Speaking out, Venezuelan players face Maduro’s wrath

Endy Chávez and others worry about friends and family around the clock

May was, for many ballplayers, about home runs, bat flips and retaliations.

For Venezuelans in professional baseball, the issues were more dire, requiring them to put aside their fears of reprisal — against themselves and possibly their families — to speak out against the escalating hunger, chaos and violence back home.

“How many more people must die before something positive happens in our country?” asked outfielder Endy Chávez, who spent 13 seasons in Major League Baseball and now plays for Triple-A Puebla in the Mexican League.

Since the daily demonstrations against the government of President Nicolás Maduro began in earnest at the beginning of April, at least 60 persons have died and 1,000 jailed.

And the strife shows no sign of abating. According to the BBC, at least 250 persons — including opposition leader Henrique Capriles — were injured in protests this past Monday. On Wednesday, another 89 were injured in Caracas.

“What’s my worst fear?” said Chávez, 39, of Valencia, the third-largest city in Venezuela. “That we have a civil war. I think that we’re very close.”

Players and other Venezuelans report that Maduro and the authorities are firing on demonstrators with live ammunition and attempting to control or shut down media critical of the government. In addition, the government is:

  • Intercepting food that players and others ship to their families and friends back home.
  • Prohibiting the shipment or importation of assorted items, including first aid materials and sporting goods such as baseballs, bats, catcher’s masks, chest protectors and shin guards, branding them as terrorist weapons.
  • Using paramilitary groups and sympathizers to intimidate and retaliate.
  • Suspending the passports of opposition leaders and critics while prohibiting Venezuelan airlines from selling tickets to individuals on banned lists.

Chávez spoke to La Vida over the phone in Spanish only after considering the request for a couple of days. Unlike Cervelli and Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera and coach Omar Vizquel — high-profile Venezuelan major leaguers who have been speaking out publically since early May — Chávez says that he doesn’t have the platform or the financial resources to challenge the government openly and safely.

These fears were driven home last week after Chávez posted a short message on Instagram in which he spoke directly to Maduro. Quoting former Venezuelan major leaguer Melvin Mora, Chávez told Maduro to “let Venezuela vote for its own future.”

A couple of days later, Chávez posted a second, more terrifying message, on Instagram after people he identified as representatives of PDVSA, or Petróleos de Venezuela SA, the Venezuelan state-owned oil and natural gas company, went to a relative’s house in Venezuela looking for him.

“This video is to make a complaint, because how is it possible that one day after expressing my opinion to the public and addressing President Nicolás Maduro, I have a relative call me and say that a PDVSA truck with people dressed in red came by, asking if I lived there or spent time there?” said Chávez in Spanish. “What were they looking to do? This is not a coincidence, gentlemen. Enough. That’s why I make this complaint, in case that something happens to me or my family.”

Chávez said that while his mother is out of the country, his father and most family members still live in Venezuela. Because he openly fears for their safety, he would not reveal the number of relatives nor where they lived.

“Between my aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews and other relatives, there are too many,” Chávez said. “I’m trying to protect my family.”

Chávez said that he’s already lost friends to the current violence. On May 19, he posted on Instagram the picture of a friend that he said was a bodyguard for the Navegantes del Magallanes baseball team. According to Chávez, this friend was shot in the forehead. While Chávez couldn’t offer proof, he’s convinced that his friend is a casualty of the current conflict.

“I know that there are government sympathizers taking matters into their own hands. They don’t answer to anyone and they do what they want,” Chávez added.

The safety and security of family and friends is a constant worry, day and night, for all the Venezuelan players.

Cervelli, 31, of Valencia has seemed the most fearless, or at least the most visible, of all. In the past week, he has written columns for The Players’ Tribune and appeared on ESPN. The most frequent requests he receives are for medicine and food, people asking “Can you help?”

“It’s not two hours a day or three times a week. This is all day for me, every day. And it’s the same for my teammates from Venezuela,” Cervelli wrote for The Players’ Tribune. “This is our every day, and it becomes very difficult to say, ‘This is enough for now,’ or to log off for the night.”

San Francisco Giants outfielder Gorkys Hernández, who was hitting .175 in 45 games through May 31, admitted to La Vida that the crisis is affecting his play. His mother back home is one of the millions of Venezuelans without sufficient food and necessities and Hernández can’t help her.

“When I talk to [shipping companies] about delivering to my mom, you can’t say anything about food because if you send food, [the government] are going to take it, ‘We are not going to give it to your family, we’re going to take it,’” said Hernández, 29, of Guiria.

“When you have families over there, you pay attention,” added Hernández. “Especially right now, in this moment, there’s too much killing in the streets. You think every moment, every day about your family, because you don’t want anything happening to them.”

How bad are Venezuela’s economic woes? The economy of the country with the largest proven oil reserves in the world has shrunk by 27 percent since 2013 and is reeling from triple-digit inflation, chronic shortages of food and medicine, an infant mortality rate of 30 percent and, regardless of governmental denials, widespread malnutrition.

The Washington Post reported that a recent survey by several of the country’s universities found that three-quarters of adults lost weight in 2016 — an average of 19 pounds — what Venezuelans sarcastically call the “Maduro Diet.”

Which is why many players, along with the political opposition in Venezuela, are calling for new elections. Maduro has responded with plans to rewrite the constitution, seen by many as an attempt to consolidate power. As we went to press with this report, the country’s Tribunal Supremo de Justicia — the Venezuelan Supreme Court — ruled Maduro doesn’t need the approval of the country’s citizens if he wants to change the constitution.

Maduro himself has railed against the players. On May 21, during his weekly Sunday TV show, he accused the United States of running a “well-funded, worldwide operation” to pay off Venezuelan athletes and celebrities to speak out against his government.

“They are pressuring them, threatening to kick them off MTV, to stop supporting their careers, to expose their secrets while offering them money,” said Maduro in Spanish.

Maduro’s comments inspired a spate of Instagram postings, including from Cervelli and Chávez, both of whom told the president in so many words that, “We are paid to play baseball.”

But as Chávez quickly learned after the unannounced visit by PDVSA representatives to his relative’s home, there are real risks about speaking up, even from within Mexico.

“It’s been difficult to concentrate,” said Chávez, who nonetheless is hitting .351 after 43 games with Puebla. “You owe it to your fans to give your best effort, but you can’t help worry about your family back home. When people in Mexico complain about life here, I start laughing. I tell them, ‘You have no idea of what we’re living through in Venezuela. You live like kings here because you can go to a pharmacy and buy medicine, go to a supermarket and buy all the food you want.’”

“If they went to my country for one day, they would see what it means to live with nothing.”

Additional reporting by César Augusto Márquez

Featured Image: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images