The death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez will mean unseemly celebration on the right and unending debate on the left. Both reflect the towering legacy of Chavismo and how it challenged the global free market orthodoxy of the Washington consensus.
Less discussed will be that the passing of Hugo Chávez will also provoke unbridled joy in the corridors of power of Major League Baseball.
Historically, Venezuela has trailed only the Domincan Republic in the global race to provide a cheap source of Major League Baseball talent. In 2012, 58 players on MLB rosters were born in Venezuela, second only to the DR's 64.
For decades, teams had set up unregulated "baseball academies" in both countries where children as young as 15 could be signed for a pittance, and then, for 97 percent of major league hopefuls, casually disposed without any future prospects. A Mother Jones article published this week exposed in excruciating detail the DR baseball "sweatshops" and the preventable death of young Washington Nationals teenage prospect Yewri Guillen. They describe the academies as a deadly breeding ground for tragedy defined by "corruption and youth exploitation."
This is exactly what Chávez, a baseball fanatic himself, was aiming to challenge. Venezuela is the birthplace of towering talents such as the 2012 Triple Crown Winner Miguel Cabrera, "King" Félix Hernández and World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval. In the last twenty years, 200 Venezuelans have played in the Major Leagues with more than 1,000 in the minors.
But the academies also left a wreckage of young lives behind, a status quo Chávez sought to challenge. He told MLB that they would have to institute employee and player benefits and job protections. He wanted education and job training, subsidized by MLB, to be a part of the academies. He also insisted that teams pay out 10 percent of players’ signing bonuses to the government. Chávez effectively wanted to tax MLB for the human capital they blithely take from the country.
As the CS Monitor put it, "the threat of expropriations and onerous foreign exchange controls make teams wary of doing business in Venezuela."
Sure enough over the last decade, the number of teams with "academies" in Venezuela has dwindled from 21 to 5. The threats of kidnapping and violence are often cited by teams as the primary reason for this move, but the facts say otherwise. As one major league executive said anonymously to the LA Times, "Teams have left Venezuela because of issues with the government and security that have made it more difficult to do business there. Absent those problems, there would be a lot more teams here using academies."
Major League Baseball has never been shy in their rage that Chávez wasn't "rolling out the red carpet" for them "like they do in the Dominican Republic." Lou Meléndez, senior advisor to the MLB's international relations department, said in 2007, “We don’t pay federations money for signing players anywhere in the world, and we don’t expect to do so. It’s certainly not a way to conduct business…. When you see certain industries that are being nationalized, you begin to wonder if they are going to nationalize the baseball industry in Venezuela.”
But despite the academy closures, baseball never stopped strip-mining Venezuela's baseball hopefuls. Instead, they now sign Venezuelan children and whisk them off to the Dominican Republic to be trained, miles and an ocean apart from their families. Rather than be more humane in response to Chávez, MLB was just more brutal.
I spoke with Illinois history professor and author of Playing America's Game, Adrian Burgos, Jr. He said it in perfect albeit wrenching fashion:
The irony is palpable. On the same day Mother Jones publishes an article on Yewri Guillen's death and the Washington Nationals' lack of having a certified medical official on staff at its Dominican academy, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez dies. Certainly, Chávez's demise makes MLB officials excited at the prospect of re-establishing their own blueprint for a baseball academy system being put into place in Venezuela, an effort that Chávez had forestalled. I still wonder who is/are the Latino representative(s) within the Commissioner's Office speaking for Latinos. Do we need any more teenagers [like] Yewri Guillen, MLB prospect, dying for a lack of access to proper medical care due to a lack of health insurance and funds in the DR or Venezuela—health care that ought to have been, would have been, provided for such a signed prospect in the US? Dead prospects and dead president—I am weary of the road ahead in Venezuela and on its baseball diamonds.