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Dec. 8 2014 6:20 PM

The Weirdest Finalist for Time’s Person of the Year. (It’s Not Taylor Swift.)

Time magazine on Monday unveiled its 2014 “Person of the Year” finalists: the “Ferguson protesters,” the “Ebola caregivers,” Russian President Vladimir Putin, singer Taylor Swift, Alibaba CEO Jack Ma, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. For once, the participants in the magazine’s online poll had better instincts than the editors, choosing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a more interesting and important world figure than anyone on the list.

I’ve seen some snark online about the culturally omnipresent Swift’s place on the list. She can handle it. But for me, Barzani, the president of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, is the most surprising inclusion. According to Time, he is being recognized for having “deftly threaded the region’s push for independence with the ongoing fight against” ISIS.

It has, indeed, been a big year for the Kurds. The collapse of the Iraqi government’s authority in the face of the ISIS invasion has brought the region closer to its goal of full independence than ever before. Kurdish forces have also been at the forefront of the fight against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, particularly in the defense of the besieged city of Kobani. More recently, the KRG finalized an economically crucial deal with Baghdad that brought an end to a longs-tanding dispute over oil revenues. Last year the Kurdish government forced an unlikely oil deal with longtime nemesis Turkey.

On the other hand, the region looked surprisingly vulnerable when ISIS pushed into Kurdistan in August. ISIS fighters overwhelmed the defenses put up by the much-vaunted Kurdish peshmerga forces, taking over the country’s largest hydroelectric dam and nearing the regional capital of Erbil. ISIS was eventually pushed back, but only with the help of Western airstrikes. Foreign powers also aren’t in a rush to recognize an independent Kurdistan, and most of the international community is still committed to maintaining a cohesive Iraqi state within its existing borders. As for Barzani, as detailed in a recent profile by the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, it’s fair to say he has more invested in the fight against ISIS than virtually any other world leader. But there’s also growing dissatisfaction with him from some parts of Kurdish society, which sees him as too reticent and also has concerns about corruption in the distribution of oil revenue.

My guess is that Barzani isn’t listed here because Time has much interest in him specifically. Rather, the magazine wants to somehow recognize the ISIS situation—one of the year’s biggest news stories—without having to declare ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a candidate for person of the year.

This is a cop-out. Baghdadi is obviously the most important person of 2014. A figure who few outside the region had heard of a year and a half ago has attracted thousands of supporters from around the world to his cause, wantonly slaughtered thousands of enemies, challenged al-Qaida as the world’s foremost jihadi group, set up a pseudo-state that threatens century-old regional boundaries, drawn an extremely reluctant U.S. government into yet another Middle Eastern war, and maintained control for months in the face of opposition from nearly every government on Earth. The man had quite a year.

It’s not like Time has been hesitant to award its annual honor to very bad people in the past. Adolf Hitler (1938) and Josef Stalin (1939 and 1942) are both past persons of the year. In recent years, though, Time has shied away from crediting universally acknowledged evildoers for their newsworthiness. The choice of Vladimir Putin was criticized by the Russian opposition in 2007. (I wouldn’t expect him to be picked this year.) The outrage-storm that would have resulted from choosing Baghdadi would have been worse.

I fully understand that “person of the year” is meant to prompt a news cycle of second-guessing and that I’m taking the bait. Well done, Time! And in the magazine’s defense, while Barzani’s not an inspiring choice, when looking at the other government and Syrian rebel leaders who’ve led the fight against ISIS, it’s hard to come up with a better one. The fact that he’s the best non-Baghdadi candidate Time could come up with gives you some indication of why ISIS has been so hard to eliminate.

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Dec. 8 2014 4:30 PM

Why Is Modern Warfare So Deadly for Children?

A new report from UNICEF describes 2014 as one of the worst years on record for the world’s children, with millions impacted by conflicts in the Central African Republic, Gaza, Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, and Ukraine. “Never in recent memory have so many children been subjected to such unspeakable brutality,” the U.N. agency’s director, Anthony Lake, told the New York Times. The following post, originally published last July, looked at why modern warfare has become so deadly for kids. ​

It’s striking how many of the recent crises that have received international attention prominently involve violence against children.

More than 40 children have already been killed in Israel’s strikes against Gaza, a crisis that of course began with the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. The killing of four Palestinian boys on a Gaza beach, as the New York Times’ Anne Barnard put it, “came quickly to symbolize how the Israeli aerial assaults in Gaza are inevitably killing innocents in this crowded, impoverished sliver of land along the Mediterranean Sea.”

