On a picturesque Monday in Pittsburgh, 18,506 people showed up to watch their Pirates knock off the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers.
2,218 miles away in Caracas, something much more imperative than a nine-inning baseball game was taking place. More than 7 million Venezuelans gave an unequivocal message to a government that close to 98% of the South American country has seen enough of.
“It’s amazing,” said catcher Francisco Cervelli shortly after going 2-for-5 in a vital role that helped his Pirates to a 4-2 win. “It’s clear the majority of the people want something different. I mean, that’s it.”
Cervelli has been a staunch supporter of the recent protests condemning Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his attempt to rewrite the country’s constitution, which was originally implemented in 1999 by then-President Hugo Chávez. Many of the protestors see the new attempt at a constitution as an avenue for Maduro to eventually gain authoritative power of the current socialist nation, in which Maduro holds head of state and government influence.
“You hope something good comes after something like this because you’re fighting against people who are communists,” said an emotional Cervelli. “It’s hard to deal with this in the right lines.”
“If he changes the constitution it’s going to be a problem,” the catcher continued. “What this thing states, people don’t want that. Exactly, I don’t know what they’re going to do. (The government) is crazy. They have to be out of there. No more of this. We can’t take more of this.”
Cervelli, pitcher Felipe Rivero, outfielder Jose Osuna and catcher Elias Diaz are the Venezuelan-born representatives of the Pirates’ clubhouse. Each one has a firm stance in the fight for true Democracy in their native country. Rivero hangs the red, blue and yellow stripped flag of Venezuela next to his locker. He never takes that flag down.
“What we’ve been doing has been great, you know,” the reliever Rivero said. “We are letting all of the people know that we are with them. Cervelli has been doing a tremendous job on that end. He is all about addressing this to the media and having our voices heard. He’s the guy, and we are trying to support him.”
Though Rivero takes a much less loquacious approach than Cervelli, the proud Venezuelan pulls no punches when talking about Maduro’s horrendous ability to run Rivero’s native land.
“This Government, they are trying to make it like Cuba,” said Rivero. “We want a free country. We don’t want it any other way. We got to stop need to let people say what they want to say. We need people to step up, say the right stuff just to get that (Maduro) out of there.”
How Maduro got his start
Maduro assumed office in April 2013, when former President Chávez—shortly before his death on March 5—tapped the then Minister of Foreign Affairs as his next successor. Maduro won 50.62% of the vote in a special election and was officially inaugurated on April 19, 2013, ruling Venezuela by decree since then.
What happened to the Venezuelan economy
In the past six years, the price of crude oil has dropped $50.70—hitting an all-time low of $40 a barrel in 2016—which put the economy of Venezuela in a tailspin. With the prices of the state-owned petroleum company plummeting, so too did the subsidies that most Americans take for granted. Food, medicine, education, social programs- all were siphoned off during the apparent oil crisis. According to the Central Bank of Venezuela, the country has lost close to $20 billion since 2011, leaving the oil-rich South American nation $10.5 billion in foreign reserves left.
With 95 percent of Venezuela’s export revenue coming from crude oil—a commodity that made the country the richest in South America in 2001—the lack of oil sales and production led to a drastic decline (over 50 percent from 2016) in foreign currency, which was used to buy goods from outside of the country. Goods that are now being sold on the black market at inflated prices; while the government, which has majority control over the economy, has imported just fractions of what the population needs to sustain every day life. According to the Venezuelan Bread Makers Federation, just 25 percent of the wheat that the country needs is currently being imported. A 2017 National Survey of Hospitals report found that 78 percent of hospitals in 42 Venezuelan cities are short on medicines. The report also revealed 89 percent of X-ray equipment is either non-operational or intermittent, and that 71 percent do not have working ultrasound equipment.
“You send things over there and it has to go to black market just for some to get it,” said Cervelli. “They don’t let people from outside help the people over there because they don’t want the people to think it is an emergency. It is an emergency with everything. There’s no vaccine for the kids who were just born. No treatments for cancer, no antibiotics, no treatment for HIV, no treatment for anything.”
“The kids are dying. The people are desperate and they have no food; they have no money,” he passionately continued. “This is serious, but, you know, with this noise, with what we did yesterday, I hope the international community does something because every time (the government) gets together, it’s ‘oh, we don’t have this, we don’t have that.’ Like, I don’t understand this. This is a crisis. Admit this.”
Maduro’s government refuses the notion that Venezuela is indeed in a countrywide crisis, and many have contested the facts surrounding a supposed April agreement by the Venezuelan president for humanitarian aid from the UN.
World leaders like President Donald Trump have recently called out Maduro, going as far as threatening sanctions on Venezuela if the July 30 vote for a Constituent Assembly occurs.
“Yesterday, the Venezuelan people again made clear that they stand for democracy, freedom and rule of law. Yet their strong and courageous actions continue to be ignored by a bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator,” Trump said in a statement issued by the White House Monday.
The message of the protest
Along with a repelled aversion towards the government and its trickle-down effects of starvation, lack of healthcare and an egregious state of living conditions, the people of Venezuela are fighting against a July 30 vote that Maduro plans to use to build a Constituent Assembly.
Nearly 100 people have died as a result of police clashes with the protestors who will not relinquish until, among many other things, the constitution, and Maduro’s attempt to rewrite it is stopped.
What is a Constituent Assembly
For Maduro, the assembly will be composed of a body of representatives that will draft a new constitution for the country. This, of course, will be Maduro’s chance to strongarm his way to what many are calling his first step to a “dictatorship.”
Cervelli, along with the majority of his countrymen do not want any parts of a new constitution. A new leader is what he and the Venezuelan people want.
“There’s a lot of people who I think can do a better job,” said Cervelli. “I’m not a politician, but I think anyone can do a better job than the guys we have now. (Maduro) is destroying this country. We were the richest country in the world and they destroyed it. They destroyed it all completely.”
Cervelli talked about Major League Baseball playing an important role. With over 70 players currently on Major League rosters that were born in Venezuela, it has been guys like Cervelli, Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera and Atlanta’s Ender Inciarte that have made their prominent voices heard.
“We do our part here, but the heavy thing is those guys fighting against the police every day,” Cervelli said about the people of Venezuela making the biggest difference of all. “People want to walk to a place and protest and (the police) don’t let them go to where they are supposed to go. That’s why 97 people are already dead. If they let the people walk where they are supposed to go, then this is all a different scenario. The police every day and the guards. They shoot whoever. They shoot people. It’s crazy.”
Cervelli, who still has friends and family in Venezuela, knows that his, and the countless other voices that will not stop being heard is just the beginning.
“Every day, they tell me they want to get out of there. Everyone just wants to leave,” explained Cervelli about those who he still connects with in the country. “It’s crazy. This is just a mess. Someone needs to help us here. We need to continue to make our voices heard. We need to make differences.”
There is no quick answer to this humanitarian crisis. Millions in Venezuela are up against malnourishment. They are fighting the clock on survival when it comes to simple medical needs that could, and should, otherwise be cured in an immediate, non-complex manner. They have no money. They have no luxuries.
They do have a voice.
They have a loyal belief that Venezuela will triumph again. With a change in power, an incredible rebuilding process and the supremacy of the people fighting the arduous fight to restore normality in their homeland, a revolution can happen.
A revolution has to happen.