July 25, 2014
MESA, Ariz. — For much of the first two weeks of spring training, Luis Valbuena lived in fear, clinging to one daily hope.
Maybe today is the day my family can get out of Venezuela. . . .Maybe tomorrow.
‘‘The problem is they keep canceling the flights,’’ said Valbuena, whose wife and two young sons finally escaped the escalating protests and violence in their country late last week and joined Valbuena in Arizona. ‘‘Every day is more crazy over there.’’
His parents and extended family remain as the Cubs infielder tries to ignore the distractions that are always there, sometimes on the field — the images of shooting, burning and rioting going on back home.
It’s an undercurrent running through every spring clubhouse across Florida and Arizona, with more than 100 Venezuelans on major-league rosters.
‘‘I don’t want to see more people die,’’ Valbuena said.
More than a decade of building tension in Venezuela erupted in recent weeks into anti-government protests in the western part of the country, and the violent response by the government — including the killing of unarmed demonstrators — has enflamed protests and riots that have no end in sight.
President Nicolás Maduro, the hand-picked successor of Hugo Chavez, who died a year ago, has used the military and national guard to intimidate, assault and even shoot protesters.
‘‘It’s crazy, man,’’ said Valbuena, who lives in Barquisimeto, about 200 miles west of Caracas. ‘‘It’s bad. I feel so sad because I’ve never seen that in my life in Venezuela.’’
He’s one of the lucky ones.
Cubs pitcher Hector Rondon, who lives about 30 minutes outside of Caracas, is trying to get his pregnant wife and their 2½-year-old daughter out of Venezuela, but they can’t get visas because the U.S. embassy there is closed, and nobody seems to know when it will re-open.
‘‘We’re waiting,’’ he said. ‘‘The good thing for me is I live in a good place, a safe place.’’
But even in their relatively safe neighborhood, ‘‘nobody goes out,” Rondon said. ‘‘Everybody stays in the house.”
Protestors around Caracas have set up makeshift blockades across freeways and city streets. Amateur videos of shootings, rock-throwing clashes and fires in the street have been coming out of Venezuela for the last two weeks.
‘‘The military shoots [protesters]. I’ve never seen that,’’ Valbuena said. ‘‘People can’t go out anywhere. You walk out and somebody shoots you, somebody wants to kill you — and you didn’t do anything.’’
The oil-rich country, with one of the most stable economies and well-educated populations in South America for much of the last seven decades, now has one of the highest inflation rates in the world and widespread food shortages.
‘‘Venezuela is a country that has a lot of money, and now to not have [anything], it’s unbelievable to see that,’’ Valbuena said. ‘‘You can go into stores and not see anything — no food. And if they have some stuff, there’s too many people in line. And if you want to buy something that’s like $1, you have to pay like $10.’’
Major-league ballplayers at least have the money to survive.
‘‘Other guys don’t have the money; they can’t get anything,’’ Rondon said. ‘‘That’s the big problem over there. The food, the milk for the baby.’’
Valbuena and Rondon have no idea what to expect next. The only thing they know is what they plan to do next. Despite deeply held feelings for their homeland, both say they’ll move their families to the U.S.
‘‘I want to live over there,’’ Rondon said, ‘‘but I don’t want to live like that, afraid to be on the street.’’