Meanwhile on America’s southern border, we’re seeing the consequences of an escalating drug war in Central America in which children increasingly find themselves on the front lines. In El Salvador, murders of children have increased even as the overall homicide rate dropped following a gang truce. (Unfortunately, as my colleague David Weigel notes, this is attracting depressingly little sympathy in Washington.)

Then of course, there’s Boko Haram’s ongoing campaign of terror in northern Nigeria, which attracted international attention after the abduction of 223 girls in April. Most of the girls are still missing.

A new annual report from the U.N. secretary general looks at trends in violence against children in 2013, finding “a significant spike in the killing and maiming of children in several situations, including in Afghanistan and Iraq.” The U.N. also documented more than 4,000 cases of children being recruited and coerced into combat.

Why do today’s wars seem deadlier than ever for children? The New Yorker’s Robin Wright reflects on the issue, writing, “today’s wars are increasingly within countries rather than between them; the fighting has moved to city streets, invading the playrooms of homes and kindergartens.”

This corresponds with the findings of another recent U.N. report, this one looking specifically at Afghanistan, which found that casualties among women and children rose much more quickly than for adult men last year due to a shift from improvised explosive devices to gun battles in heavily populated areas as the most prominent form of violence.

Of course, not all violence against children is incidental, the inevitable result of shifting patters of warfare. There are extensive reports of Central American criminal organizations targeting children for recruitment or as a means of punishing or extorting their parents. Boko Haram’s massive abduction got it exactly the kind of international publicity it craves. The three Israeli teenagers who were killed last month were clearly intentionally targeted, as was the Palestinian teenager killed in retaliation. ISIS has deliberately targeted families with children in Iraq as part of its clash with Kurdish forces. Syrian forces have been accused of deliberately targeting children for detention and torture.

In a world where violence is shifting from battles between state-sponsored militaries to clashes involving nonstate groups fought in communities, children aren’t just often the victims, they’re often the targets.

Dec. 8 2014 3:54 PM

Could Natural Disasters Threaten Asia’s Economic Miracle?

The death toll from Typhoon Hagupit, which made landfall in the Philippines on Saturday night, has risen to 21. Hagupit hit as delegates from 190 countries are meeting in Lima to hammer out the elements of a global climate deal that is due to be agreed upon in Paris next year. And this isn’t the first time that a typhoon swept through the Philippines during a major climate change conference. In 2012, Typhoon Bopha hit the country at the same time as a major meeting in Doha. Last year’s Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest typhoon ever recorded, devastated the country as delegates were meeting for a U.N. climate change conference in Warsaw, galvanizing calls for wealthy countries to help the developing world cope with its effects, including more severe storms.

“Every year since 2008, typhoons have become the backdrop of the climate change conference,” Mary Ann Lucille Sering, secretary of the Philippines climate change commission, told this year’s conference. Philippine NGOs taking part in the Lima meeting are using the storm to make the case that more urgency is needed. “To us in the Philippines, we are not any more debating on whether or not the impacts of climate change are here,” one activist told the AFP.

While it’s impossible to pin responsibility for any one weather event on climate change, catastrophic typhoons do appear to be getting more frequent and rising sea levels are contributing to worsening storm surges and flooding. If storms continue to worsen, Asian countries like the Philippines may bear the brunt of the damage. A recent report from Oxfam found that 78 percent of people killed by natural disasters lived in Asia even though just 43 percent of disasters occurred there. (Asia accounts for about 60 percent of the world population.) Asia has also borne about half the economic cost of these disasters over the last 20 years.

This isn’t all because of climate change. Much of it is due to increasingly large populations living in vulnerable areas like Tacloban, the rapidly growing regional capital devastated by storm surges during Haiyan and again during the most recent storm. The large cities of Asia are particularly vulnerable to floods and storms, and according to Oxfam, “the number of people exposed to coastal flooding in Asia is expected to increase by 50 percent by 2030.” These include major agricultural areas in South and Southeast Asia. Haiyan alone may have done more than $225 million in damage to the Philippine agricultural sector.

Natural disasters are already costing the world’s second-largest economy, China, an estimated $69 billion per year, and these costs are growing along with the severity of droughts and floods.

