Kidnapping of US Baseball Star Highlights Key Venezuela Election Issues

| Nov. 18, 2011 | Caracas, Venezuela

Published by Minyanville

One of this week’s United Colors of Benetton "all publicity is good publicity" adverts shows President Barack Obama locking lips with his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chávez.


While the two leaders are often at loggerheads and are unlikely to see eye to eye—let alone kiss—their countries have more in common than the anti-“Yankee” Chávez would like to admit.


The saga of the kidnap and release of Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos, for which eight people have now been charged, brought home one Americanism that is deeply entrenched in Venezuelan culture this week and highlighted a key issue for Venezuelans.


The Major League baseball star is one of many Venezuelans who have found fame and fortune playing in the US. Ramos was captured on a visit to his parents’ home before being released two days later as Venezuelan security forces demonstrated a rare show of force.


Americans brought baseball over to Venezuela in the 1920s and it was that sport that incited Chávez to leave his hometown of Sabaneta, deep in the plains of central Venezuela. He came to the country’s capital to carve out his own career as a baseball star though was lured by politics at the Military Academy.


The kidnapping has highlighted Venezuela’s battle with violent crime, something Chávez will be keen to play down before next year’s elections.  Caracas is regarded as one of the most dangerous cities in Latin America, if not the world, with a murder rate on par with that in warzones like Baghdad. Critics of Chávez argue that his lax policies are to blame for the troubles.


Foreign reporters in Venezuela have used baseball—and US involvement in the sport in Venezuela—to highlight the difficulties of doing business in the maverick nation. Many Major League Baseball academies have been forced out of Venezuela, with the number falling from around 15 to five in a decade.


“The fear is that from one day to the next they might approve laws or make decisions against professional sports that would affect our operations," Oscar Garcia, a local scout for the Detroit Tigers, told Reuters. “We are operating on a day-by-day basis against whatever might happen.”


It’s not just baseball that is suffering. Succeeding in any business is not easy in Venezuela. “Getting things done in Venezuela can sometimes feel like an uphill struggle,” says BBC correspondent Sarah Grainger.


You must provide an ID number or passport number when buying something as small as a loaf of bread at the supermarket and, if you’d like to take money out of a bank, you are likely to have to wait hours in line before signing repeatedly, being photographed and giving your fingerprints.


On a larger scale, extremely tight currency controls designed to prevent capital flight have led to a black market currency. Businesses requiring US dollars to import must apply to a central authority that limits purchases.


Property owners worry that their apartments and houses will be turned into accommodation for the homeless, and those running businesses face the constant threat of expropriation.


Strict regulation coupled with security issues is forcing many businesses to jump ship.


There is also soaring inflation to contend with. The country’s 26.9% inflation for the year to October is the region’s highest. Consumer prices rose 1.8% in October, faster than the 1.6% rise the previous month. Last year’s inflation figure was 27.2% and this 2011 will not be far off, according to the government.


Many deride Chávez’s ill-thought economic policies for the high numbers, however, supporters of Chávez claim that inflation is inevitable when so much money is earned through oil income and high government spending.


“The opposition press ignores context and cause,” writes Venezuela Analysis. “[It] creates the impression that if Coco Pops were on the shelf all the time, everything would be okay, playing into the capitalist belief that defines happiness and well-being along consumerist lines.”


Latin America’s Highest Bond Issuance

State oil company Petroleós de Venezuela will issue $2.4 billion worth of 2021 bonds, to yield 9%, as well as swap $1.3 billion of its 2013 debt for the new notes.

The total issuance by Venezuela this year beats the rest of Latin America combined. The oil company has already issued just under $8 billion this year while the republic has issued just over $7 billion.


The news perpetuates fears that Chávez is willing to spend whatever is necessary to win next October’s elections, following last month’s $3 billion offering from the state.


Primaries for the opposition candidate will take place in February and talk of the presidential election, scheduled for October 7, is on the up. Chávez this week described his main competitors as the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.


Language like that is unlikely to earn him even a peck on the cheek from Obama.