Will the Economic Collapse in Venezuela Impact Its Ballplayer Pipeline to MLB?

Everyone who has been following major league baseball for the last 20 years knows that Venezuelan players have become an integral part of the game, now matching or even surpassing the Dominican Republic as the Latin American country producing the most major league players and superstars.  I wonder what effect the slow motion collapse of Venezuela’s economy will have on the country as a continuing source of major league talent.

Obviously, even very poor countries can produce major league stars.  Until very recently, a majority of major league stars came from poor or relatively poor backgrounds, as baseball and other professional sports were avenues for the most talented and driven poor young athletes to strike it rich.  The first generation of Puerto Rican, Venezuelan and Dominican players who came up in the 1950’s and 1960’s were coming from much poorer places than those countries are today.

However, Venezuela has reached a point where a majority of the population no longer has enough to eat (Venezuelans call it the “Maduro Diet”), and it’s hard to build large numbers of strong young athletes in a country experiencing severe food shortages.

For those of you who haven’t followed Venezuelan affairs over the last twenty years, here is a quick primer on what’s happening there.

In 1998, former military man and left-wing demagogue Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela on a platform to improve the lot of the poor majority in the country.  Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, or very close to the world’s largest, but it was a typical third world country where most of the wealth was controlled by a small, politically connected capitalist elite.

Chavez imposed what he called “Bolivarian Socialism” on Venezuela, fixing the prices of basic food stuffs and commodities and over time nationalizing many of the countries largest companies and industries.  As long as oil prices were reasonably high, Chavez was able to finance his policies at home and grab attention and allies throughout Latin America with below market oil shipments.

Chavez’s policies did improve the lot of the poor majority in Venezuela, and this made it virtually impossible for any other politician or political party to beat him at the ballot box.  Unfortunately, Chavez, who first became involved in Venezuelan politics in 1992 when he led a failed coup attempt, had no real commitment to or belief in either democratic values or institutions.  Over time Chavez used nationalizations of industry to disenfranchise financially his political opponents, and he handed control over these industries to cronies, who were selected for loyalty to the regime, rather than because of competence or honesty.

This was the case even at the state oil company, PDVSA, with predictable results.  Profits were skimmed, and production levels have steadily fallen over the last 20 years because of lack of competence and investment, even though oil revenues were the key to Chavez’ project.

Venezuela once had no problem producing enough food for its citizens.  However, government mandated prices enforced by credible threats of nationalization to farmers who protested they couldn’t make a profit, led inevitably to farmers simply going out of business.

Chavez died suddenly of cancer in early 2013 at age 58.  He was replaced by Nicolas Maduro, a loyal Chavista who lacked Chavez’ charisma.  However, the Venezuelan economy was still operating fairly well in 2013, and Maduro won a close election to become the next president based on Chavez’ continued popularity with a majority of Venezuelans.  In 2014, the price of oil crashed and has yet to recover (and probably won’t any time soon due to ready availability of American shale oil and Canadian tar sands oil).

By 2015, the consequences of Chavista economic policy had come home to roost, and with the oil money spigot cut off, Venezuela’s economy tanked and continues to tank.  A majority of Venezuela’s population quickly realized that Chavez’s policies were no longer sustainable and that changes needed to be made.  In 2015, congressional elections were held, and the opposition appeared to win a tight two-thirds majority that could overturn the Chavez/Maduro policies.  However, after 17 years in power the Chavistas had successfully packed the courts and filled the army with regime royalists.  Venezuela’s National Assemby was ultimately divested of power by the country’s supreme court, and Maduro now rules by decree.

There still is oil money coming into the state’s coffers, which has had the effect of making the economic collapse one long, slow-motion train wreck.  The government is effectively in control of the food supply, since Venezuelan farmers are no longer producing for anyone but their own families, and most food must be imported using oil money.  This leaves the state largely in charge of distribution, and there have been allegations that regime loyalists are first in line for the limited supplies.  Further, the government has refused to accept foreign aid to make up for the food and medicine shortages, because to do so would be to admit the abject failure of Bolivarian Socialism.

Maduro sounds progressively more and more like an out of touch dictator than a democratically elected head of state, but he has that oil money, the military and the organs of the state at his disposal, until he elects to give up power or there is a civil war.  Very little suggests that Maduro will give up power voluntarily, and I for one kind of expect that one day in the near or distant future he’ll end up swinging from the roof of a gas station like Mussolini.

To get back to the topic of baseball, it does not look like Venezuela’s problems are going to be fixed any time soon, unless a large enough portion of the Venezuelan military elects all at once to dump Maduro and allow for real change.  Until then, an awful lot of Venezuelans are going to continue to go hungry.  It’s entirely possible that at some time in the future we will see a band of Venezuelan children of a certain age who have largely had their physical and mental development stunted by their countries’ lack of accessible and affordable food and medicine.  I think it is entirely possible that at some time in the future, there will be a period of two or three years where the number of young ballplayers coming out of Venezuela drops sharply compared to other Latin American baseball powers as a result of the problems in Venezuela now.

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