Venezuelan uprising pushes baseball aside

By Giner Garcia and Mark Derewicz
December 10, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela–Political tension has reached the highest level in Venezuela, where several groups have confronted President Hugo Chavez with a national strike that started Dec. 2.

Venezuela’s baseball league has shut down due to the strike, suspending its season when the national strike began with serious questions about whether it will resume.

The strike emerged from groups that oppose the rule of Chavez, who was elected president in 1998 and re-elected in 2000. The opposition group claims Chavez has hurt the Venezuelan economy, has a close relationship with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Colombian guerrillas, and has attacked the media and journalists and violated the Venezuelan constitution. The opposition also believes that Chavez’ decision to put his own people in high positions within the state-run oil company was a critical mistake, leading to a breakdown in the country’s oil market. Workers walked off the job after not receiving pay. Venezuela, the world’s fifth-largest oil producer, is a huge supplier to the United States.

A similar strike actually removed Chavez from power in April when the oil industry shut down and 19 people were killed at an opposition march. Dissident military officers took power on April 12, but Chavez returned to power two days later after thousands of Chavez supporters rebelled.

The groups organizing the strike seek a referendum or the resignation of Chavez. He has said the constitution does not allow for a referendum until August 2003, though the government is apparently considering other options in negotiations with strike organizers.

In the sports world, the Venezuelan League and the Venezuela Professional Soccer League both stopped play when the strike began. The baseball league had postponed 24 games so far, including the all-star game.

“When conditions in the country permit it, they will restart the season,” league president Ramón Guillermo Aveledo said. “You will hear ‘Play ball’ only when we can guarantee the quality of the game and the safety of the players.”

Many American players have left Venezuela for the safety of the United States. Caracas outfielder Jason Lane was among the first to leave and will not return. La Guaira pitchers Bill Pulsipher and Allen Levrault also left but said they would could come back if the situation is resolved.

Pastora pitcher Derek Hasselhoff; Magallanes pitcher Spike Lundberg; La Guaira players Lou Collier, Steve Falteisek, Pat Lennon, Everett Stull and Travis Wilson; and Caracas players Pat Ahearne, Mark Guerra, Calvin Maduro, Kyle Logan and Tyler Walker have also headed for home.

Six American umpires also returned home, as the U.S. State Department issued a statement Dec. 6 advised Americans to avoid travel to Venezuela. The umpires, headed by crew chief Bob Bainter, were staying at the Gran Melia Hotel, the same location where the negotiations between Chavez and the opposition leaders were taking place.

“We knew the negotiations were happening because of all the television cords running through the hotel doors,” Bainter said. “We’d walk by the room and Gaviria would be sitting at the head of the table during a break.”

Bainter was joined by fellow International League umps Scott Walendowski and John Bullock, Texas League umps Darin Williams and Ben Clanton and Eastern League ump Darren Hyman.

From Dec. 2-6, the six men left their room for a total of two hours, Bainter said. He also said his crew was convinced to leave the country after they watched a live television report showing the extent of the chaos protest in which 21 people were injured and three killed.

“On live TV, we saw a person get his head shot off,” Bainter said. “We were in shock.”

Moments later, they tried to book flights to leave the country but American and United airlines cancelled flights for Dec. 9. Aveledo, who once served as the speaker of the house in the Venezuelan congress, told the Americans to hang tight one more day. If the circumstances stayed the same or intensified, Aveledo said he would allow the Americans to head back to the states. But the American embassy in Venezuela had other ideas. It issued a statement telling all Americans to leave the country as soon as they could. Bainter called the airline and secured a flight for his crew that night for 10:30 p.m. They arrived in Miami the next morning at 1 a.m.

Bainter said he loved Venezuela and would consider returning if the strike gets resolved. But with the season scheduled to conclude Jan. 31 and the country still in chaos, Bainter’s family wasn’t likely to let him return to South America any time soon.

Despite the turmoil, the owners and Venezuelan League officials studied different plans for the balance of the schedule, all of which depend on when the strike ends and the political tension eases:

• Cancel the season. If the strike continues, it will be impossible to resume play. The Venezuelan League has canceled its championship just twice in its 56-year history, both because of player strikes against the owners.

• Reduce the length of the 62-game regular season and begin the playoffs later. They usually begin Jan. 2 or 3.

• Reduce the length of the playoffs, which can run up to 16 games per team.

Of course, each plan would cause more economic damage to a league already hit hard by the nation’s unstable currency. One U.S. dollar used to be worth about 700 Venezuelan bolivars; now the exchange has rocketed to 1,350 to 1.

The biggest backer of the strike has been the Venezuelan Petroleum Company, one of the world’s biggest petroleum-producing companies. As a nation, Venezuela is the world’s fifth-largest petroleum producer and oil is the source of 70 percent of its export earnings. The strike has closed refineries and crippled the oil industry, increasing pressure on Chavez.

In addition, the Venezuela Workers Confederation, many political parties, trade associations, schools, banks, airlines and other groups have supported the strike.

The situation got more critical Dec. 6 when gunmen fired on a crowd in the Freedom Plaza, a symbolic place in Caracas where members of the civil opposition met to protest. Three people (including a 17-year-old girl) were killed, and 28 more were injured. Chavez supporters attacked TV stations in Caracas, Maracay and other cities in the country Monday night, charging them with backing the strike. Several workers were injured and one station was ransacked.