Government millions for baseball divides Venezuelans

3 min

Caracas (AFP)

Baseball-mad Venezuelans are bitterly divided over a government decision to pump millions into the game while basic food and medicines are in short supply in the crisis-rocked South American country.

President Nicolas Maduro is making $10 million available to the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League (LVBP) as the season gets set to open next week.

The money is being used to subsidize the transfer of players and purchase equipment ahead of the start of the popular eight-team national league.

But the move has angered many fans who believe the money should go to help alleviate shortages caused by the deep economic and political crisis after months of protests cost at least 125 lives.

"They should instead opt to buy medicines, food, things we don't have. The fact that the government is giving money to the league is absurd," said Javier Hernandez, 45, at a fan shop in the capital dedicated to the Caracas Lions.

Others, like Leonardo Perez, 39, think that even a hint of normal life is badly needed in Venezuela, where baseball is the most popular sport.

"Despite so much crisis, I think we also need recreation, and baseball runs in the veins of Venezuelans," said Perez, after buying tickets to a Lions game at the same shop.

- New season --

The debate was being played out as Caracas Lions players practiced on their lush green pitch at the Universitario Stadium, the air filled with the thock of wood on leather as batters honed their skills.

Hernandez, one of the fans in the shop, thinks the League "should be suspended" -- an idea supported by baseball figures such as Alfredo Pedrique, a manager with Major League experience.

"We should be conscious. We should have no baseball. For human reasons, for the children who are dying for lack of food and medicines," Pedrique, who coached the Lions last year, told local radio.

However Leonardo, with his tickets in hand, stressed that "you need to disconnect once in a while," from so many problems.

Strict exchange controls are in place in cash-strapped Venezuela as foreign reserves have trickled away in a country that has been in economic freefall under Maduro's rule.

Most Venezuelans are subject to an official exchange rate of 3,345 bolivars to the dollar as they struggle to feed their families. But dollars are hard to come by.

Many have to resort to the abyss of the black market, where dollars are available for 28,000 bolivars to the dollar.

The government rate given to the baseball league is 10 bolivars to the dollar, the same preferential rate as for food and medicine importers.

- 6,000 baseball jobs -

League officials consider that the championship would not survive without the subvention, because it allows teams to pay foreign players and import balls, uniforms and even teams' medical supplies.

Without the government preferential rates, the private sector has to import products and supplies on the black market, lifting inflation into the stratosphere. The IMF forecasts inflation will reach 720 percent this year.

One option would be for the league to buy on the black market, but officials say costs would skyrocket and the League would not be profitable.

"It would be very difficult," said Juan Jose Avila, who took over as president of the LVBP in February, with a mission to keep alive a league competition which has been running since 1946.

"Who is going to sell me bats and balls in bolivars?" asked Avila.

Cancelling the League would cost around 6,000 direct and indirect jobs, LVBP officials told AFP.

"We have around 100 employees, between fixed and temporary positions, and there are many Venezuelans in sectors like transport, hotels, communications and services who owe a great deal of their annual income to baseball," said Luis Avila, chairman of the Lions, Venezuela's most successful team.

That makes baseball "the most important sports activity in the country."