Caracas, Venezuela – If deceased Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez polarised the nation with his policies and political rhetoric, his love of sport helped bring people together, even if “baseball diplomacy” couldn’t fix relations with the US.
In a country famous for beer, beauty pageants and baseball, the game transcends a Saturday afternoon pastime, reaching its way into diplomacy and politics.
“We have a huge history with baseball,” Hugo Davila told Al Jazeera as he hit balls at the Batemania batting cages in Caracas with his family. “I like it when politicians reference baseball in their speeches – it makes me feel connected.”
Just after interim President Nicolas Maduro announced that the next presidential elections will happen on April 14, Venezuela’s national team was fighting for its life, battling Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic.
The national team pledged to win the tournament in order to lift the country’s spirits following the death of Chavez on March 5.
But it was not to be. Puerto Rico beat Venezuela 6-2 in the World Baseball Championship on Saturday, eliminating Venezuela from the tournament.
“Our national team held a minute of silence for Chavez,” Carlos Salazar, a government supporter in Caracas, told Al Jazeera. “Most of the players on the national team are Chavistas,” he said, in a claim that could not be independently verified.
Despite Salazar’s hopeful prognosis and requests from players, Venezuela’s flag apparently was not lowered to half-mast and a minute of silence was not observed during a warm-up game between the Miami Marlins and Venezuela’s national team the night Chavez’s death was announced.
Oil and the ball game
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Introduced to Venezuela in the late 1800s and early 1900s by Americans drilling for oil and college students returning home from US universities, the game’s popularity quickly spread.
“The workers brought here by major American oil companies were baseball fans,” Luis Aponte, a former pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and a member of Venezuela’s baseball hall of fame, told Al Jazeera. “The children of Venezuelans who worked in the oil industry became baseball fans.”
Before joining the army and leading an unsuccessful coup, Hugo Chavez dreamed of becoming a professional pitcher. After winning an election with a large mandate in 1998, “El Comandante” frequently mixed baseball and politics during his marathon public speeches.
“What would the major leagues do if Venezuela didn’t exist? They’d get bored,” Chavez said in 2012, when nine Venezuelans played in the Major League Baseball World Series in the US.
“I think the next World Series, Obama, you’re going to have to play it here in Venezuela, because it’s Venezuelans all over the place.”
Despite the jokes and political trash-talk, baseball – like the oil that brought it to Venezuela – has been sucked into diplomatic tensions between the Bolivarian Republic and Uncle Sam.
After the US supported a coup in 2002 that attempted to topple Chavez’s elected government, William Brownfield, the former US ambassador to Venezuela, attempted to foster good relations through “baseball diplomacy”.
The two nations, at odds over Iran’s nuclear programme, Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, and US support for opposition groups in Venezuela, share “good and similar values” because of their mutual love of baseball, Brownfield once said.
Famous for touring Venezuela’s baseball fields and dispensing aid along the way, Brownfield, known as “the Texan”, left Caracas in 2007 after his car was pelted with eggs by Chavez supporters.
Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s foreign minister at the time, slammed the US diplomat alleging that: “William Brownfield came to Venezuela with one mission, to destabilise the government of Hugo Chavez and assist in toppling him.”
Statements like these probably worry State Department officials in Washington, who likely hope that the death of Chavez could lead to a rapprochement between the US and one of its largest oil suppliers.
It’s unclear if Maduro, known for his ties to Cuba – another country where baseball reigns supreme – is as much of a ball fan as his deceased predecessor.
In his 2010 book The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold US Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad, Robert Elias argued that the sport was used by the US army and diplomatic core to extol American values and promote the not-so-pretty aspects of US foreign policy.
“The enemy will attack our revolution with all of his weapons,” Michael Mijarez, a Chavez supporter, told Al Jazeera while attending a memorial for the deceased president, in a claim which could incorporate the venues of sports and soft power.
Other Venezuelans, however, see the debate differently. “God Bless America” is often sung at Major League Baseball games, and stadiums host signs extoling fans to “support our troops”. But many sports stars view the game and its political role differently from Elias.
“When we [Venezuelans] go to the US to play, we become the best ambassadors for our country,” Aponte said. “People know about our country because of these ambassadors. Sport doesn’t have barriers.”
Ball cap row
Like the government it is trying to unseat, Venezuela’s political opposition also uses the imagery of baseball in its campaigns. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles is known for sporting a baseball cap emblazoned with the colours of Venezuela’s flag as he campaigns. It’s a fashion move that irks members of the governing Socialist Party, who claim to have pioneered the style.
During the 2012 presidential campaign, Chavez supporters launched a complaint about Capriles’ cap to election authorities.
“Let’s be serious,” Capriles said at the time, dismissing government complaints as cheap publicity stunts. “The country is waiting for what our plans will be to solve problems. If the government no longer has anything to offer, it’s not my fault.”
The row over baseball caps doesn’t surprise Venezuelan hall-of-famer Luis Aponte. “Politics is never clean – it has always been dirty,” the former major leaguer said. “Politicians always resort to doing anything in order to catch followers.”
Back at the batting cages, families take turns walloping balls and drinking soda in the Saturday sun. After hitting some dingers, Hugo Davila is taking a break drinking iced tea with his kids. “Baseball has been huge here for many years,” he said. “But I don’t believe it can fix diplomatic problems.”