This post isn’t about smuggling Cuban cigars it’s an incredible story about smuggling Cuban baseball players.
The average wage in Cuba is about $20 per month so a typical Cuban might earn 50 times more in the United States but a star Cuban baseball player (who also earns about $20 per month in Cuba) might earn 10,000 times more in the United States. Markets abhor a price differential so there is an active market in smuggled Cubans.
Yasiel Puig, now a star player for the Los Angeles Dodgers, was smuggled out of Cuba in 2012. The smuggling operation was paid for by a group of Miami businessmen:
Investigators and court documents say Suarez was one of the Miami-based financiers of the 2012 smuggling venture in which Puig was taken by boat from Cuba to a fishing village near Cancun, Mexico, eventually crossing into the U.S. at Brownsville, Texas, on July 3 of that year. In return, the financiers were getting a percentage of the seven-year, $42 million contract Puig signed with the Dodgers.
The story is not unique
The plea is the second in Miami federal court this year involving the smuggling of a Cuban baseball player into the U.S. Last month, 41-year-old Eliezer Lazo was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison for conspiring to smuggle 1,000 Cubans, including baseball players such as Texas Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin.
Puig did in fact pay Suarez $2.5 million. A high price for a relatively simple operation–the going rate to smuggle an ordinary Cuban is about $10,000–but, as we will see, more than smuggling was involved. It took five attempts before Puig reached the shores of Mexico. On one of the earlier attempts Puig was captured by the US Coast guard who sent him back–after some of the crew asked for his autograph!
On the fifth attempt, Puig, along with “a boxer, a pinup girl, and a Santeria priest, the latter of whom blessed their expedition with a splash of rum and a sprinkle of chicken blood” managed to escape Cuba guided by the smugglers and their accomplices—“The Chinaman” and “The Hungarian”. Once in Mexico, however, the operation got messy because Mexico’s Zetas gang were acting as intermediaries and with Puig in hand they demanded a greater share of the proceeds.
“If they didn’t receive the money, they were saying that at any moment they might give him a machetazo”—a whack with a machete—“chop off an arm, a finger, whatever, and he would never play baseball again, not for anyone.”
The case has lots of interesting asides: Why flee to Mexico first and only then to the United States? It’s all about the money and the weird rules of MLB:
A foreign-born player who immigrates without a contract is treated as an amateur by MLB; he can negotiate only with the team that drafts him. By declaring himself a free agent before arriving, that player can entertain all comers; the difference is worth millions. Federal law, of course, bars Americans from paying money to Cubans—or “trading with the enemy”—so a ballplayer like Puig needs not only to defect but also to establish legal residency in a country that he does not actually intend to live in.
Now back to the Zetas and the hostage negotiations.
As the standoff entered its third week, the smugglers began looking elsewhere to recoup their costs. The idea occurred to them that they could auction Puig off.
Eventually a rescue operation was staged by the Miami businessmen (details are unclear) and Puig escapes to Mexico City where in essence an auction is held in which the Dodgers win with a bid of $42 million over seven years.
Puig, however, continued to be threatened by the Zetas, hence, it seems, the aforementioned $2.5 million dollar payment to the Miami businessman who in turn paid off the Zetas (a murder also appears to be related).
As if all of this isn’t astounding enough these details have come to light only because of a US civil case against Puig. Puig had been approached a few years earlier when he was just 19 by another would be smuggler. Fearing the state police who monitored him constantly, Puig alerted the sports ministry to the offer and they notified state security. The alleged smuggler was arrested by the Cuban police, jailed, and perhaps tortured. Now here is where it gets really strange. The alleged smuggler, still in jail in Cuba, and his mother are suing Puig in American court for $12 million dollars for turning the smuggler over to the Cuban authorities and thus potentially violating the Torture Victim Protection Act.
There are many lessons here about open(ing) borders, rent seeking, the law, and how making some trades illegal creates black markets often ruled by violence. Thankfully an opening of relations with Cuba may cause this market to wither away. Next up, college athletes.