Kids playing baseball in Caracas, Venezuela. (Flickr/Fora do Eixo)
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, fifty-eight players on MLB rosters were born in Venezuela, second only to the DR’s sixty-four.
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.”