What chance is there that a climate deal could help Asia deal with catastrophic weather events? There’s a bit more momentum than usual heading into this year’s meetings following last November’s U.S.-China emissions deal and several recent pledges from wealthy countries that have raised the U.N. Green Climate Fund, meant to help poor countries adapt to the effects of climate change, to more than $10 billion. But there are still major rifts between already-rich countries and developing countries over who bears responsibility for emissions cuts. Asia’s economic growth and reductions in poverty have been one of the great positive transformations of modern times, but going forward the weather’s going to be a problem, especially if the rest of the world doesn’t chip in to help out.

Dec. 5 2014 6:16 PM

Don’t Assume Benjamin Netanyahu’s Job Is Safe

When Benjamin Netanyahu fired his finance and justice ministers this week and called for early elections to be held in three months, it seemed like the Israeli prime minister would likely retain his position and expand the power of his right-wing coalition. But some more recent developments suggest it may not be the slam dunk he was anticipating.

A new Jerusalem Post/Ma’ariv story finds that 60 percent of Israelis don’t want Netanyahu, the second-longest serving Israeli prime minister after David Ben-Gurion, to remain in that position. Respondents also chose former social services minister Moshe Kahlon and former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar over the prime minister in head-to-head comparisons. An earlier Haaretz poll had given Netanyahu the edge over his potential rivals, though also found that his approval rating had dropped to 38 percent, down dramatically from the 77 percent support he enjoyed during the August war in Gaza, with voters pessimistic about the state of the economy and feeling gloomy about political paralysis and continuing violence.

There are also now reports that an unlikely “anyone but Bibi” alliance could be in the works. That alliance could include Kahlon, a former Likudnik who argues that his old party is being taken over by the far right; Yair Lapid, the finance minister and former TV personality who Netanyahu fired from his cabinet earlier this week; and Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister and advocate for West Bank settlers who loathes Netanyahu and has been one of his most persistent critics from the right.

It’s a weird combination, though not actually much weirder than the government that collapsed this week. At times, it seemed like the main thing uniting Netanyahu’s ministers was that they were all trying to undermine him. That coalition included moderates like Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to go along with Lieberman and economy minister Naftali Bennett, both of whom would have been considered fringe right-wingers until a few years ago. (Those to the right of Netanhayu tend not to even give lip service to the two-state solution, oppose most negotiations with Palestinian leaders, and favor conservative social policies within Israel itself.)

With small samples sizes and a plethora of candidates, polls in Israel are notoriously unreliable—last year’s election, for instance, was much closer than anticipated. Polls only tell part of the story anyway, since the next government will almost certainly involve a multi-party coalition that comes together only after the votes are counted. The fact that parties seem increasingly willing to form coalitions with ideological foes only makes the outcome harder to predict.

With Israel’s economy slowing, bread and butter issues will probably dominate the run-up to the election. A January or February surprise, though, could bring security issues back to the forefront, and terrorist attacks have tended to lead to electoral victories for the Israeli right.

As Michael Koplow notes, even if Netanyahu comes out of the election with a larger right-wing coalition and sheds his nemesis Lapid in the process, that won’t necessarily give him more room for maneuver. It became obvious during the Gaza War that Netanyahu doesn’t have a lot of friends to his right, and hawks like Lieberman and Bennett were more effective at countering him than moderates like Lapid and Livni.

The overall trend lines in Israeli public opinion are also difficult to discern. The country often looks like its drifting inexorably to the right, leading to the rise of settler and Orthodox-linked parties that make Netanyahu’s Likud look moderate. But as Gershom Gorenberg points out, the right actually lost support in last year’s election, forcing Netanyahu into an unworkable coalition that clashed on everything from the economy to the U.S.-led peace negotiations.

As for America’s stake in this, even if Netanyahu is ousted, things won’t necessarily get easier if Lieberman or Bennett increase their influence in the next election. On the other hand, the White House at least would probably relish not having to talk to Bibi anymore

Dec. 4 2014 6:17 PM

China Says It Will Stop Harvesting Organs From Executed Prisoners

Human rights groups believe China is reducing the number of people it executes, though firm numbers are still hard to come by. Starting next month, it’s also ending one of the more gruesome aspects of the process, the use of executed prisoners as a source of organs for transplants. The move, which has been promised for some time, is a welcome human rights development. It’s also going to contribute to an acute shortage of organs.

With its massive and aging population, China has an obvious need for organs, but it also has one of the world’s lowest transplant rates. According to Chinese customs, bodies are traditionally buried intact and family members are often reluctant to allow organs to be removed. Only 130 people signed up to be organ donors in China between 2003 and 2009.

