How two Venezuelan baseball players deal with the chaos destroying their home – For The Win
When David Peralta wakes up every morning, he looks over at his phone. Then he pauses before he actually unlocks it. He dreads finding out what’s waiting for him on news apps and social media.
“It’s really not the way you’d want to wake up,” Peralta said.
The Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder is more than 3,000 miles away from his hometown of Valencia, Venezuela, but his attention remains on the place where his family and friends still live — and where a nation of 31.1 million people has been thrown into disarray.
The recent struggles in Venezuela – a violent culmination of decades-long turmoil — dates to 2015 when the opposition to Hugo Chavez’s successor, socialist president Nicolás Maduro, scored a massive election victory to control the National Assembly legislature. Maduro, who continued the policies that marked Chavez’s brutal 14-year reign, responded with a move to seize power through The Supreme Tribunal of Justice, a body stacked by the previous legislature in his favor. It has obstructed the legislature’s attempts at reform and is calling for a July 30 vote to assemble a committee to rewrite the constitution.
The opposition views that vote — which they fear will be rigged in Maduro’s favor — as an attempt to shift the government to an autocratic dictatorship. They have taken to the streets for increasingly violent protests over the last 100 days. Nearly 100 people have been killed, and an already struggling nation faces critical shortages of food, water and medicine while crime has soared.
Peralta sees the videos of the protests and watches in disbelief as his home nation burns. There are children from his neighborhood who spend their days dodging tear-gas canisters and rubber bullets while Peralta plays baseball. That’s a difficult burden for Peralta to accept each day.
Peralta is one of about 100 Major League Baseball players of Venezuelan descent, and many have been outspoken about their desire to help. Peralta announced Tuesday a $10,000 plan with the Diamondbacks and Project Cure to help people in Valencia get much-needed medical supplies. But sending aid to Venezuela is difficult — there’s no guarantee it goes to the right people — and the frustrated players are desperately looking for a way to help the country they love.
“We’re trying the best we can to do stuff and raise awareness on what Venezuela is going through right now,” Peralta says. “It’s not easy, but we want to let everyone know in this country that Venezuela needs help.”
But first, someone has to listen.
There’s a reason I was asking Peralta about what is happening in his home country: My close friend, Alvaro Guerra, is from — and has returned to — Venezuela.
We met in high school in 2004 after his family fled Chavez’s Venezuela. We bonded over a common passion for baseball and soccer. Guerra’s family moved to Atlanta thinking that conditions would improve enough after a couple years to return home. Things only got worse.
Though he could have returned to Venezuela after high school, Guerra opted to play soccer at a Division II school in North Carolina. He eventually returned home a few years ago to attend medical school. It was a difficult decision, but the high cost of American medical schools pushed his return to Venezuela.
He returned to a changed country. My friend had never seen his hometown quite this bad.
In a deteriorating political climate, Venezuela has seen crime rise at an alarming rate. The nongovernment Venezuelan Violence Observatory estimated that Venezuela’s 2016 homicide rate topped 92 per 100,000 – which would make it the highest per-capita rate in the world.
“My mom used to say when she was growing up, ‘You basically know somebody who had been robbed,’” Guerra said. “Then it changed as she got older to, ‘You know somebody who’s had their car stolen.’ Now she says that everybody knows someone who’s been kidnapped.”
Just a few lockers down from Peralta in the Diamondbacks clubhouse, outfielder Gregor Blanco fights back tears at the mention of Venezuela.
He arrived to Chase Field with work to do ahead of Arizona’s game against the Reds, but all of that could wait. Blanco wanted an opportunity to speak about the issue that is so dear to him. Anything for Venezuela. It’s the first time I’ve been thanked before an interview even started.
Blanco has played for four big-league teams over his nine-year career. But he is always looking for reminders of his homeland: During his rookie year in Atlanta, he actually crossed paths with my friend, though Blanco didn’t know it. After catching an inning-ending fly ball, Blanco ran out of his way to throw Guerra a baseball after seeing his Venezuelan flag in the Turner Field stands.
Blanco laughed after hearing that Guerra still talks about that moment. Many mentions of his country bring him only sadness, given the situation. Blanco has not been back to his hometown of Caracas in two years.
