC.
AP Baseball Writer Mike Fitzpatrick in New York contributed to this report.