Organs from executed prisoners have often found their way beyond the country’s borders. In 2007, when China reduced the number of executions in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, the price of kidneys skyrocketed in South Korea. That same year, China officially banned the practice of selling organs from Chinese prisoners to foreigners, though a robust black market still exists.

This didn’t address the domestic issue, though. China admitted in 2009 that 65 percent of the country’s organ donations were obtained from executed prisoners. It’s down to about 54 percent today, according to official statistics.

While it’s good that a gruesome practice is coming to an end, it’s also true that only an estimated 10,000 patients receive transplants each year in China out of the 300,000 who need them. The government has been working to increase donation rates, but public distrust of the health system is high. Stories of local Red Cross officials threatening to pull the plug on patients if their families don’t sign over their organs probably aren’t going to encourage cooperation.

As a report today indicates, chronic conditions like heart disease and cancer are making up a much larger portion of the death toll in developing countries as life expectancies increase and once-devastating infectious diseases are brought under control. This is good news, but providing long-term care for these conditions in places with limited resources will lead to some major ethical issues, of which China’s organ harvest is just a particularly extreme example.

Dec. 4 2014 1:27 PM

Putin Says Crimea Is Russia’s “Temple Mount”

In his annual address to Russia’s Federal Assembly—the rough equivalent of the U.S. State of the Union address—President Vladimir Putin used a striking analogy when discussing the annexation, or “reunification” as he puts it, of Crimea. In today’s speech, he described it as having “invaluable civilizational and even sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism.”

The Temple Mount comparison is a provocative one in light of recent violent conflicts over the site. It’s also a somewhat confusing one. The defining political characteristic of the Temple Mount is that more than one group has a long-standing cultural and religious claim to it, which seems like the opposite of what Putin is suggesting in the case of Crimea.

Though this specific comparison is new, the general tenor of Putin’s remarks is not. As I discussed in a recent article, the president has often used religious rhetoric to cast his foreign policy in terms of a historical struggle to defend Russian civilization. In his speech, Putin referred to events which took place in the 980s, when Prince Vladimir of Kiev was baptized in Crimea and converted his subjects to Christianity, an event often considered the birth of the Russian Orthodox Church. He also called Crimea “the spiritual source of the development of a multifaceted but solid Russian nation and a centralized Russian state.” By contrast, church leaders, including Patriarch Kirill, leader of the church, have been more circumspect on the Ukraine issue, caught between their loyalty to Putin and a desire not to alienate their adherents in Ukraine, some of whom support the Kiev government.

Most of the rest of the speech was fairly standard Putin rhetoric. He condemned Western sanctions and the “coup” in Ukraine as part of a long-standing effort to contain and divide Russia.

The elephant in the room is the dire state of the Russian economy. He promised more investment in infrastructure, particularly in the east, and a crackdown on currency speculation. Addressing the concerns of businesses that have pulled out of the country, he promised “full amnesty for capital returning to Russia,” meaning that for business leaders, there will be “legal guarantees that he will not be summoned to various agencies, including law enforcement agencies, that they will not ‘put the squeeze’ on him.”

Putin suggested Western sanctions were an opportunity for the development of Russian industry and for building ties to Asia, South America, and the Middle East. He didn’t discuss the impact of plummeting oil prices. (Oil and gas account for about half of the government’s revenue.)

Overall, the speech felt like that of a leader confident that his citizens still have faith in him, despite what is almost certain to be a long and painful economic downturn. With his popularity still above 80 percent despite the gloomy forecasts, he’s probably right.

Dec. 3 2014 6:11 PM

If It Happened There: Courts Sanction Killings by U.S. Security Forces

The latest installment in a continuing series in which American events are described using the tropes and tone normally employed by the American media to describe events in other countries.

NEW YORK CITY, United States—The heavily armed security forces in this large and highly militarized country have long walked the streets with impunity, rarely if ever held accountable for violence committed against civilians. In recent weeks, however, several such incidents have ignited public anger and threatened to open new fault lines in a nation with a long and tragic history of sectarian violence.

In America’s largest city, the judicial branch declined to pursue charges against a security officer who was videotaped in broad daylight choking a man to death. This came less than two weeks after courts in the nation’s often overlooked central region reached a similar decision in the shooting of an unarmed teenager. Both victims were members of the country’s largest minority group, and the killings have set off nationwide protests that have often escalated into clashes between dissidents and the security forces.