“I have family – got three kids, have a wife – that I cannot see myself taking them over there and risking their safety,” Blanco said.
Like Peralta, Blanco still has family in Venezuela. Peralta’s parents and two older sisters are there while Blanco’s 12-year-old son, brothers and extended family are dealing with the hardships hitting the nation. Both Peralta and Blanco are worried about their families. It weighs on them everyday – even as they try to separate those stresses from the daily grind of Major League Baseball.
“Every day I wake up, I see the news, talk to my brothers, talk to my kid, talk to my dad, cousins,” Blanco said. “I have little cousins who are 1- and 2-years-old. They get sick with stomach issues, and they don’t have medicine. It’s difficult. To be able to talk to my brothers and they keep on telling me like, ‘Hey man, this is messed up. We want to be there with you.’ But they don’t have VISAs and their kids don’t have VISAs. They cannot come over yet, so it’s a tough situation.”
In order to get food and limited medical supplies, people in Venezuela have to wait in line at 5 a.m. for hours based on numbers corresponding to their IDs. It’s common to see children looking for food in trash cans. The water supply is so critically low that residents in certain areas such as Valencia have access to water for just 3 hours a day, forcing some to install water storage tanks. Last year, the government rationed out power, turning off the electricity for four hours every day. The power system is still unreliable and will often go out in the few functioning hospitals that remain.
The economic struggles have made Venezuela more dangerous than ever as the rising cost of basic essentials have driven some people to take drastic measures.
“Right now, crime is really the only thing that pays,” Guerra said. “The tougher things get, the more crime there is. People start going hungry, they start turning to stealing or worse.”
It isn’t easy. And really, they want this national nightmare to be over.
Peralta and Blanco have a major platform as MLB players to put what pressure they can on the U.S. government to intervene in Venezuela. Peralta actively posts on social media to raise awareness about the humanitarian crisis. Blanco was on the Giants for their 2014 World Series championship. When they visited the White House in June of 2015, Blanco and his Venezuelan teammates used the opportunity to ask former President Barack Obama to help Venezuela.
“We’re working on it,” Blanco recalled Obama saying in response.
Both Peralta and Blanco want to go back to Venezuela and regularly consider sending supplies by way of a foundation. Concerns about safety keep the players themselves out of the country, especially after Wilson Ramos’ 2011 kidnapping in Venezuela. The corruption in Venezuela also makes charitable endeavors difficult, they said. Blanco said he is concerned that donations would either just stay at the port or be stolen and given to pro-Maduro factions of the military and population.
“It’s happened before,” Blanco said. “There are random people – not athletes, just random people – who started sending stuff to Venezuela to their families, and they never got it because everybody needs it so much that people are just like, ‘I need that,’ and grab it for themselves.”
That won’t stop Peralta from trying.
Peralta remains firm on the social media campaign and plans to continue raising awareness about Venezuela until he sees enough action take place. On Tuesday, Peralta held a news conference about his plans to give aid to his hometown. While wearing a Venezuela hat, Peralta spoke of his desire to do anything he could to help. He’s teaming up with the Diamondbacks, Project Cure and the International Red Cross in hopes of doing his part to give Venezuelans medical supplies amid the struggles.
“We need help a lot,” Peralta said. “And to get our beautiful country better, we know it’s not going to be easy.”
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There’s no clear end to the Venezuelan crisis in sight.
The opposition is actively trying to stop the July 30 election from happening and has boycotted the process; Maduro is calling for 540 people to be elected to re-write the constitution, but critics argue the system unfairly gives him an advantage by disproportionately counting rural areas where he still has some support and also allows one-third of the people to be selected without public vote.
Supporters of the opposition believe that Maduro holding the July 30 election — against the will of the majority who have called for re-elections — could be the tipping point in convincing outside nations to step in and help the people of Venezuela.
Otherwise they believe it will send the ailing country into a further state of disarray.
Peralta, though, hasn’t lost the hope of a thriving Venezuela. It’s a dream he won’t ever give up.
“I know one day I’ll wake up and everything is going to be great,” Peralta said. “Everything is going to be back to normal. When is that going to happen? I don’t know. But we need to have hope.”