While people are taking to the streets in Venezuela, Major League Baseball players in the United States are taking to Instagram.
Concerned over the rising strife and economic despair in their home country, more and more players from Venezuela are openly speaking their minds and challenging the government of President Nicolás Maduro in absentia.
Led by Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli and Kansas City shortstop Alcides Escobar, two players with active Instagram presences, players are posting videos of clashes between police and demonstrators — including an armored car running people over — while accusing the government of oppression, corruption and a conspiracy to end democracy.
“Can we now call it a dictatorship or not yet?” said a Cervelli Instagram posting on May 6, adding, in Spanish, in the comment section, “They do what they want, they don’t care about anyone’s life and it’s never their fault. What do we call that?”
The next day Cervelli posted a headshot of himself in uniform with “SOS” in eye black under the right eye and “Venezuela” under the left.
History Repeats Itself
Latino players have been here before. Cubans in the late 1950s when Fidel Castro came to power. Dominicans in the mid-1960s during the country’s civil unrest. Nicaraguans in the ’70s during the Sandinista revolt and Panamanians in the ’80s when dictator Manuel Noriega ruled the country.
And while the players today don’t necessarily represent the feelings of all the roughly 80 Venezuelans currently on Major League Baseball rosters, they give voice to a growing opposition willing to risk life and limb in a country wracked by widespread hunger, shortages of all kinds and hyperinflation that the International Monetary Fund projects will reach 720 percent by the end of the year. According to Reuters, at least 37 people have died in the unrest since early April.
“The country is at a point where no one knows what will happen,” said Escobar in a recent interview with La Vida, conducted in Spanish.
The crisis escalated in the first week of May when President Maduro responded to calls for elections with plans to set up a “constituent assembly” with power to rewrite the constitution.
In a response that stands in stark contrast to that of most professional athletes in this country during the recent United States presidential election — or any elections, for that matter — Venezuelan athletes from different sports are taking stands and expressing their opinions without worrying about the possibility of reprisals to friends and family back home. This despite the fact that one of the people to die recently in the street demonstrations was Juan Pernalete Lovera, a scholarship basketball player at the Metropolitan University of Caracas.
“No, I’m not afraid,” said Escobar, who also runs a baseball academy in his hometown of La Sabana. “I don’t hide my opinions because I’m feeling everything that is happening. It hurts. I was born, raised, grew up in Venezuela. What I’m really doing with my social media is supporting (the people). People are really bad off. I’m not posting things against anyone in particular, but (saying) that Venezuela deserves a change.”
The Instagram Post that went viral
The Cervelli Instagram posting on May 8, a video featuring 13 MLB players from Venezuela, went viral with 30,000 views in the first 10 hours.
It opened with Cervelli standing behind the upside-down Venezuelan flag, a symbol for protesters back home, while wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates cap and shirt. He stated: “We are a group of Venezuelan major leaguers. We’re talking not as players, but as citizens. As people who love their country, we want to yell out to the world.”
And one by one, in brief but unequivocal phrases, without raised voices, made clear what they thought and felt.
“No more oppression,” said Pittsburgh outfielder José Osuna, a rookie outfielder from Trujillo, Venezuela, who debuted in the Major Leagues on April 18.
“We want liberty for Venezuela,” said Milwaukee shortstop Orlando Arcia, a second-year player from Anaco.
“No more oppression in Venezuela,” said Milwaukee first baseman Jesús Aguilar of Maracay.
“Leave us alone, please. Stop the oppression. They are killing us. They are taking away our future. All these kids; all these students,” lamented Atlanta outfielder Ender Inciarte, who hails from the coastal city of Maracaibo.
“I’m against the repression in Venezuela,” said Cincinnati third baseman Eugenio Suárez, a young rising star raised in the southeastern state of Bolívar.
“I’m against the oppression. No more deaths,” added Pittsburgh backup catcher Elías Díaz of Maracaibo.
“No more oppression. No more dictatorship,” said Milwaukee utility player Hernán Pérez, a six-year veteran from Villa de Cura.
“We want liberty for our country,” said Pittsburgh pitcher Felipe Rivero of San Felipe.
“We want peace. No more oppression. No more violence,” added Escobar, a 10-year veteran considered among the better defensive shortstops in the majors.
“Enough oppression. No more violence for Venezuela,” said Kansas City catcher Salvador Pérez, a four-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner from Valencia who despite having 494,000 followers on Twitter had avoided until now taking a stance in social media.
“Enough corruption. Enough injustice. Please,” stated San Francisco outfielder Gorkys Hernández of Guiria.
“I’m against the oppression in Venezuela. We want liberty,” said Cincinnati infielder José Peraza of Barinas.
The Instagram posting ended with the phrase Basta Ya, or “Enough” with Cervelli adding a comment in Spanish: “Millions of voices clamor for Venezuela.”
‘I can’t keep quiet’
Escobar admitted that the fighting makes it difficult to concentrate on baseball.
“Yes, it’s little hard to be here,” he said. “Because of all the things happening in our country, sometimes we only think only about Venezuela. We have our families in Venezuela and that sometimes makes us think more about our country.
“You hear about it wherever you go. You hear about Venezuela, what’s going on, that things are hard, that things are bad. But I can’t be silent,” he said, adding that “I’m simply expressing my feelings… I can’t keep quiet.”
It should be noted that there are players who are pro-government. In fact, a couple of former All-Stars are openly Chavistas, supporters of Hugo Chávez, the deceased president who served from 1999 to 2013 and whose party still controls the country. Magglio Ordóñez, a good-hitting outfielder who played for the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers, is mayor of the municipality of Juan Antonio Sotillo.
And Carlos Guillén, a shortstop who played for Seattle and Detroit, and who was general manager of the National Team for the recent World Baseball Classic, is president of IRDA, the sports ministry for the state of Aragua, which is governed by Tareck El Aissami, Vice President of Venezuela since January.
Other current players, especially the bigger stars, are taking pains to avoid taking sides. Yet, when Detroit first baseman Miguel Cabrera, a two-time MVP, a Triple Crown winner and arguably the best player in the country’s history, spoke recently with La Vida, he made clear the killings had to stop.
“It’s hard right now because we are going through a harsh situation in Venezuela,” Cabrera said. “Sending messages right now do not mean anything because they’re fighting, fighting for food, fighting for a better life, fighting for everything, for medicine.”
“What can I say?” Cabrera added. “People are fighting in the streets, people are dying in the streets… I want to say, ‘Somebody got to step up, somebody got the power to step up and say, Finish, it’s done, done with the situation,’ because people are dying in Venezuela.”
Meanwhile, Cervelli and Escobar are posting videos of President Maduro dancing at an event at the same time demonstrators sporting gas masks and shields are facing off in the streets against the National Guard.
“We need a change in government,” Escobar said. “Elections. Because after 17-18 years with the same government, we haven’t improved. Regrettably, what we need is a change in government.”
These players, unlike many of their peers, feel that words matter. And they are using a more direct channel — social media — to raise their concerns for the people. For change. And for peace.
Featured Image: Juan Barreto / AFP / Getty Images