While lower than that of other countries in the Western Hemisphere, America’s violent crime rate is high by the standards of developed nations, a situation experts blame on a variety of factors, including skyrocketing income inequality and easy access to firearms. In response, the country’s recent ruling regimes have broadly expanded the policing and surveillance powers of the domestic security forces and instituted draconian sentences for even minor criminal offenses. As a result of this campaign, the world’s second-largest democracy has the highest percentage of its population behind bars—a virtual prison state of 2.3 million people housed in an archipelago of often poorly maintained facilities throughout the nation.

Information provided by human rights groups shows that the state’s crackdown has disproportionately targeted members of the country’s ethnic minority groups, who have been historically marginalized and subject to severe discrimination. The election of the country’s first minority president, it was once hoped, would help bring these disparities to an end, but experts say they have persisted and in some cases even worsened.

Domestic critics also say the state has grown increasingly intolerant of dissent. Security forces have been outfitted with the latest in military hardware, often battle-tested on the fields of the country’s multiple foreign wars. The use of tear gas and rubber bullets against domestic protesters is reminiscent of the state’s tactics during protests against the system of legally enforced apartheid, which was in place in the country’s southern region until the middle of the last century.

With calls for sweeping democratic reforms mounting, the state has been slow to respond. Thus far, the ruling party has announced only limited measures, including new training programs and cameras to be worn by members of the security forces—an odd choice given that one of the killings in question was already videotaped.

The United Nations Committee Against Torture and global NGOs including Amnesty International have condemned the U.S. in recent days, though as yet there’s been little discussion of sanctions. With many of the country’s political leaders and media outlets casting aspersions on both the victims of violence and the protesters, it’s unclear if the events of the past few weeks will mark a turning point, or if this is just another periodic eruption of the country’s long-simmering internal tensions.

Dec. 3 2014 2:08 PM

So Long as Everyone Thinks China Is Corrupt, It Still Needs Hong Kong

More than 80,000 members of the Communist Party, from obscure local officials to some of the most powerful people in China, have been investigated as part of President Xi Jinping’s ongoing corruption crackdown. Many believe these investigations are the explanation for a recent wave of officials committing suicide. But what about the supposed purpose of these inquiries: Are they doing anything to cut down on the widespread belief that Chinese officials are corrupt?

Not really. China has fallen 20 places in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, dropping from 80th in 2013 to a tie for 100th place with Algeria and Suriname. The heavily cited index measures perceptions of public-sector corruption based on a number of assessments of governance and business climate. This year, Denmark was perceived as the least corrupt (surprise, surprise), with Somalia and North Korea coming in last.

Not all of China is perceived so negatively. Hong Kong, which is rated separately from the rest of the People’s Republic, came in at 17th, tying it with a motley grouping of Barbados, Ireland, and the United States. The disparity is worth considering in light of the ongoing anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong, which have raised the question of how much longer China will keep the “one country, two systems” arrangement that allows the city to maintain an independent legal and political system.

Hong Kong makes up a much smaller portion of the overall Chinese economy than it used to, and it’s lost some of its luster thanks to the emergence of free-trade zones on the mainland. But what it does have, as reflected by the index, is a solid international reputation. As the Economist noted in September, “foreign companies also use the city as their staging post for investing in China as it offers them something that no mainland city does: a stable investment environment, protected by fair, transparent courts that enforce long-established rule of law.” The Chinese government has taken advantage of this environment as well, using Hong Kong as a testing ground for a number of financial reforms.

But if Hong Kong’s reputation as a safe and stable place to do business is the key to its relevance, stories involving police crackdowns and triad gangsters haven’t been helpful.

Judging by recent reports, the resolve of the Occupy Central protesters appears to be waning. Student leader Joshua Wong has now launched a hunger strike in a bid to keep the momentum going. But the aftereffects of the turmoil will be felt for some time. In their bid to keep Hong Kong under control, Chinese authorities may be undermining the benefits of maintaining it as an independent entity at all.

Dec. 3 2014 12:13 PM

Iran Vigorously Denies U.S. Claims That It’s Cooperating With the U.S. Against ISIS

Iran’s role in the new U.S.-led coalition of the willing against ISIS has been something of a mystery since the group came together in the fall. Iran clearly agrees with the U.S. and its allies on the need to confront ISIS and maintain the integrity of what’s left of the Iraqi state, but given the ongoing dispute over Iran’s nuclear program and the deep disagreement over what to do about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, neither side is going to talk openly about cooperation.

