Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Baseball and Politics in Venezuela

I am an avid listener of baseball podcasts, which I listen to while exercising and while in the car. A great one is Effectively Wild, which focuses on baseball analytics. For the very first time, a recent episode actually touched both on Latin American politics and U.S.-Latin American relations. It is about the tragedy of Venezuela, focusing on deaths of MLB baseball players (huge stars in Venezuela) José Castillo and Luis Valbuena, who were just killed in a car crash because of an attack on a Venezuelan highway.

The hosts Jeff Sullivan and Ben Lindbergh talk to Octavio Hernández, a Venezuelan journalist and baseball executive who fled the country and now works for a baseball team in Mexico (you can go to 38:38 in the podcast for just his part, though the discussion about Harold Baines in the Hall of Fame is well worth your time!). He gives a passionate and emotional account of how far Venezuela has fallen. These attacks are just what happens. The normalcy framing is heartbreaking. When asked if there was hope for change, Hernández just said no. As I've written so many times, there are few options as long as the opposition remains divided and unpopular, and the military remains loyal.

The part that caught my attention the most was his mention of sanctions. He wondered whether the U.S. government might prohibit MLB from functioning anymore in Venezuela--sending players, scouts, or otherwise participating in Venezuelan baseball. I had never thought of this but in fact it would be perversely effective. There is a lot of money in baseball, even in Venezuela. Players keep going, as Hernández says, in part because of habit but also because they're paid well and they live in a bubble (though more and more are too afraid to return). Castillo and Valbuena got out of the bubble by driving their own car rather than the team bus. Cut off some the MLB money and the MLB players and you reduce revenue more, while embarrassing the government. Up to this point, the U.S. government has focused on financial transactions and individuals in the Venezuelan government. This would be a new angle.


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