By Daniel Trotta
HAVANA (Reuters) - The Cuban Baseball Federation and Major League Baseball are far from reaching a deal on transferring Cuban players to the United States even with new U.S. rules that could facilitate player signings, a top Cuban baseball official said on Wednesday.
The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama issued sweeping regulations on Tuesday that relax trade and travel restrictions with Cuba, including a provision that permits Cubans to earn salaries in the United States without having to sever ties with their homeland.
Obama is due to visit Cuba from Sunday to Tuesday and attend an exhibition game between Cuba's national team and Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays.
MLB and Cuban officials both want to normalize player transfers but such a deal remains blocked by the U.S. economic embargo. MLB is seeking special U.S. permission to sign Cuban players in Cuba so they no longer have to defect, but the Treasury Department has yet to make a ruling.
Because of the lingering estrangement, Cuban players with dreams of reaching the big leagues must defect. A record 150 Cuban ballplayers defected in 2015, draining Cuba of its best talent and exposing athletes to danger by putting them in the hands of smugglers.
Some of the top Major League players are Cuban defectors, including Jose Dariel Abreu of the White Sox, Aroldis Chapman of the Yankees and Yoenis Cespedes of the Mets.
The new salary rule applies to all Cubans but U.S. officials mentioned it could facilitate ballplayer signings, raising hopes for progress.
But Higinio Velez, president of the Cuban Baseball Federation, told reporters that Cuba and MLB have yet to even begin negotiations.
"This is new, so we have to wait," Velez said. "It's an opening. We expect the procedure will be the same as for players in any part the world, as we have right now in several countries including Japan."
Professional leagues in other countries pay Cuba a transfer fee for player rights, standard in many international sports.
The problem for U.S. and Cuban baseball is the embargo prohibits such payments.
In addition, the new salary provision is only allowed "provided that the recipient is not subject to any special tax assessments in Cuba." Cuban players in Japan currently pay 10 percent of their salary to the Cuban government. So while the new U.S. rule would allow Cuban players to pay the same 10 percent tax, the federation is likely to demand more than that from MLB.
MLB teams typically pay millions of dollars to Nippon Professional Baseball teams for Japanese players. Cuba will want a similar cut.
"I might have to apply 30 or 40 percent. The percentage hasn't been determined," Velez told Reuters. "But these are discussions that need to take place. Nobody can tell us what to do."
MLB's chief lawyer, Dan Halem, told Reuters the league was studying the latest U.S. regulations for their potential impact on signing Cuban players.
"It will take some time for the Cuban Baseball Federation, MLB and the MLBPA (players union) to work through a complicated set of issues."
(Editing by Matthew Lewis)