Last Friday, Major League Baseball announced that it was banning all affiliated players from participating in the venerable Venezuelan Winter League in response to President Trump’s executive order prohibiting business dealings with the government of President Nicolás Maduro. Baseball officials fear, not unreasonably, that the Trump administration might regard playing in the league as somehow doing business with the government, since the state-run oil company, PDVSA, is a sponsor. And because Donald Trump seems to enjoy capriciously destroying beautiful things that bring other people joy, he may end up radically reducing the number of Venezuelan ballplayers in the major leagues without achieving anything tangible with his erratic foreign policy.
Baseball is hardly the most important dimension of the swirling Venezuela crisis, but it is a microcosm of America’s foolishness, our belief that we can use the infliction of suffering to transform other societies in our preferred direction. The economic and political chaos in Caracas has been building for years, and Maduro faced a serious challenge to his authority over the winter when massive street protests demanded new elections, and when many countries, including the United States, recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s president. Maduro’s re-election in 2018 was widely regarded by election observers as marred by vote-rigging and other abuses, and given the state of abject misery into which his government has plunged the country, his departure would be a welcome development and the first step toward rebuilding Venezuela’s democracy and economy.
Yet President Trump, reading mindlessly from the failed Cuba playbook, did more than offer support for the opposition. First, the president sparked a brief panic when he threatened a military intervention before eventually settling on sanctions. Using “maximum economic pressure” and hoping it will force political change rather than gratuitously punish ordinary human beings is certainly not a delusion unique to the Trump administration. But you would think that more than 60 years after the beginning of the Cuba boycott, America might have a better sense of what can and cannot be accomplished. And in this case the negative externalities of U.S. arrogance and myopia will extend to the domain of American sports.
Baseball is Venezuela’s national sport, and their players have enriched Major League Baseball for decades, beginning with relief pitcher Alejandro (Alex) Carrasquel, who debuted for the Washington Senators on April 23, 1939 as the first major leaguer from Venezuela. (You can check out archival video of the game here). Carrasquel had been denied entry to the United States in 1939, based on the 1917 Immigration Act which barred, among many other people, anyone over 16 who was illiterate. Senators owner Clark Griffith paid a $400 fee to bring Carrasquel into the U.S. (Ironically, Griffith’s nephew Calvin would eventually move the franchise to Minneapolis because, as he later admitted in 1978, “I found out you only had 15,000 blacks here.”)
Carrasquel wouldn’t be the last. The country would quickly produce a Hall of Famer, White Sox great Luis Aparicio, an incredible athlete who defined the acrobatic, defense-first shortstop for a generation, and it will soon have at least one more, five years after whenever Tigers’ slugger Miguel Cabrera decides to retire. A number of the game’s most exciting and marketable young stars, including Atlanta outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr and Astros second baseman José Altuve, as well as established veterans like Seattle pitcher Felix Hernandez and Texas shortstop Elvis Andrus, hail from Venezuela. Nearly 400 Venezuelans had logged time in The Show prior to the start of this season, with many thousands more in the sport’s sprawling minor league system.
There is a dark side, of course, to baseball’s operations in Venezuela as well as the rest of Latin America. Most of the players scouted and signed in these countries will never make the multimillion-dollar salaries of an Altuve, and most will flame out in the low minors with hardly a dollar to their names. In baseball terms, they are “organization players,” there to provide spirited competition for the real prospects. Half of all minor leaguers are from Latin America. The film Sugar beautifully depicts the journey of one of these players, who is whisked from the Dominican Republic and deposited in an isolated Iowa A-ball town where he struggles to fit in and succeed.
This is to say nothing of the various other abuses that take place, including those of the so-called buscones, a kind of agent who recruits talented young boys to training facilities and then takes a hefty cut — up to a third — of any contract they eventually sign. As more and more teams opened “academies” in places like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, the business of turning raw players into finished talent became the kind of boom industry that was ripe for graft and abuse. Some franchises have been more complicit with these well-known practices than others, and the Department of Justice is currently investigating several teams, including allegations of human trafficking.
Trump’s pointless ban will have a particularly cruel impact on the minor leaguers. One of the game’s greatest injustices is the poverty wages paid to players in the minor leagues. Players from Latin America, particularly those whose signing bonuses were on the meager side and who have little hope of ever playing in the majors, use winter leagues as supplemental income, and Venezuelan players use the opportunity to spend some time at home. They will now be unable to do so, thanks to the president’s delusion that he can topple the Maduro regime with economic pressure. Teams already shuttered their academies in Venezuela and won’t send scouts for personal safety reasons. If relations between the two countries continue to deteriorate, the pipeline that allows us to watch players like Acuña do things like this, may be shut down altogether, creating another Cuba scenario where players have to go through extraordinary ordeals to get to the United States. Ironically, efforts to get around America’s idiotic Cuba embargo are at the root of the DOJ’s probe.
Of course, Trump himself reportedly lost interest in Venezuela months ago. After the brief flirtation with an intervention, he hoped for an easy win by using economic pressure to depose Venezuela’s president. But when the military refused to flip on Maduro, President Trump got frustrated and bored, and hardly mentions the country at all anymore, which isn’t surprising since it falls just outside of his core obsessions with trade and immigration. Now that he’s focused full-time on precipitating biweekly selloffs on Wall Street with his careless rhetoric and belligerence toward China, the president’s Venezuela “policy” stumbles along without any sense of an endgame. Worse than that, his August executive order announcing new sanctions apparently derailed promising talks being mediated by the Norwegian government between Maduro and the opposition.
Baseball is now trapped between the self-destructive and despotic government of Venezuela and America’s impulsive president, a man who exemplifies “Ni cacha ni picha ni batea la pelota,” a piece of Venezuelan beisbolismo that refers to ballplayers who aren’t good at hitting, fielding or pitching. Baseball without Venezuelan players would be an even emptier spectacle than one of the president’s vile rallies. For the sake of fans and aspiring players everywhere (and for a thousand other much more important reasons!), we can only hope that the American people send Trump to the showers next year.
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