Ballard Partners to pinch hit for MLB as it lobbies Trump for deal with Cuba

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The Cuban national baseball team celebrates during the 2017 World Baseball Classic. A deal between the MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation was blocked by the Trump administration. (Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Following the Trump administration’s decision to scrap a groundbreaking deal between Cuba and Major League Baseball (MLB), the league has hired lobbyists with close Trump ties.

The MLB signed a contract with Ballard Partners on May 8 to lobby on “issues related to combating human trafficking.” This is likely in reference to the blocked deal with the Cuban Baseball Federation (FCB) which would have allowed Cuban players to legally move to the U.S. and avoid dangerous defections.

Brian Ballard, chairman of the Trump Victory joint fundraising committee and vice chair of Trump’s inaugural committee, will be working with the MLB on the effort. So will another Ballard Partners employee, Sylvester Lukis, managing partner of the firm and the one-time assistant director of the Cuban-Haitian Task Force at the Department of State.

Lobbying on Cuba is nothing new for the MLB. From 2015 through 2018 the league lobbied extensively on issues related to the country as it pursued the eventual player agreement. The past three years, the MLB spent the most on lobbying it had in nearly 20 years, dropping around $1.3 million in each of the last three years. Their lobbying spending is off to a strong start again in 2019, so far pitching out $310,000 through the first quarter.   

The halted Cuban agreement between the MLB, the MLB Players Association and the FCB would have eased the restrictions on and regulated the flow of Cuban nationals seeking to play in the MLB. Prior to the agreement, Cuban players seeking to play in America had to defect, often a dangerous scenario in which star athletes were subjected to the whims of human traffickers and smugglers.

According to an MLB press release, 19 Cuban players were on teams’ Opening Day rosters in 2019, the third largest international country represented. One of the most recent and dramatic examples of the harrowing journeys to America was the defection of current Cincinnati Reds star outfielder Yasiel Puig in 2012. The slugger faced death threats and his journey connected him with members of an infamous and violent drug cartel.

As part of the rapprochement by the Obama administration, the league spent three years negotiating the deal which would have required American teams to pay a “release fee” to the FCB for each player that it signed. The Obama-era Treasury Department ruled that the FCB was not part of the Cuban government.

At the time of the agreement, current and former Cuban-born MLB players praised the deal. One of the most well-renowned Cuban players, Hall of Fame pitcher Luis Tiant, called it “a very happy day for the great game we share.”  

The Trump administration reversed the decision on April 8. In a letter to the MLB, the Treasury Department said that it now considers the FCB as being part of the Cuban government, making any payments to the baseball league a payment to the Cuban government and a violation of sanctions.

The deal faced intense opposition from some prominent Republicans. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), whose parents are Cuban immigrants, was outspoken against the deal calling it “a farce” and promising in December 2018 to work to overturn it. Rubio is also one of the leading voices in opposing Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Elliot Abrams, a controversial Reagan administration official and current U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela, authored an op-ed in December 2018 saying “[t]he FCB is, like everything else in Cuba, a cat’s-paw for the regime.”

Cuba’s close relationship with Venezuela has contributed to the administration’s growing chill in relations with the island nation. Recently, American officials accused Cuba of placing military troops on the ground in Venezuela.

Some even suggested that the MLB going through with the deal would provide monetary support to Venezuela. National Security Advisor John Bolton tweeted his opposition in April characterizing the MLB’s agreement as “enabl[ing] the Cuban regime’s support for Maduro in Venezuela.”

Ballard Partners has found growing influence in Trump’s Washington, as the firm is filled with those from the president’s orbit. In the first two years of the Trump administration, the firm’s lobbying contracts ballooned from $9.8 million in 2017 to $18.3 million in 2018. Through the first quarter of 2019, it took in $4.2 million from clients.

MLB, the MLB Players Association and the Treasury Department did not return requests for comment by press time.

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