There have been reports for months of Iranian advisers helping coordinate anti-ISIS efforts on the ground in Iraq. Tehran has also been supporting the Syrian government since the beginning of the civil war, but the Iranian military doesn’t appear to have taken direct action against ISIS. Until now … maybe.

U.S. officials said today that they believe Iran carried out airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq 10 days ago, near the Iranian border. Iranian officials are denying that the strikes took place.

Footage from Al-Jazeera shows what experts say is an F-4 fighter jet attacking the targets in Iraq’s Diyala province. Iran and Turkey are the only countries in the region that use F-4s, and given the proximity to Iranian territory and Turkey’s reluctance to get involved in the fight against ISIS, Iran is the most likely culprit. Nonetheless, the Iranian government is sticking with its story. A senior official tells Reuters, “Iran has never been involved in any air strikes against Daesh [the preferred term for ISIS in the region] targets in Iraq. Any cooperation in such strikes with America is also out of question for Iran.”

As the BBC explains, the F-4 is an American-made plane, and several hundred were sold to Iran before the 1979 revolution. The planes saw frequent combat during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, but in recent years, U.S. sanctions have made it hard to find spare parts for the aging planes. A story in the Greek media earlier this year suggested that Israeli arms dealers may have been illegally supplying Iran with spare F-4 parts.

So in case you’re keeping score at home, Iran, America’s sworn enemy, is denying American accusations that it is cooperating with America to attack their common enemy using American planes, which, thanks to American sanctions, are being illegally maintained, possibly with the assistance possibly with the assistance of Israelis. Got that?

Dec. 2 2014 3:48 PM

Is It Now Legal for Cuban Ballplayers to Leave Their Country and Join the Major Leagues? 

Baseball’s next great Cuban prospect, Yoan Moncada, is currently cooling his heels in Guatemala waiting to be cleared by the U.S. government’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. Once he does get that clearance, Moncada can start receiving offers from major-league teams, which are expected to range between $30 and $40 million.

What the 19-year-old switch-hitter can do behind the plate or at third base is less intriguing than how he got out of Cuba. Dozens of the nation’s baseball stars, from Orlando Hernandez to Yasiel Puig have made their way to America, often via harrowing escapes involving dangerous boat rides and predatory human traffickers. Even when the escape is less dramatic—pitcher Aroldis Chapman, now of the Cincinnati Reds, simply walked out of his hotel room in the Netherlands where the Cuban national team was participating in the World Baseball Classic—defection usually means a player is permanently exiled from homeland and family.

Moncada, by contrast, seems to have just showed up. Yahoo’s Jeff Passan reports that “he did so on what his handlers say is a legal Cuban passport, meaning the government OK’d his departure, something never before done for a high-level ballplayer.” Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs adds:

I was told by Moncada’s agent last week that he was allowed by the Cuban government to leave the country, that Moncada has a Cuban passport and can fly back to the country whenever he wants to. I haven’t been able to formally confirm this, but there’s no reason for the agent to lie about it, and multiple high-ranking club executives told me this is how they understand the situation at this point as well.

If true, this represents a recent change in policy. As recently as last June, Yasmany Tomas escaped to Haiti under circumstances that, according to MLB.com, “remain mysterious.” Tomas has since signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

So, what’s going on here? In 2012, as part of a package of liberalizing reforms, Raul Castro’s government eased travel restrictions for the country’s citizens. Previously, to travel abroad Cubans had needed an exit visa from the government and an invitation from someone in the destination country. Under the new system, only a passport is required.

In September 2013, Cuba also dropped its longstanding policy prohibiting baseball players from signing with professional teams. The era of legally sanctioned Cuban pro ballplayers has already begun in other countries. In April, outfielder Frederich Cepeda signed with the Yoimuri Giants of Japan, becoming the first player to take advantage of the new rules. He will get to keep 80 percent of his $1.5 million earnings. That’s not quite Yankees money, but it’s a lot more than the $100 to $450 a month he would earn in Cuba, and he’ll get to come back home to see his family at the end of the season.

The U.S. embargo still makes the journey to the big show difficult for Cubans, and even if the Castro regime has turned a blind eye to Moncada’s actions so far, it’s unlikely that he’ll still be welcome back home after he signs to an American team. But with Cuba gradually loosening its restrictions and support for the embargo dropping in the U.S., it’s probably only a matter of time before the gates open entirely.  

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